Monday, May 28, 2012

The Push for Communion Without Baptism is an Assault on the Church

The topic of Communion Without Baptism (CWOB) continues to make the rounds in the Episcopal/Anglican blogosphere.  Lately that's largely due to the Open Table resolution for this summer's General Convention from the Diocese of Eastern Oregon.

At The Curate's Desk, Fr. Robert Hendrickson has posted a good response to the Diocese of Eastern Oregon's position paper on this matter.  He writes:

The Eucharist has been the central act of worship for large parts of Christianity since Christ said “Take, eat, this is my Body.” Somehow, over 2000 years, this has not been a source of tension. This was the pattern in lean times of persecution and in the bloated years of full-blown Christendom and in every era in between. Wax or wane Christianity has held, at its core, Baptism as entry into the life of Christ. 
The challenge is not that we have a ministry of the baptized and Communion as our central act of worship – the challenge is that we have clergy ill-trained in Sacramental theology administering them. We have laity that we have failed to form in Sacramental living. We now have a wide body of our priests that do not believe anything much actually happens in the Sacraments. 
Do you believe the Holy Spirit descends upon a person and transforms their very being in Baptism so that they are united with Christ? Do you believe that Christ is truly present in the Body and Blood we receive at the Altar? Are the Sacraments God’s action or ours? I have heard far too many talking of Baptism as an entry rite rather than as transformation just as I have heard too many speak of Communion as a “meal” alone rather than the very Presence of Christ among us. 
If you have a clergy addicted to modernism and reformation charged with carrying out the catholic Sacramental life of the Church then you will, indeed, have tension. But the tension should not between upending the Sacraments or administering them faithfully as they have been across the centuries. The tension should be between doing or not doing them. You can choose other ways of ministry that do not involve undoing the historic Sacraments of the Church if you are not comfortable with the faith and order we have been welcomed into as both baptized and ordained leaders. 
In a recent conversation with a clergy person about this issue, they mentioned an older person in their parish who was receiving Communion but had not been Baptized. The priest said, “I just can’t see making him go through some ceremony.”

It's a sad state of affairs when, in the name of inclusiveness, "the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ's body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God" (BCP, p. 858) comes to be seen as just "some ceremony," a hurdle that the Church makes people jump through before they can be deemed sufficiently worthy to partake of the Eucharist.  I think Fr. Hendrickson is right that this reveals a lack of belief in the sacrament of Baptism as a means by which God transforms us.  Instead of "a sure and certain means by which we receive" grace (BCP, p. 857), such a negative portrayal of Baptism as a roadblock to inclusion ends up saying that Baptism merely reveals the grace that's already there.  In other words, you don't need Baptism to be adopted as God's children, made members of the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom, because every human being is already a child of God.  Going through the motions of the Baptismal Rite is merely a way of affirming what is already the case.  Which, of course, begs the question: why bother with Baptism at all?

Such a view rejects the theology of the Prayer Book's Baptismal Rite and Catechism.  And for that very reason, it's a perspective in which Communion Without Baptism makes perfect sense.  If Baptism effects no change in a person's status in relation to God, then why shouldn't the unbaptized receive communion?  Indeed, if Baptism doesn't do or change anything, then it would be arbitrary to exclude the unbaptized from the Lord's table since everybody is the same, regardless of whether or not they have been baptized.  But again, this begs the question: why bother with Baptism at all?

Fr. Tony Clavier has also weighed in with a posting entitled "A Theology of Baptism."  In that posting, Fr. Tony puts his finger on one of the core problems of the Communion Without Baptism argument: a downplaying or rejection of the Doctrine of the Fall.  Fr. Tony is worth quoting at length:

As far as I am aware and can conclude, what we term baptism is under two assaults in the contemporary church. The first stems from sentimentalism. It is proposed that the necessity for baptism as an entrance to the other sacraments is exclusionary and thus legalistic and oppressive. It is exclusionary, we are told, because it erects a barrier between the seeker and God’s love. It is oppressive because it creates a class of people, the unbaptized, excluded from receiving holy communion simply because they haven’t undergone a ritual ceremony. This second point is only cogent if indeed there’s nothing much to baptism, it’s a church rite that can be got round to in due course once a person has been included fully into the worshipping community; has been loved and made welcome. 
Sensing that such a practical devaluation of what baptism has been perceived to be, some are now actually seeking to create a theology to justify moving baptism from its role as the act of incorporation into the Body of Christ. It is proposed that as God, in creating women and men in God’s image has already claimed the human race as God’s own, ”behold it is good.” Of course this is no new revelation, or even bad theology. It’s a beginning. Such an acceptance teaches us to honor all human beings. As we are predisposed to prejudice, as we seem to need to create categories of human beings, some to embrace and some to reject, the wonderful ideal that all humans are part of God’s act of love in a good creation is vital. So far, so good. However surely that isn’t the whole story. If it were, all rites which demonstrate God’s goodness, God’s love should be accessible to all people. Yet, as we have just noticed, we are prone to practice segregation. Doesn’t that idea lead us somewhere? Something is obviously wrong. God created us, and that is good. We refuse to share that goodness with others. That is bad. Bad is a theological concept with devastatingly bad implications. This creation, made good by a loving God, is capable of dreadful inhumanity; failure to be human. Failing to be fully human is a failure to mirror the image and likeness of God. 
Christians have explained this failure, this disowning of the nature created in his image, by the Doctrine of the Fall. The dusty old Articles of Religion ... remarks that we are “very far gone from original righteousness.” “Righteousness” doesn’t mean acting in a righteous way, (it is not the same as self-righteousness) it means living, being images of the creator God. In short we are flawed. The Creeds, those tables of contents outlining what a Christian believes, assert that baptism is for the remission of sins. Remission, or forgiveness usually means ‘loosing away’ or ‘sending away’ and thus making whole. In short because we have something which needs to be ‘loosened away’ or ‘sent away’ we are unable to be fully human, or if you will God-like. Of course baptism is about incorporation, adoption, being Spirit-filled, but all these actions of God to usward, require our being restored to wholeness. ... 
Our modern reformers posit the idea of the Goodness of God in creation, as a replacement for a robust theology of Baptism. 

