June 22, 2009

Muddy (Baptismal) Waters

I’ve just finished reading Stephen Edmondson’s article on opening the Eucharistic table to the unbaptized, in the Spring 2009 issue of The Anglican Theological Review. I found this to be the most persuasive contribution to the discussion to date, though I remain unpersuaded that the church should move beyond discussion at the present time. However, rather than argue the merits of making such a change, I would rather briefly flag a few of the issues that, in my opinion, make this such a difficult topic to bring to conclusion either way.

Dual Purpose

Much as physicists have to try to think of light in terms of both particles and waves, theologians and liturgists have to acknowledge that baptism is an entanglement of double purposes: purification and initiation. Both elements figure in the traditional sequence of font to altar: one should wash before eating , and be part of the body before participating in the feast that celebrates the body. This has to be set side-by-side with Jesus’ downplay of contemporary purification rituals (though he by no means completely ignored them), and the openness of his table fellowship (though this has to be distinguished to some extent from the Eucharist as Paul understood it.)

A Closed Assembly

It is also important not to ignore the extent to which a strict requirement for baptism prior to admission to the body of the church may have been occasioned or emphasized by the persecutions to which the early church was subject. Peter shows no such reluctance about baptizing the family of the centurion upon whom the Holy Spirit descends while he is still talking, and baptism in general — in the apostolic church — appears to be wholesale rather than retail. But with the beginnings of persecution, in the pre-Constantinian era, there was every reason for the church to be circumspect about admitting people to the assembly before they had been scrutinized and initiated. However, we are in a post-Constantinian era: marked by the increasing number of the unbaptized, but also without the persecution (in most places) that necessitates heightened scrutiny.

A perfect storm

Ironically, in recent years we appear to have made much more of baptism and preparation for it. While not eliminating infant baptism, we have clearly moved to emphasize the adult rite, and a period of preparation and formation worthy of the second century. We have also emphasized the communal nature of the rite, by placing it in the context of Sunday worship.

At the same time, the Episcopal Church in just the last half-century has transitioned from an era in which many congregations celebrated the Eucharist only twice a month. We have effectively eliminated (in most places) a public liturgy to which unbaptized persons were fully welcome (Morning Prayer), to one in which their full participation is restricted or proscribed — though not, I hasten to add, to the extent it was in the days of the persecuted and conciliar church: when the unbaptized either were not allowed into the assembly at all, or were dismissed before the prayers.

Where from here?

So it appears to me that the waters remain very muddy on this question. Although the tradition clearly urges against it, it is a tradition that is by no means without its peculiar twists and turns. I look forward to further exploration and disentanglement as we continue to do our best to discern what Christ would have us do.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Unknown said...

Public worship is definitely the place where most people first encounter the Episcopal Church. I wonder, however, whether there really is all that much sense of "exclusion" among those who aren't baptized and cannot yet receive communion. Is it something that people really do feel and turns them away, or is it something that we project onto them. I don't know the answer, but I think it would be helpful to find out.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Kevin M. I have wondered in the past how much of this is projection rather than real experience. I know that when I visit an RC church, I respect their rules, and don't feel bad because I am not welcome to share. I know others feel differently. But I wonder, in an Episcopal setting, how many unbaptized persons truly feel they have a right to receive communion, and hence feel excluded, versus those who are happy to respect the rules and are willing to wait to become part of the body.

Of course, part of the problem, I think (which I failed to mention above) is the number of explicit invitations to receive that are part of the liturgy already, whether, "All you who do earnestly repent... draw near with faith and receive... etc." or "The Gifts of God for the People of God. Take them in remembrance..." Our liturgy doesn't make a particular point of Baptism -- it is simply assumed.

bls said...

Just as a data point: when I came back to the church after more than 35 years away, I didn't receive Communion for almost 2 years, because I didn't believe in most of the teachings of the faith and thought it wouldn't be right to participate, in that case.

And I was baptized as an infant.

Unknown said...

