Sacramental Theology 101: Baptism and Eucharist

by Derek Olsen

The Episcopal Church is a big-tent organization when it comes to theology. This is often a good thing as it allows a whole bunch of us who don’t necessarily agree on everything to come together, worship, and proclaim Jesus together in the world. On the other hand, when we do need to sit down and sort something out theologically, we’re sometimes at a loss for how to do it because of a fundamental lack of agreement about terms. This has been my experience around the “Communion without Baptism” debate. I come to the table from a Prayer Book Catholic perspective; certain words, terms, and ideas mean certain things to me and those with whom I live and worship. But when I talk with other Episcopalians, I sometimes get the sense that we’re talking past one another due to a lack of shared conceptual framework.

The “big tent” brings us together despite our differences; but can it help us understand each other? Actually—I think it can…

The prime mechanism of the “big tent” is the Book of Common Prayer—this is what we use together and what does give us a set of shared expressions (even if we don’t always entirely agree on what those expressions mean!). Likewise, it contains a variety of materials that I think can assist us when we try to talk God with one another.

Towards the back of the prayer book is a catechism (pp. 845-62). It’s a brief little thing, just under twenty pages, but it provides a basic outline of the faith that is fundamental enough that all Episcopalians—no matter their party affiliation—can get behind it.

Working solely from the catechism, I’d like to explore what the prayer book says that Episcopalians believe about the sacraments—particularly Baptism and Eucharist—and see if these can help us get a better sense of the issues surrounding a church policy that programmatically ignores Baptism when it comes to eucharistic distribution.

First, a quick word about the catechism: we must note what it is, and what it isn’t. The brief introduction on p. 844 clarifies this for us: “It is a commentary on the creeds, but is not meant to be a complete statement of belief and practices; rather, it is a point of departure for the teacher…” It’s not intended to be comprehensive and there are important parts of Christian theology that it either glosses or skips over entirely. Nevertheless, being yoked to the creeds, it touches on essential points and gives us the best possible opportunity for broad buy-in.

We have to start at the very beginning and go from there:

Q. What are we by nature?
A. We are part of God's creation, made in the image of God.

Q. What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
A. It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.

Q. Why then do we live apart from God and out of harmony with creation?
A. From the beginning, human beings have misused their freedom and made wrong choices. (p. 845)

So—all humanity is created in the image of God. God loves us all. Period. Full stop. Furthermore, God wants us to “live in harmony with creation and with God.” God is attempting to reconcile us all to himself and, through that reconciliation, to the whole created order. God calls to us in a variety of ways and through a variety of means. Despite this, we find through the pages of the Old Testament that there is one particular method that God continually chooses to use in the task of reconciling humanity back to himself: the covenant.
Q. What is meant by a covenant with God?
A. A covenant is a relationship initiated by God, to which a body of people responds in faith. (p. 846)

God calls us both individually and collectively, but in particular God likes to make covenants wherein a whole body of people respond in faith. There are a number of important covenants in Scripture: God’s covenant with Noah and all flesh, the covenant with Abraham and all his descendants, the covenant with Moses and all Israel, the covenant with David.

God’s ultimate act of covenant-making, however, was a covenant made in and through the blood of Jesus and his victory over the grave:

Q. How can we share in [Jesus’s] victory over sin, suffering, and death?
A. We share in his victory when we are baptized into the New Covenant and become living members of Christ.

Q. What is the New Covenant?
A. The New Covenant is the new relationship with God given by Jesus Christ, the Messiah, to the apostles; and, through them, to all who believe in him.

Q. What did the Messiah promise in the New Covenant?
A. Christ promised to bring us into the kingdom of God and give life in all its fullness.

Q. What response did Christ require?
A. Christ commanded us to believe in him and to keep his commandments. (pp. 850-1)

Many of the early covenant communities were something that you had to be born into; the New Covenant through Jesus is different. We enter into it through Baptism.

Now—stop for a second. Look back up the page. We said at the outset of our catechism crawl that God made us all in his image, that he loves us all, and that he is seeking our full reconciliation back to him. None of that has changed here. No one is saying that God only loves the baptized. What the catechism is saying is that Baptism ushers us into a particular covenant community. As such, it is a particular community who has chosen to acknowledge a certain kind of relationship with God that both claims a specific promise from God (“a new relationship”, “coming into the kingdom of God”, “life in all its fullness”)and that in response the community takes upon itself certain obligations (“believe in [Christ]”, “keep his commandments”). Baptism, therefore, is a deliberate and public change of our relationship with God by entering into a specific covenant community.

