[Episcopal News Service] The young woman who called St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Hood River, Oregon, was upset and asked if the church offered communion.
“I really need some support right now and I feel like it starts there,” she told the Rev. Anna Carmichael, the parish’s rector.
The wrinkle was that while the woman had attended various churches she had “never formally been baptized and yet somehow this needing to be in community and needing to be supported, in her mind, had something to do with communion as well,” Carmichael recalled.
“I just couldn’t tell her no, I’m sorry we can’t offer that to you,” the Diocese of Eastern Oregon rector recalled during a recent interview.
There is a tension, Carmichael said, between “the theology behind the importance of baptism,” something she said is “incredibly significant to me,” and “the very lived reality that people need to be supported in their community.”
Therein lies an example of the thinking behind Eastern Oregon’s proposal that General Convention allow the church’s congregations to “invite all, regardless of age, denomination, or baptism to the altar for Holy Communion.” Eastern Oregon’s Resolution C040 would pave the way for this invitation by eliminating Canon 1.17.7, which says “no unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.”
It is one of two resolutions on this topic the convention will consider when it meets July 4-12 in Indianapolis. The Diocese of North Carolina has proposed a longer-term look at the issue. Resolution C029 calls for a special commission to conduct “a study of the theology underlying access to Holy Baptism and Holy Communion” and recommend to the 78th General Convention any amendment to Canon 1.17.7 it believes is needed.
The texts of both resolutions are available here. Eastern Oregon’s is accompanied by a diocesan statement explaining its stance.
This will be the second time in recent years that what is variously called open communion, open table and communion of the non- or unbaptized has come to convention. In 2006, the General Convention affirmed Canon 1.17.7 (via Resolution D084) and asked for the House of Bishops Committee on Theology and the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to provide to the 2009 meeting of convention “a pastoral and theological understanding of the relationship between Holy Baptism and eucharistic practice.”
In its report to the 2009 convention, the SCLM said it had been in contact with the bishops’ committee and “stand[s] ready to cooperate with them on this important issue in the future.”
The bishops reported that a study was “on-going.” In June 2009, the committee circulated “Reflections on Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist: A Response to Resolution D084 of the 75th General Convention,” which was later published in the Anglican Theological Review. The committee called it a “promissory note” because “we do not assume this is our last word on these matters.”
“It is essential to understand the doctrinal and liturgical connections between baptism and eucharist, especially in a church that has been rediscovering the centrality of baptism,” the members wrote in their conclusion. “We invite the church into this work.”
This year, the bishops’ theology committee reported in the Blue Book (beginning on page 51 here) that it is “undertaking a renewed engagement with the theology of the Eucharist.” They noted what they call “the continuing (and controversial) practice of inviting the un-baptized to receive communion” and suggested what is needed is “a renewed and fundamental understanding of the eucharistic assembly and of eucharistic celebration as the quintessential gathering of the people of God.”
Carmichael said Eastern Oregon began discussing what she called this “issue of practice versus theology” during its 2010 convention and agreed to submit a resolution to General Convention.
“For many of the folks out here in the diocese we have already started living into the practice, which I know gets us in a sticky situation but it’s reality,” she said, adding, “we don’t check ID at the door” and strangers who come up to receive communion are not asked if they have been baptized.
“We feel like it’s been a lived reality for us and we imagine that that may be true in other dioceses as well,” Carmichael said.
The Rev. Canon Beth Wickenberg Ely, canon for regional ministry in North Carolina and chair of that diocese’s convention deputation, echoed that sentiment. “Our gut reaction is that we’re not the only ones facing this,” she said in a recent interview. “We think that this is probably true for every single diocese.”
“Every Sunday we face this,” she said. “It’s not just a Christmas and Easter thing. If something is that much part of our lives together, we really need to bring this out in the open and talk about it.”
Hence, the diocese’s proposal that the church study the issue.
Deputy Joe Ferrell, a professor of public law at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, championed his diocese’s resolution not because he opposes an open table, but because “we have a canon that specifically prohibits it and my view has always been we don’t get to pick and choose the laws that we will obey unless we’re impelled by a higher moral authority, and I don’t think this issue is compelled by higher moral authority, so we need to do something about the canon.”
Ferrell said that if he “could wave my magic wand” the canon would be repealed.
“We’d be left with rubrics of the Prayer Book, which I think are perfectly adequate,” he said in an interview. Reminded that the Book of Common Prayer is silent on the issue, he chuckled and replied, “that’s right, that’s right.”
Having been raised in the Episcopal Church, Ferrell, 73, remembers prior to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer when Eucharist was not the principal service each Sunday and when communion was rarely a part of weddings and funerals.
“Now it’s commonplace and, particularly at weddings and funerals, you’ve got severe pastoral problems if you attempt to restrict who is going to be welcome at the altar,” he said. “And you have it to some extent on Sunday mornings.”
His “bottom line” is this: “clergy who feel that this is important from a pastoral point of view should not be put in a position of knowingly violating a canon that could not be more explicit.”
The Episcopal Church’s canons have contained a version of Canon 1.17.7 only since 1982, even though baptism as a pre-requisite for Holy Communion is rooted in the earliest part of the early Christian church. It appears that explicitly stating the tradition in the Episcopal Church canons happened due a legislative compromise between two competing resolutions. At the 1982 meeting of convention in New Orleans, deputies and bishops faced two resolutions dealing with the canon titled “Of Regulations Respecting the Laity” (then numbered Canon 16 of Title I).