Given that public worship is most people's introduction to the Episcopal Church, I do wonder if we might think about having some sort of regular non-eucharistic worship. That doesn't mean returning to Eucharist only once a month or so, but does every service on a Sunday have to be a Eucharist?

Joe Rawls said...

My parish practices communion without baptism with great gusto. It's tied up with the notions of "inclusion" and "hospitality", which, by this point, have become buzzwords, even sacred cows to some degree. It feels like the leadership is terrified of doing anything that might turn off a potential member.

June Butler said...

I DO feel bad that I'm not welcome to share in communion at an RC service, and I'm not sure that anyone has a right to refuse communion to another. Plus, as you say, Tobias, there is the invitation in the words of the liturgy.

There are rules, of course, but that does not mean that the rules are right. I'm not 100% decided, but I lean heavily in the direction of allowing open communion. It's the Lord's body and blood, after all, not the property of any human.

Erika Baker said...

Is it worthwhile considering what Jesus might have done?
Whatever the theological, traditional or ecclesiastical arguments may be - is it conceivable that Jesus would have turned someone away from receiving him fully until that person had been baptised?

Erika Baker said...


A second comment, although I have no really well founded views on this, only this sense that people feeling so called by God that they are compelled to come up to Communion may really need to heed that call there and then, and not sit down and talk about Baptism preparation first. If the call was genuine, they will want to be baptised afterwards anyway.

A personal story: my 11 year old daughter had been very ill for a long time and doctors seemed to be unable to work out what was wrong. One Sunday in church she suddenly stood up with the rest of us and went forward to receive Communion. My wonderful priest must have seen something in her expression and just gave the bread and the wine to her, knowing she was not confirmed.
5 days later, she was diagnosed with leukaemia and started a 3 year intense treatment programme.
I have no idea what made her come forward at that moment, she cannot put it in words either. But I like to think it was a clear call from God assuring her that he was there and that he would be there with her in what was to follow.

God breaks through the barriers we try to erect, even and especially when those barriers are there for good reason. Maybe we should trust him more than we do and try to regulate access to him a little less. After all, the one to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden, knows who truly comes to meet him and who doesn’t, whatever membership badges the church may have bestowed on them.

Unknown said...

I think part of the problem is that we often think of such requirements as barriers when instead we should think of them as boundaries. A barrier is meant to keep some people out and some people in. A boundary provides definition and integrity to a group but also facilitates passage both in and out.

Unknown said...

Personally, (if I were a priest) I don't think I would refuse communion to someone who came forward for it. However, if I knew the person had not been baptized, I'd talk to him or her afterwards about considering being baptized.

I think I'd also put something like this in the bulletin.

"All are welcome to participate in out worship and fellowship. All are welcome to approach the altar of the Lord. All those baptized into the Body of Christ are welcome to receive communion in the Body and Blood of Christ. All those not baptized are welcome to receive a blessing and assurance of God's love, and all those desiring baptism are welcome to speak to a priest about it. All are welcome."

It's a little wordy, but I think it strikes the right balance between giving the expectations but also emphasizing that all are welcome in the church.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for the further thoughts. This is a "hot topic" I realize. And I'm primarily interested in laying out the problem and the elements that contribute to it, rather than to solve it.

That being said...

bls, that is a respectful and disciplined (i.e., as a disciple) response.

Kevin, I think it worth exploring the options. In the "old days" there was normally a "low mass" earlier in the day, even when MP was the "big" liturgy. Some parishes have reversed this, and offer the office at one time or another. Perhaps the best bet is the revival of Evensong! I know that Compline has become a big hit in some urban settings...

Joe, I think that dynamic is clearly at work in many places. It may come from a fear of being seen as judgmental, or "rigid" -- but this may drive away people seeking stability and order -- discipleship in addition to fellowship.

Mimi, you speak from and to the heart. I'm not 100% sure either; the old traditional explanations seem thinner and thinner.

Erika, this links with Mimi's thinking, too. I've written about the time Jesus rebuked a person from "outside" and how she specifically referred to crumbs from the table, and moved his heart.