In case there’s any question we’ll pick up this one just to connect all the dots:

Q. What is the Church?
A. The Church is the community of the New Covenant. (p. 854)

No surprise there!

Since we’re getting pretty deep into Baptism, it’s time to focus on the sacraments themselves:

Q. What are the sacraments?
A. The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.

Q. What is grace?
A. Grace is God's favor toward us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.

Q. What are the two great sacraments of the Gospel?
A. The two great sacraments given by Christ to his Church are Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. (p. 858)

Ok, we need to be quite careful here about exactly what is and isn’t said—this is where some major confusion can come in. First, it’s worth repeating this line again: “Grace is God's favor toward us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” (The former Lutheran in me loves this line!) Second—and this is really important—note carefully this wording: “The sacraments are…given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” The key words are “sure and certain means.” What we never ever say here or intend here is that the sacraments are the only or the sole means by which God dispenses grace. To say that is truly to put God in a little box! God is free to dispense his free, unearned and undeserved gifts of grace in any way that he sees fit. It’s not our job to oversee this. What it is our job to do, however, is to “believe in him and to keep his commandments.”

What is particular about sacramental grace is that it is a “sure and certain means of grace.” We don’t know all of the ways and means and methods through which God dispenses grace—however we do know for sure that the sacraments are channels that God has given to us as a covenant community to convey his own grace. We don’t own it, but it has been promised to us, it has been given to the Church—the covenant community—that we might be stewards of it according to God’s commands.

Q. What is Holy Baptism? A. Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ's Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.

. . .

Q. What is the inward and spiritual grace in Baptism?
A. The inward and spiritual grace in Baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God's family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit. (p. 858)


Baptism’s grace brings us into a particular instantiation of God’s family, the Church, among other things. This family is not a generic group that includes all the created but is a specific grouping of the covenant community as made clear in the identification of the communion of the saints which shares with the previous point the terminology of God’s family:
Q. What is the communion of saints?
A. The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise. (p. 862)

What distinguishes this family is precisely the bond with Christ through “sacrament” (pre-eminently Baptism) as well as “prayer, and praise.”

The Eucharist, then, is described thusly:

Q. What is the Holy Eucharist? A. The Holy Eucharist is the sacrament commanded by Christ for the continual remembrance of his life, death, and resurrection, until his coming again.

. . .

Q. What is the inward and spiritual grace given in the Eucharist?
A. The inward and spiritual grace in the Holy Communion is the Body and Blood of Christ given to his people, and received by faith.

Q. What are the benefits which we receive in the Lord's Supper?
A. The benefits we receive are the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life. (pp. 859-60)


The language here is the language of building on something previous. The Eucharist is the gift to Christ’s people who are best understood not as “everybody” or “those whom Christ loves” (which is, again, “everybody”) but more specifically those “[united] with Christ in his death and resurrection, [born] into God's family the Church” (p. 858)—i.e., the baptized. Following on the language of union in Baptism is the statement that the Eucharist is a “strengthening of our union with Christ and one another” (p. 860); what was begun in Baptism is nourished and nurtured in the Eucharist. The language here concerning the Eucharist assumes Baptism in both the identification of the community and the benefits of the specific Eucharistic graces.

I would be remiss if I did not include one more section on the Eucharist:

Q. What is required of us when we come to the Eucharist?
A. It is required that we should examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people. (p. 860)

On one hand, I know that some will point out that “being baptized” is not included in this list; that’s true. However, the items on this list are not a set of ecclesial pre-conditions, but rather a set of spiritual dispositions. (Indeed, they were pretty much taken directly from the Exhortation to confession on p. 330 which itself was taken directly from earlier prayer books that explicitly required Confirmation before receiving the Eucharist.) On the other hand, while Baptism is not mentioned explicitly, we must ask ourselves if the casual un-churched attendee has had the time and opportunity for the examination and repentance directed here. Repentance for sin in particular is largely a spiritual discipline of the Church.

