Tobias S Haller BSG
The purpose of this brief essay is not to forestall discussion of the administration of communion to those not [yet] baptized, but rather to provide some historical context and background to inform such discussion. Note as well that it is not within the scope of this review to examine the issue of excommunication or refusal of communion for disciplinary reasons. Nor is it intended to address the spiritual restrictions and requirements contained in some of the Prayer Book texts of exhortation and invitation (i.e., being in love and charity with one’s neighbors, intending to lead a new life, repenting one’s sins) since these are largely subjective, and not externally verifiable criteria, and therefore are ill suited to canonical regulation.
Scripture and the Early Church
Scripture itself provides no unambiguous or explicit guidance on the question of communion of the unbaptized. It might well be argued that the question never arose. However, baptism clearly plays an important and foundational role in the community which gathered around John the Baptist and later Jesus. It appears that baptism came to be understood by the apostolic church as an adaptation of Jewish ceremonies for conversion as a step towards (or substitute for) circumcision, which admitted one to the Passover meal (Exo 12:48). Given this understanding (not only for remission of sins or repentance, but as a sign of incorporation) baptism becomes significant in light of Paul’s declaration that Christ is “our Passover.” It is therefore understandable that the apostolic leaders believed that incorporation into Christ’s Body (the church) through Baptism enabled one to “keep the feast” which is the sacramental celebration of that Body.
Jesus’ own teaching presents a mixed witness: the harshness with which the man who shows up at the wedding banquet improperly attired is treated (Matt 22:12) stands in marked contrast to the apparent openness of his table fellowship with outcasts. On the other hand, the lack of any clear demarcation between such table fellowship and the more intimate gatherings of the apostolic band, as well as Paul’s apparent willingness to “give thanks and break bread” with unbelievers (Acts 27:35), appear to offer a conflicting message. So I confess that I can find no “plain teaching” on this subject in Scripture. (The “unworthy” or “improper” reception of the eucharist in 1 Cor 11 does not appear to have to do with baptism.)
There is, however, no doubt that by the patristic era church law and liturgy are abundantly clear on the matter of admission to communion. The liturgy of baptism itself included reception of communion as its climax. Nor was there any question of the unbaptized being so communed — they were not even allowed to remain after what we would now call the Liturgy of the Word. Communion — as well as offering communal prayer — was reserved for “the faithful” — that is, the baptized (seeDidache, and the Apostolic Constitutions). (One wonders if the legend of Saint Martin of Tours might not represent an early rebuke to an overemphasis on the restriction of participation in the Body of Christ to the baptized: Martin, still a catechumen, encounters the living Christ, and his act of charity in giving half his cloak is held as exemplary.)
Because many if not most were baptized as adults, early church laws assumed (and later required) preparation for baptism and the reception of communion which served as its culmination. This preparation involved a period of education (the catechumenate) and involved prayer and fasting, prior to subsequent participation in the church’s liturgy. Though fewer in number, those baptized as infants received communion at baptism, just as did adults.
Infant Baptism and Adult Confirmation
In the period between the fourth and fourteenth centuries, however, infant baptism became the rule rather than the exception. While the Eastern churches continued to commune infants, a changing theology of the eucharist in the West led to a gradual withdrawal of communion from infants, and admission to communion came to be restricted to those who had reached “the age of reason.” In addition, a separate rite of confirmation developed in the West, and in England this led to an additional change in the canonical regulation of admission to communion.
Many of the faithful apparently were not bringing their children for confirmation at the appropriate time. In order to encourage confirmation, the Council of Lambeth (1281), chaired by Archbishop Peckham, changed church law to require confirmation for admission to communion.
This injunction, not originally intended as a restriction on communion but as an incentive to confirmation, was later enshrined in the “Confirmation Rubric” of the first Book of Common Prayer (1549), where it appears at the end of the rite for Confirmation. “And there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion until such time as he be confirmed.” In 1559, the rubric was expanded slightly: “And there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion, until such time as he can say the catechism, and be confirmed.”
The 1662 version added an additional notice at the end of the baptismal rite: “It is expedient that every person, thus baptized, should be confirmed by the Bishop so soon after his Baptism as conveniently may be; that so he may be admitted to the holy Communion.” However, the 1662 Prayer Book softened the Confirmation Rubric itself, removing the requirement concerning the catechism, and adding at the end “or be ready and desirous to be confirmed.” This rubric accommodated those who were unable to be confirmed during the unsettled period of the English Civil War. It was retained in the first American Prayer Books where it met a similar pastoral need: there were no bishops in the colonial church, and many American church members were not confirmed, though presumably “ready and desirous” to be so. This phrase allowed for considerable pastoral flexibility even after confirmation became readily available throughout the Anglican Communion, and given this pastoral leeway, the rubric remained in versions of the Book of Common Prayer throughout the Communion.