Which relates to your second comment. I would never, never, turn away someone from the altar (apart from someone who has been formally excommunicated... but that's another matter.) The issue here is whether we should openly invite the unbaptized to receive. If a person is moved to come forward, I would not ask if they are baptized or not. I would presume they are moved by the Spirit. And I hope I would be too! And respond in kind.

Erika Baker said...

Ah! Don't ask, don't tell :-)

Sorry, I don't mean to be disrespectful and I do see the difference between responding and actively inviting.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Touché, Erika. Seriously, though, I have an invite in my parish bulletin very much like what Kevin proposes above. My biggest issue is with a largely Caribbean congregation many of whom follow the old Anglican rule that one is not to receive communion until one is confirmed! So I get young children whose parents don't follow that coming to the altar and receiving, next to almost teenagers whose parents do follow the "old rule" who don't receive! This is part of the danger of TEC making changes that have not taken place in most of the rest of the Anglican Communion! And old habits die hard...

Erika Baker said...

What you describe as an old habit is daringly new over here!
Children in Communion is a programme that individual parishes start after consultation with their PCCs and their Bishop. Interested children are then taught a special preparation course before they receive for the first time.

We even have a piece of paper that proves that the children are allowed to receive, and it's advised to take this to churches who do not have Children in Communion, as the priest is then not allowed to turn them away.

Having receiving and non-receiving children kneeling side by side at the altar is everyday reality - in those pioneering parishes that have Children in Communion in the first place!

John-Julian, OJN said...

I think one of the matters surrounding this issue that I seldom see addressed has to do with the question: "What is the status of the unbaptized?" or "What is the theological distinction between the baptized and the unbaptized?"

There was a time (not long ago) when the Church Catholic taught plainly: the unbaptized are unredeemed, unsaved, and therefore cursed to eternal damnation and alienation from God. (Still a position maintained by some literalist fundamentalists, I suppose.)

But what is the Church's current stand on the unbaptized? I would hardly expect to hear that old line broadly promulgated by Church people today.

So, it seems to me that the ancient "purification" aspect of baptism (which you properly point out, Tobias) is changing. I DO think, for instance, that the "purification" dimension could be very powerful for an adult candidate-- a new life, a new beginning, a casting away of the past, etc. But I (for one) have pretty much given up on Augustine's invention of Original Sin, so I don't see much continuing value in infant baptism (aside from the cultural, traditional, emotional attitude of the parents) because I think "purification" is simply no issue in infant baptism.

HOWEVER, all that having been said, it seems that the real and seminal issue at baptism is what you also point out as "initiation". I think it is experienced as "belongingness", and I think that has very serious implications.

But then I need to ask what are the unique "rewards" for this initiation? What are the benefits of "belonging"? It SEEMS to be receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion is just about the only obvious, overt, acted-out benefit (aside, of course, from mystical and spiritual consciousness, prayer, etc.)

That leads me to want to reserve Holy Communion for those who have been baptized (and I would personally prefer it to be adult baptism).

On a practical basis (i.e., in the parish pews) I don't recall every making a point one way or the other. I don't believe I ever "announced" anything about it -- but I did note is there was someone regularly receiving whom I suspected was not baptized (And equally, if there was someone who was regularly not communicating.) And I would mention it later in another environment.

Frankly, I suspect that in a lot of situations there may be a kind of natural self-restraint on the part of the sensitive visitor/worshipper (like the restraint I exercise in an RC church). And in the meantime, I found that I didn't worry a lot about it one way or the other.

Too long, sorry.

Slidejockey said...


