This is the second of a three-part article.
By Derek Olsen
So—why would people within our church argue for a change in our practice and therefore in our theology? What makes this worth doing? My sense is that many of the people who are for Communion Without Baptism, especially those who are not career theologians and who haven’t thought about it long and hard, many of them aren’t trying to change our sacramental theology. Instead what they’re trying to do is to establish Episcopal identity and any negative effect on the sacraments just happens to be collateral damage.
I don’t believe I have to tell anyone here that we are existing within a polarized church. Strident voices from both extremes are trying their hardest to define and redefine what it means to be the Episcopal Church. And locating that definition is a challenge because of some sociological and demographic realities about our make-up. Religion in America in the twenty-first century is a marketplace environment. According to the Pew Research Center almost half of all American adults have changed their religious affiliation sometime in their life. Perception, marketing, and identity all shift together as denominations wrestle with who they are, how they present themselves, and how they’d like to be perceived. I don’t have any scientific numbers on this, but—anecdotally—many of the current Episcopalians I know were raised something more rigid. Either they were Roman Catholic or were a more extreme form of Protestant. As a result, one of the reasons that they have come to the Episcopal Church is because it is perceived to be a more inclusive and less exclusive church than the one they left. This is certainly a perception that our national church leadership seems to be encouraging: the Episcopal Church is the Inclusive Church. As a result, practices that seem to be at odds with this new self-identity can be seen as suspect. Limiting communion to the baptized is exclusive, they will argue.
We have to walk a careful line here. On one hand we do want to affirm the openness that has historically been one of our strengths as Anglicans. We seek to make no windows into men’s souls. We do want to affirm a generous inclusion. On the other hand, a policy of openness that refuses the legitimacy of any boundaries, of any limits is not freedom and inclusiveness but ultimately self-destructive license. How do we affirm a welcoming openness and yet insist on properly maintained relationships?
Perhaps one way is through the recognition of the clergy as the stewards of the mysteries of God. At your ordination, you are called to be the stewards of the mysteries of God. Now, this role has several different aspects to it. The first is that the steward is not the porter. As you may know, back in the days when we had nine ecclesiastical grades and clerks in minor orders, one of the earliest grades was the porter. This person’s job was to keep the door and make sure that only the right people got in. Needless to say, we don’t have this function anymore and it’s not one that we intend to take over either. No one is proposing that we have an altar lock-down where each person who comes up has to scan their baptism pass before they’re allowed to commune. Certain proponents of the practice conjure up a caricature of a religious police state where people like us carefully scan the crowd lest one person slip through and get some Jesus when they’re not suppose to. And that’s really not the point. I don’t have an issue with the accidental and occasional communing of the unbaptized—what I take issue with is a standing policy.
Ok, so, if the steward is not the porter than who exactly are they? There are those who will argue that Jesus is the Host of the table and, since it is his table and not ours, Jesus is the only one qualified to call or turning away the guests at his Paschal feast. They are right on the first point: Jesus is the Host. However, since the time of Paul and likely before, the clergy have been appointed as stewards. A steward is a member of the household who stands in when the host cannot be present with his guests. The steward both ensures that there are sufficient supplies on hand, but also makes sure that everything proceeds according to the host’s will. These days, one of the most important roles of the steward is to explain basic etiquette.
Etiquette and the habits of hospitality are a two way street. In most classical cultures there are well-defined rules that lay out the obligations between the guest and the host. There were certain things that the host had to do and, in turn, there were certain things that the guest was required to do. For instance in Norse cultures the guest was expected to bring a gift to honor his host. The host would also give a gift .However, if the guest’s gift was more lavish than what his host provided, it was regarded as an insult. Breaches of the rules of hospitality could be a cause for a feud or even war. Indeed, according to Homer’s account of the Trojan War, Paris’s crime of kidnapping Helen was multiplied many times by his betrayal of the sacred rules of hospitality.
