Sunday, March 25, 2012

Communion Without Baptism ... Again

The issue of Communion Without Baptism (CWOB) has reared its ugly head again, this time in a resolution for General Convention from the Diocese of Eastern Oregon.

The Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon is forwarding an Open Table resolution to General Convention that would change the rubrics and practice of The Book of Common Prayer to invite all to Holy Communion, "regardless of age, denomination or baptism.”

Adopted unanimously by delegates to the 2010 Diocesan Convention, the resolution recently was ratified by Diocesan Council for submission to General Convention. It would delete from the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church Canon 1.17.7, which says "No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this church."

However, the explanation attached to the resolution says that “We know from our strivings within ecumenism and mission that the communion Christ intended for all is perilous and difficult, and that boldness in offering radical hospitality is our calling, rather than canonically driven caution.”

I have written previously about why Communion Without Baptism is a very bad idea ("Communing the Unbaptized: Some Preliminary Thoughts" and "More Unpersuasive Reasons for Communion Without Baptism"), so I won't rehash all of that here.

I do, however, want to note what some others in the Anglican blogosphere are saying.

Peter Carrell at Anglican Down Under highlights the way in which adopting CWOB would entail redefining Tradition and the definition of Anglicanism in ways which would affect relations with other churches (including other Anglican churches). He writes:

Now "communion without baptism" is practised thereabouts and hereabouts in the Anglican world, but, as far as I am aware, no formal Anglican canon anywhere endorses or legalises this practice. Were the GC [General Convention of the Episcopal Church]to agree to the resolution it would be a change or innovation to millennia old Christian practice, received and continued by the Reformed Church of England. It would also be a change which could reasonably be considered as affecting the definition of Anglicanism because it involves our understanding of sacramental ministry. One related concern would be whether it impinged on our ongoing ecumenical conversations.

In short: here is a change which looks like an internal matter for a member church but can reasonably be raised as an external matter for all member churches to consider. In terms of the Covenant and Section 4, it is a matter for consideration by the process set out there.

Now that the Anglican Covenant is dead in the water, those who seek to revise what it means to be the Church have no need to worry about the process set out in the fourth section of that document (assuming that they would have needed to worry if the Covenant was adopted anyway). Regardless, the drive for CWOB is a manifestation of commitment to an "autonomous ecclesiology" rather than "communion ecclesiology."

Tobias Haller at In a Godward Direction offers perhaps the most succinct reason for rejecting CWOB:

My observation in response to pitching this as "radical inclusivity" is simple: The church is radically inclusive and baptism is the means by which people are included. Communion is the celebration of that inclusion, not its means.

It is supremely ironic that a church that spends so much energy (rightly) celebrating the baptismal covenant could then turn its back on its significance in what seems a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of these two sacraments, and their interrelationship.

Tobias has consistently defended the traditional understanding of Baptism as the means by which we are incorporated into the Body of Christ, and thus the precondition for receiving communion. It would be interesting to know how many others on the "progressive" side of things share his view. Perhaps, in the future, "progressives" will be pitted against each other on this matter.

C. Wingate at Tune: Kings Lynn offers an even more pointed response to the resolution from the Diocese of Eastern Oregon:

... abandoning baptism as the standard of membership represents a failure of our religious nerve so profound as to tip the balance against our institutional continuance. What's the point of a church that by implication admits that being a part of it is of no real consequence?

Communion Without Baptism is anathema; this is not negotiable.

Writing on Stand Firm, Greg Griffith summarizes the concerns of many who oppose CWOB:

In the Episcopal Church, as in all organizations overtaken by secular leftists, the trend in matters like these always moves from descriptive to prescriptive: What begins as “living into” some “facts on the ground,” sooner or later becomes That Which Must Be Done Or Else. Matt Kennedy explains how resolutions like this one make their way from germinated seed to full-fledged spawn, but it’s important to add that the way these folks work is that what today is described as something you may do, tomorrow becomes something you must do. So today it may be scandalous to know that the Episcopal Church may give its official approval to CWOB, but tomorrow the scandal becomes those who refuse to do so.

I'm not sure I can agree that the Episcopal Church has been "overtaken by secular leftists" (there's little doubt in my mind, however, that many who drive the train of General Convention and serve as clergy are theological leftists). But I am concerned by the way that CWOB keeps popping up, and also by the way that many see it as worthy of our embrace (check out some of the comments here).

I hope that Tobias Haller is right: " ... I wouldn't think it likely that the proposal for CWOB will be adopted at our General Convention. Support for it is thin but vocal."

Might thin and vocal support today become strong and vocal support tomorrow? Time will tell ...


Robert F said...

Why stop at Communion without Baptism? Why not Communion without Jesus Christ? What could be more inclusive than that?

The Underground Pewster said...

Jesus who?

Seriously, this is one of the rare occasions I can agree with Tobias Haller.

Bryan Owen said...

Matt Gunter at Into the Expectation has weighed in on this matter very nicely. He writes:

"Though not as 'sexy' as some other church controversies, this would be a fundamental theological error. It springs from a shallow, tendentious reading of the gospels, is grounded in an sentimental, anemic theoloy of the church and its sacraments, and smacks of co-dependent niceness. Though promoted in the name of 'radical hospitality' it is neither all that radical nor all that hospitable.

"This is not about who is or isn't 'worthy' to receive Communion. Nor is it mainly about whether or not someone understands sufficiently what they are doing in participating in Communion. It is about belonging and the responsibilities and accountabilities that go with belonging."