We have spoken about this before (in fact, I used one of your blog entries as background for my paper on this) and I still have not heard a compelling argument for CWOB.
I have asked the clergy who practice “open communion” their rational and reasons. Some have used the idea that baptism in the early church was used as a protection for the community, which is not necessary in the 21st century. I can buy that. But with what do we replace or modify then? Do we swing the pendulum the other way and have no qualifications or restrictions? This I am not comfortable with at present. Another defense I have been told is a statement which goes “if the Holy Spirit brought them here, who am I to get in her way and limit full participation?” For me, that attitude is something of a cop-out, to not take any ownership or responsibility for a response. When I hear this, my sense is that the priest doesn’t want to defend it or dig deeper, but play the “Holy Spirit card” to end debate. I find that very frustrating and discouraging.

Another rational is "Radical inclusivity" which I find to be more like cheap hospitality. To use another metaphor, I look at baptism like citizenship. If I was to propose that anyone who comes to the United States as a citizen of another country has the right to vote without becoming a citizen, I would find few sympathetic ears, if any. For me, just as citizenship is the cornerstone to understanding the principles and ideas of this country, baptism is that cornerstone to understanding the sacraments. Through citizenship we become part of the United States and through baptism we become part of the Body of Christ.

This is not a proposal that we check baptismal certificates at the altar rail before offering Communion. There is a tremendous amount of humility involved when one approaches the altar rail and there may be instances where the unbaptized may feel called to come to the rail. I am not saying they should unilaterally be denied the sacrament but a conversation should take place to determine their heart and mind in this act. Pray with the unbaptized. Walk with the seeker as they discern their relationship with God. We must continue to emphasize that our relationship with Christ and each other begin at baptism. Through baptism we begin our fellowship with Christ and enter into a deeper fellowship through the Eucharist. And for that we should be grateful.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Erika, sounds like what happened in the US in relation to the rest of the communion, now in your environment! It can be terribly confusing to have two "standards."

Fr JJ, not too much, in fact. You raise the important issue of baptism of infants vs. of adults. This gets us into the whole area of regeneration, sacrament, and so on. It raises the contrast of permitting communion to a person baptized in infancy, while refusing it to an adult seeker who is not yet baptized. Of course, that has been the rule... hence the present dilemma.

SlideJ, thanks for the comments. You sum up the difficulties quite well, I think. I still think the old sequence of font to altar is the right one -- but I also think we need to reexamine so much about it, and perhaps develop a clearer theology -- and liturgy!

Erika Baker said...


"For me, just as citizenship is the cornerstone to understanding the principles and ideas of this country, baptism is that cornerstone to understanding the sacraments."

This would make sense if "understanding" our faith was a criterion for following Jesus. But we don't have academic criteria for becoming a Christian, and we see people with severe mental handicaps as our brothers and sisters in Christ, we don't excommunicate people who lose their mental abilities at any point in their lives.

"“if the Holy Spirit brought them here, who am I to get in her way and limit full participation?” For me, that attitude is something of a cop-out, to not take any ownership or responsibility for a response."

I'm not sure what kind of responsibility or ownership you would wish to take here. The person coming forward is taking ownership of their desire to be a Communicant and they are responsible for their subsequent Christian journey.
I suppose I'm assuming that someone might start out their faith journey with Communion before Baptism, but that they will wish to be baptised if their call to faith was serious.

"If I was to propose that anyone who comes to the United States as a citizen of another country has the right to vote without becoming a citizen, I would find few sympathetic ears, if any."

So is the body of Christ a human organisation for which we establish and police membership criteria?

Lynn said...

At my church, the celebrant specifically invites all the baptized to receive, and the unbaptized to come with their row for a blessing. Is that unusual?

plsdeacon said...

Communion is sharing in the Body and Blood of Jesus. It is where we, the Body of Christ, become more the Body of Christ. It simply makes no sense to give the Body of Christ to those who are not part of the Body of Christ.

What is the fate of the unbaptized? I don't know. I would think that there is a presumption of damnation (in it technical term), but I leave the fate of the unbaptized to God. That's not my job. My job is to go, make disciples, baptize and teach. It seems arrogant in the extreme to me that we should allow the celebrant to overturn centuries of Church teaching and the TEC canons that Holy Communion is only for the baptized just because the celebrant doesn't understand the reasons for this restriction. Why not allow the priest to substitute potato chips and coke or pretzels and beer or any other food and drink for the bread and wine? Why not allow the celebrant to use texts from non-Christian faiths instead of just from Holy Scripture? Where does the celebrant's focus on himself and his desires and his understanding stop and when do we return to the clergy upholding the doctrin, discipline, and worship of the church?