This having been said, I believe that we can construct from the catechism a set of basic principles around our use and practice of the sacraments that all Anglicans can agree on. I’ll number them for ease of reference:

1. God loves all who were created in his image—period.
2. God calls us to reconciliation with himself and with creation.
3. Historically, God’s preeminent channels for calling humanity to reconciliation are covenants through which covenant communities are created.
4. A covenant community is a deliberate body that has taken upon itself obligations as part of recognizing a particular relationship with God has initiated and that the community has both recognized and accepted.
5. The Church generally and the Episcopal Church specifically is a covenant community the entrance into which is Baptism.
6. Baptism is not a sign that God loves the baptized more than other people, nor is it a denial that God loves those who are not baptized. 7. Baptism is both a sign and an agent of a changed relationship with God wherein the baptized community recognizes a particular relationship with the Triune God through Baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus and takes on the obligations that Jesus laid upon us (preeminently, to love God and love our neighbor and to keep his commandments—see p. 851)
8. Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ that itself points back to the Body of Christ entered into through Baptism.
9. There are sacramental graces conferred through Baptism and Eucharist that aid us in living deeper into the covenant relationship established with the Triune God through Baptism into Jesus and the on-going reception of his Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
10. Sacramental grace is not the only kind of grace there is, but is a sure and certain means of grace given to a particular covenant community for the strengthening of the bonds of that covenant.
11. Reception of the Eucharist occurs within the covenant community and within the context of the spiritual disciplines of the covenant community.
Now, as a self-professed Anglo-Catholic, there’s a whole lot more that I’d want to say and add in—but I won’t; I’m not trying to lay out an Anglo-Catholic theology of the Sacraments but a broadly Episcopal one which I can live with as can my Evangelical and Broad-Church friends.

That having been said, I can’t and won’t resist the temptation to throw out these few points:

A. The Church is the covenant community entered into through Baptism.
B. Apart from the covenant in Baptism, receiving the Eucharist just doesn’t make much sense! Why would anyone want to be strengthened in a very specific kind of relationship that they have not chosen to be a part of?
C. The call for Communion Without Baptism fundamentally confuses our understanding of both God’s love and God’s grace. People don’t need Baptism or the Eucharist to be loved by God—God already does that. Nor is the grace given in the Sacrament some kind of generic “divine good favor.” Rather, Sacramental grace is grace to better inhabit and more fully embody the covenant relationship created in Baptism.
D. I don’t control God’s grace distribution; he does that as he pleases. However the sure and certain grace in the sacrament is given to and embodied within a particular covenant community. We don’t possess it, per se, but we are stewards of it. We dispense it as we have received it—within the covenant community.
E. What we are called to do—one of those pesky commandments of Christ, in fact—is to invite people into the covenant community so that they can share in this particular relationship with God and be nurtured into reconciliation with God as we know and grasp the Triune God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a).


Dr. Derek Olsen has a Ph.D. in New Testament and Homiletics at Emory University. Currently serving as Theologian-in-Residence at the Church of the Advent, Baltimore, he leads quiet days and is a speaker to clergy groups. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics. A layman working in the IT field, Derek created and maintains the online Daily Office site The St. Bede's Breviary. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Comments (35)

Thank you, Derek, for a well-written, well-laid-out and well-reasoned exposition on this issue.

So, with that historical understanding of the individually accepted "call" into a covenant community, why don't we add-hear to that practice or process rigorously in our parishes today. It seems to me we have trivialized the entire Episcopalian / Anglican community by accepting all at the Eucharistic Table without expectation.

It seems to me the previous path to the Communion Table was predictable, expected and provided for. That "predictable expectation" is no longer in the forefront of our covenantal community. As if to say all come all served, no questions asked, no expectation of personal examination, no demonstration of adherence to the Covenant? So, in the appearance of accepting everyone...we have become a reflection of society rather than and influence on society.

Seems we have left the Catechism, as well as the Creeds and the Articles of Faith, hidden in the "back of the book".

I would like to see a document which not only repeats the Catechism but includes the scripture references to each answer. Without some guides pointing us towards Scripture to support the answers…the answers seem merely “a good idea” to the reader, to the uninitiated into the Covenant.

In our "big tent" theory...all are loved...but are all accepted by God in their "sin". Is it appropriate that "acceptance into the covenant community" is conditional on personal changes by repentance? Are we a healing sanctuary or a "holding place (for what period of time?) for those who have no recognized (accepted) perception of an error (or recognized but discounted) - while understanding they are loved as well.

Derek
As usual you have moved the discussion into a realm where informed dialog can begin. In my opinion this should be required reading for all delegates.

Well said, although by this reasoning, one might argue that we have trivialized baptism for even longer by similarly offering it without expectation. But I think a very good case can be made for the idea that either sacrament could be an avenue to deeper relationship with God and with the faithful community, and that making both paths available not only builds up the body, but puts into practice the kind of hospitality that is the hallmark of the reign of God community that we aspire to be.