These days Americans tend have an atrophied sense of etiquette. When visitors enter an Episcopal Church for the first time they may have no idea what they are about to experience. They will be understandably ignorant of our code of conduct. Thus, the attentive steward has a responsibility to lay out the ground rules for proper behavior: “All baptized Christians are welcome to receive the Eucharist in this church. If you do not wish to receive or are not baptized please come forward and cross your arms over your chest to receive a blessing. If you’re interested in being baptized please find one of the clergy afterward and we’d be happy to discuss it with you.” With as few words as these, you will have discharged your basic duty as a steward. At this point your role as steward has been fulfilled. Now the obligations of hospitality have been transferred to the guests. If they choose to abuse your hospitality then it will be by conscious choice and not through ignorance. In this way we maintain a stance that is open and welcoming, yet clear. Not only have we followed the rules of hospitality, we have empowered the stranger to do the same.
Now, before the offertory at the parish where I attend, every Sunday, the priest stands before the congregation. And he invites people no matter where they are on their spiritual journey, no matter whether they are baptized or unbaptized, confirmed or unconfirmed—to join us in the parish hall after Mass for coffee. Yes, it’s true; at my parish we observe open coffee. There is no rail around our coffee table and that’s the way it ought to be. The purpose of the coffee hour is to have joyful fellowship in one another’s presence and to have a more or less symbolic sip and a snack. There is no commitment either stated or implied in this little ritual unless it’s the responsibility to throw away your plate and your cup once you’re done. And, fundamentally, this is the difference between the parish hall and the sanctuary: the coffee doesn’t cost you anything. But when we are called to the supper of the Lamb a little more is expected; “When Christ calls a man,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “he bids him come and die.” And Bonhoeffer, of course, wrote the truth of those words in his own blood.
This is the shadow side of the steward. This is the flip-side of the obligation. If the sacrament is only a bit of symbolic nourishment like a cookie and a cup of coffee then we would be silly for keeping anyone from the table. But the sacrament is a deeper walk upon the way of the cross. Once again taking into yourself the call to take up the cross and to follow Christ to his bitter destination. Yes, a resurrection lies beyond but there is no route to an empty tomb that does not lead through the Good Friday. If the Eucharist means more, is more, than coffee and a cookie—and we believe it is—than as steward of the mysteries you have woefully abdicated your responsibilities if you have not warned each one who approaches what awaits them at the table. It would be one thing if the churches where Communion without Baptism is practiced regularly used the exhortation in the prayer book to alert their visitors as to the nature of the meal before them—but I’ve never heard it in such a context. (Of course, speaking of the exhortation, it might not be a bad idea if the baptized were to be reminded of it from time to time as well; you’ll find it on page 316 of your prayer book with the Rite I Penitential Order in case you’ve misplaced it…)
Truth be told, Bonhoeffer is one of our allies as we try and maintain our balance. The theological principle that lies at the heart of inclusion is grace. God’s grace is generous and free, the unmerited love of a good God. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and yet the God of grace calls tenderly to each of us in the midst of our unworthiness. And yet, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, the proclamation of grace is an incomplete proclamation of the Gospel of Christ. Unalloyed and unbalanced, the proclamation of grace can become the cheap grace of which Bonhoeffer warns: “the preaching of forgiveness not requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Indeed, Bonoeffer writing in the late Thirties laid the pitiful resistance of the German church against the Nazi regime to a proclamation of grace without cost. He writes, “We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation unasked and without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving. We poured forth unending streams of grace. But the call to follow Jesus in the Narrow way was hardly ever heard.” Inclusion—yes. The love and acceptance of God—yes. But cheap grace, grace without cost, grace without response—no. This we cannot abide.
Grace must be balanced with discipleship and this is the harm of Communion without Baptism. It represents the offer of intimacy without commitment, love without cost and that, right there, is the crime—for the cost is Christ.
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.