If we want to talk about Communion without Baptism, then let's talk. But, like with the ordination of women, the use of "inclusive language," the blessing of same sex unions, and the decision to name your own bishop, too many people are too unwilling to refrain from action until discernment has completed and are too impatient and too proud of their own understanding to submit it to the collective wisdom of the Church.

Phil Snyder

Unknown said...

Wow, I actually agreed with Phil Snyder on some things (not everything, mind you). Not something you see everyday.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Erika, I didn't get the sense that Slidejockey was advocating understanding as a necessary criterion for following Jesus. I think what he meant is that baptism, as a sacrament, shows us how to understand the other sacraments. Certainly we don't expect infants to understand the baptism that they undergo or the communion they receive!

The analogy with citizenship (although of course it is scriptural) has its limits. I don't think we want to start talking about receiving communion as a "right" in the same sense as a right to vote. It may be helpful, however, to understand a concept of eligibility: which is the traditional understanding; that is, that baptism is a prerequisite for admission to communion (and, as you note, in some places confirmation is required as well, as it used to be in the US.) That gets us into the legal details, however, and I'm more interested in the pastoral dimension.

As Lynn points out, there is a pastoral response; and I think the language used in her church is probably fairly common. I think the number of churches that actually openly invite the unbaptized to receive communion is probably very small.

I agree with Deacon Phil that this is a matter for further discussion; and I share his concern about celebrants taking too many liberties beyond those already allowed to them (the subject of a couple of other posts). At the same time, although there is clearly a well-established tradition concerning "font to altar" --- there is no clear scriptural order laid out with any kind of clarity; hence, in keeping with our Anglican understanding, it would be wrong to declare the matter incapable of change.

G said...

My previous parish invited "all of you to feel welcome to come forward and receive the Sacrament." There was no indication that "all of you" meant only the baptized.

Slidejockey said...


Thank you for responding to Erika. You said what I would have in a much clearer and concise way.

As far as few churches offering CWOB, over half of the churches in my diocese have CWOB, including the cathedral.

I'm sure this will come up for discussion at GC next month and probably voted on in 2012 or 2015.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Geoff, interesting that that in some ways echoes the language of the old "Invitation" no? This is, of course, part of the problem I was getting at: the church's liturgies were mostly composed in the era of Christendom, when it was assumed all in attendance were baptized! I may post that as a separate note just to highlight the problem...

SlideJ, thanks for the further comment. That is a very high proportion. In my diocese the figure (which I only know anecdotally) is much lower. There will no doubt be resolutions on further study of the issue -- I agree this will only come to a vote in the more distant future.

WilliamK said...

I belong to a parish that affirms "communion without baptism" and offers an open invitation. When I mentioned this to some Jewish friends they all laughed at what they saw as misguided inclusivity. "Why would *I* want to eat the Body of Christ and drink his Blood?" one of them asked. I have heard similar comments from members of other religious traditions, who wonder why Christians would think that non-Christians would want to engage in such an intimate encounter with Jesus Christ.

I sometimes take groups of college students on "field trips" to services at my church. I both indicate the "open communion" policy of the congregation AND explain what receiving communion is about. I have yet to have a single non-Christian student go up to receive communion.

When I was an un-baptized, non-Christian teenager in the 1980s, I was offered communion at an Anglican youth group retreat I attended with a friend. I declined to receive, because I understood that doing so would commit me to something I didn't believe in. It was my Anglican friends who seemed upset that I had declined their offer!!!

My experience suggests to me (though of course I could be quite wrong) that those who are serious about their non-Christian religious commitment wouldn't receive communion, and that those who would receive either are religiously indifferent or don't have sufficent information to understand what the act means.