At the same time, an increasing movement developed to recover the ancient custom of admitting children to communion at their baptism, even though limitation of communion to the confirmed (or those ready and desirous of confirmation) remained in the rubrics of the American Prayer Book. The House of Bishops issued a recommendation in 1971 that young children, after “being instructed in the meaning of this Sacrament,” might be admitted to communion in the context of worship with their family, before confirmation.
Beyond the Confirmation Boundary
Eventually the Confirmation Rubric was dropped altogether in the revision of 1976. With the adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, restriction of communion to the confirmed was formally removed. There was, however, still some question if this change opened the door to infant communion, so in 1988, the House of Bishops adopted a resolution stating,
Whereas, the Church teaches that Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as children by grace, and makes us, at whatever age we are baptized, members of Christ’s Body, the Church; and
Whereas, the practice of the Church has evolved since previous statements by this House [in 1971 and1972] on the subject of communion by young children, so that a statement of the current mind of this House may be useful; therefore be it
Resolved, That the mind of the House of Bishops is that:
Those baptized in infancy may, as full members of the Body of Christ, begin receiving communion at any time they desire and their parents permit; and that the following pastoral principles are recommended to guide the church in communicating those baptized as infants:1. That the reception of communion by young children should normally be in the context of their participation with their parents and other family in the liturgy of the church;
2. That instruction is required for adults and older children before their baptism and first communion; instruction is also essential for young children after they are baptized and have received communion in infancy, that they may grow in appreciation of the grace they have received and in their ability to respond in faith, love, and thankful commitment of their lives to God;
3. That pastoral sensitivity is always required: in not forcing the sacrament on an unwilling child, in not rejecting a baptized child who is reaching out for communion with God in Christ, and in respecting the position of the parents of a child in this regard; and
4. That the practice of some parishes which customarily give first communion to infants at their baptism, then next offer them communion when they and their parents express a desire that they receive, is seen to be an acceptable practice in the spirit of these guidelines; and be it further
Resolved, that the Committee on Theology be instructed to present a report on this matter to the next House of Bishops meeting.
It is therefore clear that the Episcopal Church now regards baptism as the sole canonical criterion for admission to communion, at least for persons who are members of the Episcopal Church or a church in communion with it.
Admission of Non-Episcopalians to Communion
However, a second issue that arises is the appropriateness of admitting non-Episcopalians to communion. This is not a novel question. Even in the time when the Confirmation Rubric was in effect, the prevailing opinion was that occasional communion by a baptized non-Anglican was not forbidden by the rubric.
As the Lambeth Conference of 1920 noted, the admission of baptized non-Anglicans to communion was a matter of essentially local pastoral discretion under the guidance of the bishop, and “the priest... has no canonical authority to refuse Communion to any baptized person kneeling before the Lord’s Table (unless he be excommunicate by name, or, in the canonical sense of the term, a cause of scandal to the faithful).” The Conference urged that if there was further question as to the propriety of such cases, “the priest should refer the matter to the Bishop for counsel or direction.” (Lambeth Conference 1920, Resolution 12.C.ii.)
The General Convention of 1967 adopted a resolution that permitted baptized non-Episcopalians (who had made public profession of faith in their own traditions) to receive communion in the Episcopal Church “where the discipline of their own Church permits, not only at special occasions of ecumenical gatherings” but whenever so moved by spiritual need. Similar to the Lambeth resolution of 1920, this action was not felt by the Convention to require any change in the canons or rubrics, the apparent tension with the Confirmation Rubric resolved by the fact that since the Episcopal Church at that time did not recognize any equivalent to Confirmation in many non-Episcopal churches, whether such a person could be considered “ready and desirous to be confirmed” was irrelevant. The primary intention of the legislation appears to have been a desire to discourage “what is commonly known as ‘Open Communion”’ — which is to say an open declaration that communion is open to all who are baptized, from whatever tradition. The emphasis here was on the discipline of the church of which the person was a member.
In 1979, the same year that formally made communion available to all who were baptized in the Episcopal Church, including infants, an expansion and clarification of the resolution of 1967 was adopted. While acknowledging the renewed understanding of Baptism as “the sacramental prerequisite for receiving Holy Communion,” and the centrality of the eucharist in the church’s new liturgical formularies, this resolution also expressed the need for “sensitivity to the constraints of conscience on those whose churches officially do not approve of this sacramental participation.” The resolution presented this standard “for those of other churches who on occasion desire to receive Holy Communion in the Episcopal Church”:
They shall have been baptized with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and shall have previously been admitted to the Holy Communion within the church to which they belong.
They shall examine their lives, repent of their sins, and be in love and charity with all people, as this church in its catechism (BCP p. 860) says is required of all those who come to the Eucharist.