Resolution A48 (submitted by the Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations and available beginning on page 60 here) was prompted by a mandate from the 1979 convention that it show how the church could implement the then-six-year-old ecumenical statement, “Toward a Mutual Recognition of Members,” which called for an understanding that baptism initiates people into the entire Christian church, according to the 1989 supplement to Edwin White and Jackson Dykman’s classic Annotated Constitution and Canons (available via a link here).
Resolution A78 (submitted by the Standing Liturgical Commission and available beginning on page 154 here) was based more specifically on the understanding that the Episcopal Church now considered baptism to be one’s entrance into the full life of the church. (In many, if not most, parts of the Anglican Communion, confirmation is still required before receiving communion.)
“The two resolutions reflected specific persuasions and purposes that differed sharply,” the supplement’s authors wrote. “Deputy Charles Crump of Tennessee, sensing the problems inherent in these proposals and the vast legislative time and debate which would be consumed on the floors of each House, crafted Resolution A048 as a compromise.”
The changes reflected in all three resolutions felt revolutionary to many. Allowing unconfirmed people to receive communion was a major change, as was the accompanying implication that children did not have to reach an undefined “age of reason” before coming to the altar rail.
The age tradition lingers in some families and in some parts of the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church is still working to rewrite its canons to conform to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer’s baptismal theology. A summary of some of that work done by the Standing Commission on Lifelong Christian Formation and Education begins on page 153 of this year’s Blue Book.
Still, the requirement of baptism before Eucharist remains and hearkens to the early church. For example, the Didache, a catechism dating from the late 1st or early 2nd century, tells Christians, “… but let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord …” And scholars suggest there is evidence from early church liturgical sources, including The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome that non-baptized members of the Christian community had to leave the eucharistic liturgy altogether after the proclamation of the word.
Carmichael would hearken to an even earlier source.
“This is our construction around this issue because Jesus never said you have to have baptism before you have dinner with me,” she said. “So, this is our mess that we’ve created and sometimes I wonder in the grand scheme of all things how much this really matters. When we get to heaven is Jesus going to be more excited that we invited people or is he going to be more excited that we said you can come, but you can’t?”
Wickenberg Ely in North Carolina places at least part of the issue against the question of diversity. “I think we’ve had the diversity conversation ad nauseum but, I don’t think we’ve had it in the context in the open table,” she said in an interview. “To me that’s about diversity, so who are were going to leave out? The answer, the biblical answer to that is: [leave out] nobody who wants to come.”
The open-table issue is also part of the Episcopal Church’s struggle “about who are we as a church in the 21st century,” she said.
Wickenberg Ely noted that many people who come to church are often “looking to be welcomed wherever they go and whatever they believe.” Yet, there are some churches that say “if you are to be a member of our community in Christ this entails discipline and commitment, so that belonging is not just by virtue of being a child of God, but it is by virtue of being willing to pledge yourself to this way of being of a child of God,” she said, adding that this is the stance of the Roman Catholic church.
The Episcopal Church could be “known as a church that is welcoming of anyone at the Lord’s Table, willing to entertain questions, willing to dialogue with people of all beliefs and no beliefs — a generous stance as a church,” she suggested.
“Do we want to be known as a church like that going into the future? Or do we want to be known as a church that has some boundaries, [legal and canonical] expectations, also with [practice] and educational expectations, or do we want to be in the middle?” she asked. “I mean, who are we going to wind up being? This is just one of the things about that big discussion in my mind.”
Those questions frame up an even larger context for the communion issue. Removing the baptismal requirement for participation in communion would undoubtedly have major ecumenical implications. In 2008 the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations rooted its opposition to an open table in the once-revolutionary recognition of a common baptism, noting that that acceptance “has made ecumenical ventures possible.”
In The Vision Before Us the commission warned that “a move toward the official communion of the non-baptized undercuts, threatens, and in the end denies basic ecumenical tenets.” The members also noted that Anglican credibility in ecumenical conversations is threatened when Anglican texts say one thing, but practice suggests another.
“The practice of admitting non-baptized people to the Eucharist overthrows a century of ecumenical insight and growth,” they conclude.
The women who called St. Mark’s looking for support has been coming to the parish regularly, and Carmichael said the two of them have “regular conversations about how she can become more involved in the community and that that includes, when she’s ready, the decision to be baptized.”
“It’s not a prerequisite to being able to participate in community life, but that it is an adult decision about her faith and that I am happy to walk in the journey with her when she’s ready,” Carmichael said.
Read more about it
Here is a selected list of additional resources (beyond those linked to above) about the issue of unbaptized people receiving communion:
“Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” (Faith and Order Paper No. 111, the ‘Lima Text’), World Council of Churches Faith and Order commission (1982)
Open, the journal of the Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Music, essays
- “Baptism and eucharist: challenges,” now-Diocese of Upper South Carolina Bishop Andrew Waldo (2000)
- “Baptism and communion,” the Rev. Dr. Stephen Reynolds (2001).
Anglican Theological Review essays
- “Baptism, Eucharist, and the Hospitality of Jesus: On the Practice of ‘Open Communion,'” the Rev. James Farwell (2004)
- “In Praise of Open Communion: A Rejoinder to James Farwell,” Dr. Kathryn Tanner (2004)
- “A Brief Reflection on Kathryn Tanner’s Response to ‘Baptism, Eucharist, and the Hospitality of Jesus,‘” the Rev. James Farwell (2005)
- “Opening the Table: The Body of Christ and God’s Prodigal Grace,” the Rev. Stephen Edmondson (2009).
- “Who May Be Invited to the Table?,” the Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers (2012)
- “Discerning Open Table in Community and Mission,” the Rev. Donald Schell (2012)
- “Following Jesus Outside: Reflections on the Open Table,” Diocese of Ohio Bishop Thomas E. Breidenthal (2012)
— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.
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