By the way... I don't think discussion of the communion of baptized infants should be mixed up with communion of the unbaptized. Offering communion to infants represents a return to ancient practice, and is the long-standing practice of the Eastern churches. Even Eastern Rite Catholics in communion with the Pope commune infants, while "Latin Rite" Catholics require the rite of passage of "first communion" (at around age 7, years before confirmation). It is requiring confirmation before admission to communion that is the innovation, not communion of baptized infants and children. So, I have no trouble believing that Erika's daughter responded to a genuine call from God to receive what her baptism had rendered her perfectly capable of receiving.

Erika Baker said...

Apologies if I misunderstood you!

As it is, I have no well formed opinion on this subject yet, and part of the reason for asking questions is to work out where I stand. I must take more care to make sure my points really are phrased as questions!

Slidejockey said...


None taken. I thought Tobias did a fine job of clarification and explanation.

Song in my Heart said...

I was baptized as an infant and took communion in church after confirmation at 11. I now don't consider that confirmation valid (for complicated reasons I don't want to go into here). I spent a long time away from any Christian church at all (and in fact actively exploring other faiths, mostly orthodox Judaism) and have only relatively recently felt drawn back to church attendance and Christian prayer structures. I'm still extremely shaky on doctrine and struggle mightily with some of the same intellectual stumbling blocks that I ran from all those years ago. So I don't know much and may be making all kinds of errors here.

I do like having services to go to that do not include the Eucharist and so don't require me to struggle with that part of my faith so much, but I've also come to value very highly the blessing I receive instead of bread and wine--from my perspective, something significant happens, far more than ever did when I was taking communion as a teenager. And that makes me think, well, maybe the bread and wine aren't actually necessary.

I'm not sure about the Eucharist being any more (or less) sacramental than the rest of life. But I recognise that humans often do better with ritual to elevate and sanctify the everyday, that maybe taking communion is a sort of "practise run" for seeing what is holy in all things, seeing God in every situation. And maybe that has value for me, too. Maybe it would help. But maybe it wouldn't.

I suspect the Church has got the wrong end of the stick on this at times, that God does not turn any away from the table on account of small details such as not being communicant members of a Christian church. But on the list of "things I'm willing to ruffle feathers about" it's very low. If I'm right, every time I eat something and remember that Jesus said "Do this in remembrance of me" I am taking communion, every time I receive anything in this world and remember that it comes from God I am taking communion. The Church can hardly stop me. It has no monopoly on access to God. While I would like to participate, while I might find it meaningful to do so, I do not _need_ to, not enough to bother trying to twist my beliefs to become a Christian by some definition I don't understand, not enough to challenge the established Church.

If I'm wrong, if the Eucharist has some absolute, innate holiness that sets it aside from life in real terms and not just human ones, then it's quite a bit more serious. In that case I should refuse to partake until all are truly welcome. If God's love is unconditional and God's sacrament is a way of receiving God's love then limiting access to that on doctrinal grounds is, in my view, not very representative of God in the world.

Most likely? I am working with a flawed, incomplete definition of "sacrament". So I'll try to learn more and if I change my understanding, what the church calls sacrament will still be there.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

WmK and Song, thanks for this testimony. You touch on something I think is often overlooked in the discussion -- the sense of respect, both for the rite and for oneself, the sense of solemnity -- that this isn't a casual matter of a quick snack. If, as Song suggests, every meal is holy (and don't we say grace and give thanks?) then how much more the gathering at the altar? I think of Moses and the warning about being on Holy Ground, and Annie Dillard's advice that we ought to be wearing crash helmets in church!

William Henry Benefield said...

I often wondered why we couldn't in the spirit of hospitality and agape(since that is the main argument it seems) offer the unbaptized something similar to what is offered in the Eastern Church - offering blessed bread that is not consecrated as the Eucharist. And it could be "real" bread even !!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

WH, I knew a priest who used to do just that. He now dines at the High Table, God rest him.