This is the third of a three-part article.
By Derek Olsen
Perhaps the greatest issue that I have with Communion Without Baptism is that too often it is framed on an individual and individualistic level. The focus is on an individual who happens to enter a church building and who comes up to the altar to receive. But the catholic construction of the sacramental life is fundamentally bound up with the connections between the mystical, social, eschatological, Eucharistic, and pneumatic bodies of Christ. The sacramental life is a community activity with a communal purpose.
When we begin thinking and talking about Christian community, my knee-jerk reaction is to go back to St Benedict. Benedict’s rule for monks has served as an enduring reflection on the construction and maintenance of Christian community, one that has been grounding and inspiring Christian communal life for over fifteen hundred years. Benedict’s communities are formed around three fundamental principles which, late in the Rule, appear as the monastic vows: they are stability, obedience, and conversion of life or habits. Although these concepts aren’t laid out explicitly until late in the text, the whole Rule is shot through with them. In the very first chapter of the Rule, Benedict lays out the four kinds of monks. The first are the anchorites, the hermits; this is the kind that most of his readers think they want to be. Benedict raises them only to dismiss them, however! He says, these are the monks who have been cenobites (monks who live in a community) for a long time so we won’t talk about them… Then he goes to two other kinds of monks, the gyrovagues and the sarabites. Gyrovagues are monks who are constantly wandering from place to place and who don’t owe obedience to a either a rule or an abbot. The sarabites are a little better—they stay in one place but they do not have a consistent obedience. Without either a rule or an abbot, they change their practices on a whim. The result, Benedict says, is that “they have a character as soft as lead.” The fourth type of monk, the cenobite, is defined in contrast to the others. They stay in one place and owe obedience to both a rule and an abbot. The result is that they are the strongest kind of monk.
What Benedict had done in this initial discussion was to frame a discussion of identity focused on the concept of purpose. With his characterization of the types of monks, he establishes that his three principles fit within a particular hierarchy. Stability is the base; without stability, nothing is possible. But stability by itself is not enough. For the sarabites who have stability, any virtue that they acquire is accidental because they lack obedience which is spiritual stability. Only when a community is grounded in physical stability and spiritual stability are the prerequisites in place that enable conversion of life in Benedict’s program.
See, Benedict starts by identify the key principles, the virtues, that will produce a certain product. He builds them in at the very beginning at the Rule are built in at the very beginning. Without establishing at the beginning the foundations, we’ll end up like the gryovage or the sarabites—any virtue that gets acquired is merely accidental. If we want to produce a result, we have to plan for it, and set up the conditions that will allow it to flourish. We have to envision the product that we’re going to produce. So what is it that the church is trying to produce?
Again, the answer is laid out in Scripture. In Ephesians 4 we find the Pauline vision of the fundamental purpose of the social Body of Christ:
“The gifts [Jesus] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. . . . But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Eph 4:11-13, 15-16)
Our fundamental goal is that the Body of Christ should come to participate in the Mind of Christ working corporately in the love of Christ.
Now, what does this have to do with Communion Without Baptism? It comes down to commitment; it comes down to stability, both physical and spiritual. The Eucharistic transformation into the Mind of Christ happens within the context of a community—the Baptismal community which is the Body of Christ. If we don’t emphasize the community and our need for it, and its place in forming Christian character then we are simply inviting to be gyrovagues and sarabites without inviting them to a more excellent way.
We understand the sacraments as means of grace. These are the ordinary channels laid down in Scripture and tradition through which God showers transforming grace into our common life. When we embrace the sacraments in their proper relations as the foundational prerequisites for the life of grace we are setting up the conditions to move the Body of Christ towards the Mind of Christ.
Now, what I don’t want to do is to deny the existence of extraordinary grace. That is to say, we believe that God has laid down ordinary means through which we can be certain that grace functions. However, these ordinary means are not limits on God. God can function outside of these and we must be attentive to where and how God is acting. Proponents of Communion Without Baptism suggest that our emphasis on the ordinary means of grace is an attempt to nullify or quench the Spirit’s action through extraordinary means. And they can produce anecdotal examples of those whose lives have been transformed outside of these channels by means of Communion Without Baptism. My concern is that Communion Without Baptism, on the basis of anecdotal examples, seeks to overhaul the ordinary economy of grace and replace it with extraordinary. But whittling away the virtues, the habits, the guides that shape our behavior—the fundamental need for commitment—they place the unsuspecting into the role of the sarabite and the gyrovague.
Where, then, does that leave us? If we ignore the extraordinary means of grace, we may be ignoring how God is working in our midst. If we ignore the ordinary means of grace, we turn our backs on ways that God has indisputably been working in our midst. At the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding. The church, the institutional body shaped by sacraments, expressing physically our common life in Christ has a purpose. The purpose is transforming the Body of Christ according to the Mind of Christ. It is conversion of life. It is embodying the incarnate call to love of God and neighbor. At the end of the day we must watch and ask—what patterns are most conducive to discipleship, to formation, to the construction and increase of embodied love?
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.