When I was in seminary, Louis Weil remarked to our class that, although he hadn't yet come around to fully embracing open Communion, he recognized the strength of the argument for the mutuality of the sacraments, and noted that sharing table fellowship before deeper commitment to a community was the norm in human experience, when, for example, becoming part of a family.

I would suggest, not only the delegates, but also for the general membership...to prod them (us) into an awakened informed comment to the delegate(s) on what the membership expects of the delegates...assuming they (membership) actually expect something...presumes they are informed.

Andy - General Convention has Deputies not delegates. ~ed.

Thank you - this is so clearly reasoned and laid out.

Even if we finally get this issue wrong, God's going to forgive us because it's not like we didn't try really, really hard to figure it out.

Erik Campano

Derek: a question, please.

What are your thoughts relative to your essay above and the situation Peter found himself in Acts Chapter 10, at the home of Cornelius?

Gentiles were not suppose to be filled with the Holy Spirit, but they were. Peter accepted them.

Not to dismiss Baptism in any way, but could we not/should we not take a more pastoral approach to our current Cornelius situations?

Pax.

Kevin McGrane

Kevin: That's come up before. Note that the story itself concludes with this:

"Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?"

The fact that a gentile has received the Holy Spirit is seen, then, as cause to baptize him, to welcome him into the Church along with all the Jewish Christians who were already there. Also, there's not really anything in there about worship; Cornelius wants to see Peter so he can hear the Gospel, and then to become a part of this great new covenant.

And this point is still true: no one is excluded from this covenant, from baptism, because of who they are. Nor does it negate Derek's point, that the entrance to that covenant is baptism.

- Alex Scott

I also fail to see how it is "pastoral" to somehow not hold a person to a standard. Seriously, is it massivly burdensome to require Baptism?
A friend of mine tells the story of wanting to recieve, and sitting in the pew crying because she couldn't. One of the Priests finally asked her why she didn't get Baptised, which led to a pastoral moment where she unburdened herself and came to the font for Baptism.
Which is more pastoral, then: To let people toddle up and not face the questions of commitment and formation, or to open the way to enterance into the Community fully?

This reminds me of a story, a true story that actually happened to me. Awhile back I agreed to attend the Christmas Eve Mass at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church on Hillhouse Avenue if downtown New Haven, Connecticut. St. Mary’s is the birthplace of the Knights of Columbus, thus it is well tended and very conservative. During the announcements the priest presented most explicit instructions on who was and who was not to receive communion. He said as someone who was not a member of his church I could only receive a blessing from the priest. Since I was a guest in that church I was pleased to be able to receive a blessing. I stepped into line and was directed to another priest who was distributing communion. When I stood before the priest I followed instructions and folded my arms over my chest to indicate I wished to receive a blessing.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” asked the priest. “I’m just following instructions,” I said. “The priest said…” That was as far as I got before the priest placed some bread in my mouth and said “Merry Christmas!” Honestly, that was the best part of the liturgy, the part that made me feel I’d received a gift from God. That’s the thing about setting a universal policy on something like who shall receive communion: it is only as universal as the agreement of the people who enforce it. This suggests that no matter what action the General Convention takes on the issue of “Open Communion” relatively few clergy or congregations will change their current practice. Nor does anyone really expect that the current rules in place require clergy to check baptismal certificates at the altar rail.


I find it difficult to find the conflict between “The Church is the covenant community entered into through Baptism” and the practice of allowing those who are not yet baptized to receive communion. Yes, a person who is not yet baptized should be invited to join the church by being baptized. But since we “don’t control God’s grace distribution,” why should we play God and tell someone who is not yet baptized they are not yet welcome at God’s table? Isn’t the real problem here that some clergy are just not willing to live up to their responsibility to encourage folks to join the congregation by being baptized?

If we are going to live up to the “pesky commandments of Christ” then perhaps we should agree that some will come to baptism through Eucharist and spend our time at General Convention focused on inviting people into the community through baptism. Who knows, that approach might actually make a difference.

Kevin,

Alex took the words right out of my mouth... The surprise in Acts was that the Gentiles showed all of the signs of being fit members of the covenant community and were duly included with in it.

Thomas,
I certainly agree with this: Isn’t the real problem here that some clergy are just not willing to live up to their responsibility to encourage folks to join the congregation by being baptized? Not inviting people into full discipleship is and abdication of our responsibility (and I'd note that the laity have this job as well as the ordained...).

No one is interested in policing the altar rail or scanning baptismal certificates before reception. What is at issue, however, is a church-wide policy stating that baptism is unnecessary. Yes, accidents happen; yes, "pastoral" events occur; but should those be explicit policy? I certainly don't think so...

