By Derek Olsen
The practice of Communion without Baptism has been making its way into discussions in and around the Episcopal Church over the last few years. Put at its most basic, this is the practice of offering the Eucharist to anyone without distinction whether they have been baptized or not. I prefer this term over “open communion” because of the potential confusion about what it means. When I was growing up Lutheran one of the main differences between my LCA Church and the Missouri Synod is that we had “open communion” and they didn’t. In this context it meant that you didn’t have to be confirmed in that church and notify the pastor the week before that you would be receiving. So, in the interest of clarity, I prefer “Communion without Baptism.”
In our polarized church it should come as no surprise that there is a vocal minority who’s for it and advocates it fairly strongly; and there’s an equally vocal minority that is against it. And so the minorities argue a lot with each other. Due to this argument, though, the issue as a whole is coming to the awareness of the broad majority who had never really thought about it. They’re not really sure why it matters or if it matters. In my experience, many of the folks in the broad majority are willing to give you a hearing as they haven’t quite made up their minds. They’re open to gentle persuasion as long as you make a case that makes sense.
The place where we have to begin, of course, is with the very basics—why does this matter at all? As far as most Episcopalians are concerned this isn’t about changing our official teachings, it’s just about a liturgical detail. And if it’s just about a liturgical detail, what’s the big deal?
The big deal is this: liturgical changes shouldn’t be brushed off so easily. Too many in our church—too many clergy as well as lay leaders—treat liturgy and theology as two different things. And the truth is that they’re not. Liturgy and theology are two sides of the same coin. And for this discussion to make sense, for people to know why it matters, this is where you’ve got to start.
One fundamental truth that we know is that actions speak louder than words. If you want to know what people believe, you have to look at what they do. We just finished an election cycle, right? And each election is a new reminder: if you want to know what a politician believes you have to ignore their pronouncements, pomposity, and pandering and look at their legislation. Just so with the church: if you want to know what a congregation believes, look at their liturgy. Liturgy is not some kind of neutral, non-theological entity. Instead the two are bound so tightly that they cannot be separated. They are two sides of the same coin. In fact, the best definition for liturgy that I’ve been able to come up with is this: Liturgy is the kinetic expression of the gathered community’s theology. What we do, shows what we believe. As I’m so fond of saying, we don’t do a solemn high mass because we like it, we do it because it’s what we believe. We don’t wear chasubles and dalmatics and tunicles and swing around incense because it’s fun (although it is…), we do it because each of these elements contributes to a greater understand of what our worship is, the one to whom it is directed, and the part we play in that relationship. We do it because it means something.
I’ve got a mother-in-law who’s a former Roman Catholic and now a very protestant Presbyterian. She doesn’t understand why my wife and I are in to all of this stuff—the vestments, the bells, Mary—in her mind it’s all the “trappings of religion.” And it can be. That’s the danger. If we do it because we think that it’s cool or exotic then—she’s right: it is just trappings. If we do it because we believe that it is the visible, sensible, kinetic expression of what we believe about ourselves, our community, and our God, then she’s wrong—it is part and parcel of how we incarnate the faith.
So—liturgy is the kinetic expression of the gathered community’s theology. The corollary to this, is that liturgical changes signal theological changes. When we alter something in the liturgy, when we change something about our sacramental practice, we have made a theological change. It isn’t necessarily a very big change, but a change has been made, and our beliefs are represented differently now 1) whether we know it or not—and 2) whether we intend it or not.
And that’s actually the problem here. When clergy and vestries fail to grasp the connection between liturgy and theology, what we do and what we believe, then we as a church can be led into all sorts of mischief that no one necessarily intended. I think that some people who practice Communion Without Baptism don’t realize the effect that their actions are having on their theology.