They shall approach the Holy Communion as an expression of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ whose sacrifice once upon the cross was sufficient for all mankind.
They shall find in this Communion the means to strengthen their life within the Christian family ‘through the forgiveness of (their) sins, the strengthening of (their) union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet...’ (BCP p. 859-60).
Their own consciences must always be respected as must the right of their own church membership to determine the sacramental discipline of those who, by their own choice, make that their spiritual home.”
The Episcopal Church since 1979 authorized “occasional communion” for baptized members of other Christian churches who are already admitted to Communion in their own churches, who meet the Episcopal Church’s own Prayer Book requirements for all who come to the Eucharist, and who are in basic agreement with the Episcopal Church’s own eucharistic doctrine. It emphasized, however, the individual right of conscience as well as respect for the sacramental disciplines of the other churches.
Many did not feel that the restrictions in this resolution were in keeping with the intent to clarify that Baptism is the sole criterion and means for membership in the universal church, and that all members of the universal church are eligible to share in the Holy Eucharist as an outward sign of that membership, and of the unity that transcends denominational limits. With the growing practice of infant communion the question arose as to the appropriateness of requiring a particular eucharistic doctrine of anyone receiving communion.
In 1982, therefore, the Standing Liturgical Commission brought to the General Convention a resolution amending the membership canon (at that time Canon I.16, now Canon I.17), in order “to bring the Canon into conformity with the concept of Christian initiation and Church membership implied” by the relevant sections of the Book of Common Prayer. The new canon marked a major change in the way membership in the church would be understood, and it also had implications governing admission to communion.
The opening section of the proposed canon recognized that “All persons who have received the Sacrament of Holy Baptism with water in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and whose baptisms have been duly recorded in this Church, are members thereof.” The closing section of the Canon read, “No person who has not received the Sacrament of Holy Baptism with water in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.”
The proposed resolution, and another similar to it, were referred to and amended by committee and came to the floor of the House of Bishops with two significant changes. The opening clause was clarified to read, “All persons who have received the Sacrament of Holy Baptism with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, whether in this Church or in another Christian Church, and whose Baptisms have been duly recorded in this Church, are members thereof.” The added phrase emphasizes the universal nature of baptism, transcending denominational divisions, and is in keeping with the Prayer Book’s affirmation that baptism “is full initiation... into Christ’s Body the Church.” The effect of this new canon was to clarify that baptism makes one a Christian, and that recording that baptism in the Episcopal Church makes one an Episcopalian.
The closing section of the canon was simplified: “No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.” The Bishop of Rio Grande moved to amend this clause by the addition of the word “regularly” at the end of the sentence. This amendment, which would have permitted occasional reception of the eucharist by one not baptized, was defeated. This canon clarifies that baptism, previously defined as to form and matter, whether performed in the Episcopal Church or another Christian church, is the sole canonical requirement for admission to communion.
Due to the substantial change in policy governing confirmation and membership, a final clause was added to the resolution, stating that the new canon would take effect on January 1, 1986, rather than on January 1, 1983, when all other canonical changes would normally take effect. Thus, by 1986, the Episcopal Church had canonically reestablished the ancient linkage between baptism and eucharist as sacraments of the universal church, stressing the former as prerequisite for admission to the latter, and that all who are members of the “People of God” are welcome to share in “the Gifts of God.”
The question arises as to what extent invitation to receive communion should be made, in addition to the exhortations and invitations already in the liturgical texts. While not wishing to invite a Christian of another tradition to disobey the rules of that tradition, neither should the Episcopal Church be placed in the position of enforcing someone else’s rules. This is particularly so when the persons’ presence at an Episcopal eucharist (in itself a possible breach of their denomination’s rules) may indicate a desire and need for pastoral care.
In addition, an increasing number of persons attending church services are not [yet] baptized. Some may innocently feel they are welcome to receive communion, since the liturgy itself does not specify baptism as a requirement for admission to communion, and appears to issue a number of invitations to all who are present. Therefore a brief announcement to the effect that “all who are baptized are welcome at the Lord’s table,” has become customary in many parishes, while a few others have boldly acted contrary to the canonical and rubrical limitations, and issue a general invitation to any moved to receive. Thus we come to the present debate on the advisability of such a change in policy and practice.
Further extensive analysis of the issues surrounding Confirmation, and Infant Communion may be found in Ruth A. Meyers, Continuing the Reformation: Re-Visioning Baptism in the Episcopal Church (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1997). The Rev. Canon J. Robert Wright’s “Who May Receive Communion in the Episcopal Church”(Cincinnati: Forward Movement Publications, 1980) includes a detailed description of the background to the 1979 General Convention Resolution, and its implications for the church at that time.