The logic of indiscriminate inclusivity is at work here, for everybody is the same, regardless of whether or not they have been baptized.  And that sameness comes down to the common denominator of being basically good.  Lacking the understanding that everything has been corrupted and perverted by human sin, and thus that everything requires redemption and transformation, Baptism once again becomes a way of simply expressing what is already the case: we human beings are good because we are all created in the image of a good God.  If there is a problem, it comes down to our failure to recognize, affirm, and celebrate what is already the case.

Even bearing in mind the ways in which all of this renders the sacrament of Baptism ineffectual and ultimately unnecessary, one wonders what a Baptismal Rite would look like that reflects the (mis)understandings driving Communion Without Baptism.  Perhaps it would look similar to Kevin Thew Forrester's revision of the liturgy for Baptism which, among other major changes, replaces the renunciations of sin and evil (because there is no Fall) with invitations to let go of self-deceit, fear, and anger.

C. Wingate at Tune: Kings Lynn sums things up rather well:

We're talking here about one of the oldest canons of the church--not our church, THE church-- which they [the proponents of Communion Without Baptism] wish to overturn. It isn't as though there is no great weight of theology behind this, because, of course, there is. Any of us who have rebuked the innovation can explain what is wrong with it in a couple of sentences. But somehow, all of this is utterly irrelevant, and the proponents of the error can make an end run around fifteen hundred years of Christian theology. Or to put it more technically, this is the worst kind of progressivist restorationism, the liberal equivalent to the Jehovah's Witnesses. And there is no way of doing theology that is more in conflict with Anglican principles.

Baptism is not just some arbitrary ceremony that can be set aside or replaced with something else.  On the contrary, as The Book of Common Prayer teaches, Baptism is "full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ's Body the Church" (p. 298).  Baptism is the means by which we receive the inward and spiritual grace of "union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God's family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit" (BCP, p. 858).

The current assaults on the orthodox understanding of Baptism take direct aim at what it means to be united with Christ in his death and resurrection, to be reborn into God's family the Church, to receive forgiveness of our sins and new life in the Holy Spirit.  And by extension, an assault on the Church's understanding of the inward and spiritual grace received in Baptism is an assault on the Church itself.  Such assaults entail a revision of the biblical narrative of Creation-Fall-Redemption that excises the Fall from the story.  They jettison the understanding of sacraments as sure and certain means by which we receive the grace needed to heal our profound brokenness.  And in the process, the very meaning of the term "Church" gets redefined.  No longer is the Church "the mystical body" of Christ and a "wonderful and sacred mystery" that elicits our awe-filled, humble obedience and transcends our capacity to comprehend and control (BCP, pp. 339, 515).  Instead, the Church becomes just another merely human institution that can be manipulated and tinkered with as we see fit.  Lacking any transcendent dimension, the Church is just about us: our preferences, our agendas, and the wills to power that have the majority votes to satisfy those preferences and enact those agendas.  And that's no Church at all.


The Underground Pewster said...

And don't forget the Creed's affirmation of the importance of Baptism.

One of the arguments in favor of CWOB is that the unchurched will be accepted into communion and eventually will desire to be baptized for all the right reasons. Perhaps this is the reason, along with poor training and foundations in sacramental theology, why this is going on in TEc already. We can only hope that those persons will be truly repentant when they receive communion because I doubt that priests who are weak in their sacramental theology are going to push the new comer to "go all the way."

Bryan Owen said...

Good point, Underground Pewster, about the Creed's affirmation: "We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins." Of course, such an acknowledgement only makes sense if one grants that there is, in fact, a human problem that requires divine intervention and an ongoing repudiation of full permission living.

C. Wingate said...

Put together with the resolutions to get rid of confirmation as a requirement for office-holding, it's clear that there's no concrete ecclesiology out there among the progressives. Or for that matter, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of theology at all.

Kurt said...

While I generally agree with those who think that Holy Communion before Baptism is a bad idea, we should not be rigid about this. I think that we should leave some space open to the parish priest for pastoral decisions. For example, in my parish, we have two girls who received Holy Communion (with their father) prior to Baptism. They were both Baptized this past Whitsunday. In their case, I believe that receiving the Blessed Sacrament helped to strengthen their faith.

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Kurt. I agree that there can be pastoral exceptions to the norm. But making those exceptions into a new norm is precisely one of the problems with the push for communion without baptism. We do well not to change our core theology (and thus our identity) on the basis of exceptional cases.

Michael Anglican said...

Has anyone heard baptism called " a political statement"?
It seems to me that a low view of Scripture leads to many problems in the Episcopal Church.
Of course it also helps in this argument against baptism and scripture if many people in the church believe that all religions are equal paths to God.
Why even go to church at all if the whole world is on a merry trip to heaven whatever your faith?