This problem is compounded by the fact that one liturgical change doesn’t necessarily equate to one theological change. It’s not as tidy as that. Instead, Christian theology, especially catholic theology, is a web of doctrine. It is a carefully knit system of interrelated beliefs. As a result. if you change something over here, then it changes something else over here. Just like a spider web—if you move one part of it, the rest of it shifts too, however subtly. And this is precisely the situation that we find ourselves in today. One change in our sacramental practice—that is, how we choose to announce how we distribute communion—doesn’t just have an impact on our Eucharistic theology, it impacts our sacramental theology as a whole, our ecclesiology, and ultimately our Christology. That’s a lot of changes—especially if we don’t realize that we’re doing them!
Ok—if I’m going to insist that we shouldn’t make this change, that we should maintain the way that we have things now, I need to explain why we have things the way we do now and why it matters. A little bit of what I’m going to say is specifically small c-catholic but most of it isn’t—most of it is just basic Christian theology derived from the Bible that Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and most mainline Protestant folks hold too. Specifically, we’re talking the Pauline parts of the New Testament and we’ll be leaning on Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Ephesians for it.
At the center of this discussion stands one phrase—three little words in English, two in Greek: soma Christou, the Body of Christ. This is one of Paul’s most important phrases and, although non-Pauline texts don’t use it nearly as much as Paul does, the principles that he lines out can easily be found scattered throughout the New Testament with special concentrations in the Gospel and Letters of John and 1 Peter. Now—the Pauline texts use the phrase “Body of Christ” in several different ways and that’s deliberate. It is a deliberately multivalent concept and it’s specifically these multiple meanings that serve to connect our Eucharistic theology, our baptismal theology, our ecclesiology and our Christology,
Here’s how this works. We begin with salvation. Salvation, for Paul, is not about going somewhere when you die. That’s not the point. Instead, it’s about identity, who and what you’re a part of. That’s what Galatians is all about. To enter the community of promise, must you become Jewish first? No, says Paul; Baptism is the key. On one hand baptism is a public ritual that brings us into a certain community which is the social Body of Christ. This is the Church. On the other hand, by participating in this ritual we are brought into the mystical Body of Christ and, as Colossians puts it, we are buried with him in baptism and hid with Christ in God. And it’s that connection with the mystical Body which seems to be salvation for Paul. We are saved from death and sin by putting off our old life along with its old death and are plugged into a whole new life, a whole new energy source, which is the inexhaustible life of God. Those who are in Christ participate in both social and mystical dimensions with one another as well which is the Communion of Saints unbound by time and place. So Baptism is the rite that draws us into the mystical Body of Christ which is expressed visibly within the social Body of Christ which is the Church. This connection is then renewed and nourished by the Eucharistic Body of Christ which, within the Eucharistic tradition handed on in 1 Cor 11, functions to affirm the fundamental continuity between, the physical Body of Christ which suffered and died upon Calvary, the eschatological Body of Christ when he comes in glory to consummate all in all, and the pneumatic Body of Christ which is the current experience of his presence within the assembled fellowship. But—none of that renewal and nourishing makes sense without Baptism as the fundamental first step. So—Baptism connects us to the social Body of Christ which is the Church and the mystical Body of Christ which is the life of God, then Eucharist nourishes that relationship that already exists. Baptism is our sacrament of inclusion, the one that joins us to the Body; Eucharist is our sacrament of intimacy which nourishes and deepens the relationship.
Intimacy and growth are about commitment. Our embrace into the church gives us a social location where this commitment is strengthened and nurtured. Without the commitment, this promised growth simply cannot and does not happen.
This is the catholic position. This is where we stand. To alter this set of relationships is to disrupt the logic between them and among them. To drop Baptism out of the picture is to create a whole new picture altogether.
Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.
This is a portion of a presentation to the Annual Convention of the Society of Catholic Priests. The purpose of the presentation was to foster discussion within the Society concerning the present controversy around Episcopal Eucharistic practice. Members of the Society tend toward the current canonical stance but are committed to a genuine and respectful dialogue, and the presentation led to an open and interesting conversation marked by charity and civility even with some disagreement. We hope that these remarks may foster a similar charitable dialogue within our church.