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Frankly, I think communion w/o baptism IS communion w/o Jesus Christ. (See Articles of Religion XXIX for a strongly worded version of this.) One of the old fathers (I don't recall which) said that the umbaptized were not communed because the dead do not eat, and the unregenerate are in that condition.

Strong words, but then, people believed in things back then...

Bryan Owen said...

XXIX. Of the Wicked, which eat not the Body of Christ in the use of the Lord's Supper.

The Wicked, as such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ; yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ; but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.

Thank you, Tobias, for bringing this portion of the Articles of Religion to attention. Wow! No cheap grace there!!

And thank you for being a consistent advocate for the orthodox position on this matter.

Christopher said...

My thoughts here:

I would note that Article XXIX was written in an age where all were presumed baptized. I would be careful in conflating "The Wicked" with unbaptized who receive...Cranmer could just as easily want to apply it to you or me, which is proper especially in light of St. Paul's emphasis on eating to our damnation as a matter of how we are with one another in Christ's community.

Bryan Owen said...

Over at TitusOneNine, wvparson nails it:

"It should not be thought that permission to communicate the unbaptized is a trivial matter, let alone a gesture of hospitality. It’s adoption would involve a radical reinterpretation of Baptism in a manner which would fundamentally undermine the meaning of the sacrament. 'As baptism beginneth life' wrote Richard Hooker. He didn’t mean that Baptism usually occurred in infancy, a sort of rite of passage. He meant that Baptism transforms a person ontologically. In it we are ‘in Christ’ buried and risen to a new life. Not only would communication of the unbaptized trivialize Baptism, it would also transform the Eucharist from the action in which we anticipate the Heavenly Banquet and participate in the Risen life of Christ, into a welcoming meal of temporal fellowship, a sort of glorified Coffee Hour.

"There was a time when the essential doctrines of the Church were there, to be received and lived into. More and more these doctrines seem to some to be irresistible targets for change. One has to ask what impels people to treat holy things as mere ‘political’ platforms, as open to revision as party manifestos. Do they realize that they are handling holy gifts?"

C. Wingate said...

Well, as I wrote a year ago, part of the impetus for this sort of revisionism is precisely that it is revisionist: one gets points in some circles for thinking that one is annoying traditionalists.

In one respect the part that bothers me the most about this is the combination of presumption and lack of simple psychological comprehension. The presumption is the belief that establishing membership as a prerequisite for communion is a hurdle that very many people cannot bring themselves to cross; the psychological failure is not noticing that most people consider this sort of restriction to be meet and right and usual. Having travelled in circles where there is a lot of religious fringiness, my sense is that the people who have a problem with this tend to be, if I may put it so pejoratively, spiritual dilettantes whose commitment to any given faith or authority is ephemeral and capricious. Tradition would teach that these people those who most of all should not be partaking.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Christopher, I was thinking more of "and those devoid of a lively faith" -- which Cranmer would have understood as requiring baptism, at the least. I realized late yesterday that it was the judicious Hooker who said we don't commune the unbaptized because one does not feed the dead -- but I think he was referencing a patristic source. I've not found the source of the quote for a footnote. "Lively" of course just means "living" in this context.

The fundamental problem with all of this is the loss of the importance of baptism and baptismal regeneration.

Bill Dilworth said...

One priest commenting on the very long thread explicitly denied that Baptism was anything except a sign of something that had already happened within the recipient - if I understood her correctly, it's only a public acknowledgement of a status they already have.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Bill. I've heard that kind of view about the sacraments expressed before, and by a bishop no less!

So instead of being "sure and certain means by which we receive" grace (BCP, p. 857), this perspective says that sacraments are sure and certain means by which we reveal the grace that's already there.

Such a view explicitly rejects the theology of the Baptismal Rite and the Catechism. And it's a perspective in which CWOB makes perfect sense. If there's no change in "status" effected by baptism anyway, why shouldn't the unbaptized receive communion? If baptism doesn't do or change anything, then it would indeed be arbitrary to exclude the unbaptized from the Lord's table since everybody is the same, regardless of whether or not one has been baptized.

Bob G+ said...

Bryan - And this the belief held primarily by American-Evangelicalism, among others.

The churches in which I grew up considered both baptism and the Lord’s Supper to be only symbolic. We were baptized at an age of accountability only as an outward sign of a decision already made. We received communion crackers and grape juice only as a remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection. There was no sacramental understanding and no “means of grace” held within the elements.

The church in which I spent eight years as a lay campus pastor before becoming an Episcopalian is growing with over a million more members in the U.S. than the Episcopal Church (with probably two million more showing up on Sundays) and approximately 70 million members worldwide – nearly as large as the entire Anglican Communion. Yet I can say authoritatively that the continued growth in these kinds of churches is not because people have a warm feeling of welcome as a result of being allowed to take communion regardless of where they are in their personal or spiritual lives.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Bob. Thanks for sharing your experience with this coming from an evangelical background. The fact that the growth in these churches is not due to allowing people to take communion regardless of their baptismal or spiritual status should give those of us who are concerned about the Episcopal Church's decline pause before we buy the line that CWOB could be one of the ways to turn things around.

I'm curious: what is your take on why those evangelical churches are growing? Are there lessons we in the Episcopal Church could learn from that? And, if so, what resources in the Anglican tradition can help us better address the problems we face than going for CWOB?