The Episcopal Church’s House of Bishop’s Theology Committee has just produced a first report on the question of whether the unbaptised might be welcomed to receive communion.
In the past, it was those with a low view of the Eucharist who might have argued that anyone can receive communion. For them it was merely bread and wine. In that end of the spectrum, the issue would have arisen less in any case, with once-a-month or three-or-four-times-a-year communion. In fact, as I have argued on this site more than once, simplistic constructs of “evangelical”, “catholic”, and so forth, are little use any more in serious dialogue. It is often those with a high sacramental view of the Eucharist who are now the strongest exponents of allowing the unbaptised to receive communion – what is regularly termed “open communion.”
In discussion with those who are firmly only for communicating members of the church by baptism there is often an embarrassed confusion in response to the question would they refuse communion to members of the Salvation Army or Society of Friends (Quakers) [neither of which practice baptism] and do they not recognise them as being Christians, members of the body of Christ, the church?
1) Baptism before communion. This sees communion as the repeatable part of the sacrament of initiation/incorporation into the church, the Body of Christ. It is expressed architecturally by having the baptismal font at the entrance of the community’s worship space – so that one passes from the baptistery, the font to the table. Baptism is the full initiation into the Christian community life that is nourished at the community’s meal. The NZ Anglican province is one of many that allows and encourages participation in the Eucharist from the moment of baptism, and for all the baptised whatever their denomination. Unlike the Episcopal Church, it does not have a systematic set of canons. TEC has an actual canon that states “No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.” So I am not sure if anywhere there is any forbidding of communicating the unbaptised in the NZ Anglican province – but perhaps someone could point to such in the comments.
This model follows the tradition of (a) baptism for all – communion for the committed or (b) baptism for the committed – communion for the committed. This model, of course in practice, can result in baptism and no communion.
2) Communion before baptism. This model, of course, includes communion continuing after baptism. It would not normally be understood as an ongoing life of regularly receiving communion regularly without exploring baptism. This model sees a strong message in Jesus’ radically inclusive table-fellowship that expressed, modelled, and lived out his good news and was highly significant in the animosity that he experienced. It is best architecturally expressed in the purpose-built church of St Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, where one encounters the altar first as one enters the building and has to pass that in order to get to the community’s font. From the table to the font. Communion for all – baptism for the committed.
There will be several excellent reflections out of the highly intentional positive approach of St Gregory of Nyssa. St Gregory’s grew a congregation from nothing to about 250 in a diocese losing a third of its membership. This, of course, does not justify the practice (please let us not predicate our theology and liturgical practice on marketing strategies as is so often experienced!), but neither can such a story be quickly discounted.
First the Table, then the Font by Richard Fabian (one of the founding rectors of St Gregory’s), for the Association of Anglican Musicians, 2002
Giving What Is Sacred to Dogs? Welcoming All to the Eucharistic Feast (Article to purchase)
The House of Bishop’s Theology Committee report concludes
Whatever our views on open communion, it appears that there is a great deal of catechetical work to be done in parishes. It is essential to understand the doctrinal and liturgical connections between baptism and eucharist, especially in a church that has been affirming the centrality of baptism. These rich and complex connections are deeply manifest in the historic faith and practice of the Church.
We invite the church into this work. For in the absence of a revived catechesis and a commitment to lifelong learning and formation among the faithful, it is likely that our views on open communion will be formed either by an unreflective repetition of tradition, or strongly formed habits of individualism and freedom of choice, rather than by careful habits of theological reflection.
Sara Miles is well known for her story of her unexpected and, for her, terribly inconvenient conversion from secular atheism. One morning, aged 46, for no particular reason, she wandered into St Gregory’s and received communion. She found herself radically transformed. Again Sara’s account is not validation, and she does not want it to be taken as such – but Sara does challenge us:
“I believe the presence of unbaptized people at communion is a call to conversion for the baptized. That the presence of the unwashed, the queer, the Gentile, the Syro-Phoenician, all outsiders, is always a gift from Jesus to us. We welcome strangers because our own salvation depends on them: because through them God interrupts us, breaks down our idolatry, offers us new ways to experience God’s presence than if were we locked away in a small room with the like-minded and doctrinally pure. It ain’t our Table: and the ongoing converting power of the Eucharist can’t be contained by our attempts to control the ritual.” (Sara Miles)
A note from New Zealand
The New Zealand Anglican baptismal and confirmation rite is eccentric in many ways. One of these is that the unbaptised present are explicitly excluded from verbal participation while those members of the congregation who are baptised respond with words exclusive to them. This exclusivity, in my experience is always experienced as hurtful by several present. People accept an invitation to support a friend or family member and attend their baptism and/or confirmation. They, themselves may not be baptised but are supportive of their friend’s/family member’s decision. Suddenly, in the middle of the service, the rubric has
The bishop or priest says to all those present who are baptised Christians
Let us, the baptised, affirm that we renounce evil and commit our lives to Christ. Blessed be God, JESUS IS LORD!
Even should they have experienced through hearing scripture, singing, and preaching, and participating to this point in the baptismal rite, some stirring towards Christian commitment – suddenly they may not affirm their renunciation and commitment. That, in New Zealand, is clearly only for the baptised. Soon, too, the Apostles’ Creed is recited – again to be said only by those who have been baptised. There is much else that is peculiar in New Zealand’s baptism and confirmation rite, but in the context of this current discussion, the surprising explicit verbal exclusion in a service is worth holding alongside the sacramental exclusion.
The Inter Anglican Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations Resolution
Admission of the Non-baptised to Holy Communion
1. affirms that Christian initiation leads us from incorporation into the Body of Christ through Baptism to full participation in the life of grace within the Church through Holy Communion
2. notes again with grave concern instances in some parts of the Anglican Communion of inviting non-baptised persons, including members of non-Christian religious traditions, to receive Holy Communion
3. reminds all Anglicans that this practice is contrary to Catholic order as reflected in principles of canon law common to all the Churches of the Anglican Communion
4. believes that the invitation to Holy Communion of non-baptised persons undermines ecumenical agreements on Baptism and the Eucharist, current policies of offering eucharistic hospitality to “Christians duly baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity and qualified to receive Holy Communion in their own Churches”, and eucharistic sharing agreements between churches
5. believes that the communion of the non-baptised undermines the very goal and direction of the ecumenical movement, namely the reconciliation of all things in Christ of which the Eucharistic Communion of the baptised is sign, instrument and foretaste.
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