Perhaps a question to ask ourselves is this: Does God invite people to have occasional "special" moments or is God inviting us all into a relationship that will grow deeper and more intimate over time and do our liturgical practices call out and point to a sacramental growth into discipleship?

Derek - re: your last question -- yes.

Derek et al: Thank you for your comments! I appreciate them all. Allow me a thought or two.

Your walk-through of the catechism regarding the two sacraments was excellent. I must admit, though, that every time I see an air-tight explanation of a theological doctrine, Acts 10 keeps coming to mind.

Here was Peter, secure in his belief that to be among Gentiles was against God’s will, and that the gift of the Holy Spirit was only for the Jews. Yet he was confronted by the Holy Spirit and asked to go where he thought he was never to go and see what he never expected to see: a Gentile household that was blessed with the Holy Spirit. To his credit, he willingly bowed to the new experience of the Holy Spirit unfolding before him.

No doubt, the end of the chapter ends with Baptism [all Open Communion folks, please take note :) ], but two salient points arise from the text: God’s ways frequently are not what we expect, and we need to be flexible (aka “pastoral’) in our walk with the Holy Spirit.

No one comes to the Father unless the Father leads them. If someone appears at the altar rail, they are there because God lead them there. It is our Cornelius Moment. Peter didn’t get overly doctrinal about it; rather he quoted Jesus in Chapter 11: “John came baptizing with water, I came baptizing in the Holy Spirit.” Peter practiced “Include first, instruct later”. After they were baptized, he stayed with them for several days. I think we need to consider “include first, instruct later” whenever we have a Cornelius Moment.

Kevin McGrane

Kevin: I dunno, it actually does read to me more as "instruct, then include." Peter tells them his summary of the gospel, then the Holy Spirit comes to the Gentiles, then Peter has them all baptized. I'll also add that Cornelius had already developed a life of piety and charity, so he'd done half the preparation already.

And again, the inclusion is already there, in baptism. Any new Corneliuses are, as always, invited to learn the Gospel and be reborn through baptism into the Body of Christ. I don't think our present situation is really that unique. Peter lived in a culture surrounded by Corneliuses; Paul went to places dominated by Corneliuses; and churches in different countries in different times have themselves lived in worlds of Corneliuses.

I also think we need to be careful about where we think we see the Holy Spirit. Mystical writers always advise the reader to question internal stirrings or ideas or visions. It can be too easy to confuse it with our own preferences. My questions are, why does it fall on us to change this? Why now? Why this, specifically?

- Alex Scott

Derek,
You have done a commendable job of synthesizing the sacramental theology of the catechism. Your post offers a helpful compendium of a traditional Episcopal understanding of Baptismal and Eucharistic practice, and this compendium allows us to further a conversation about Jesus’ Eucharistic table. As you say, too often we talk past one another, and so your clarity perhaps will allow us to meet in conversation.

There are two pieces of this conversation that I want to address, and both are substantial enough to merit it’s own space—so I’ll begin with one and then offer a second response with the other.

Reflective practitioners of the Open Table believe, from my experience, that in their engagement with God’s word and sacrament, God has deepened their understanding of God’s grace—not just the fact of grace, but also how that grace works among us. The catechism is, by design, a rather thin rendition of the faith, but it does a fair job of capturing some of the boundaries that we have dwelt within in our expressions of our faith. Your post focuses on the theological boundaries that have been inherent in our sacramental practices. Those who practice an open table want to challenge those boundaries—not because we believe our sacramental practice should have no theological definition, but because these traditional boundaries are inadequate to the grace of God that we seek to describe.

A liturgical theology of the Open Table would challenge first the catechism’s understanding of the Eucharist—an understanding that limits the grace communicated through the Eucharist to those already baptized—that through the Eucharist “we receive the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet.” Surely this grace is communicated through Christ’s gift of himself at table, but is Christ’s grace and presence there limited to this? Or more, do we find these limits expressed in the Gospels?

You note our covenant with God is a relationship that God initiates, and to which we respond—but where in your understanding of sacraments is there space for that initiation by God? It seems that this initiation is the focal emphasis of the Christian faith—preeminently, that God so loved the world that God gave God’s son…. Is there room in our understanding of sacraments for the communication of God’s initiation of relationship in Jesus? Or more specifically, could it be that in Jesus’ gift of himself at table, we find precisely that initiation? That’s the testimony that many of us hear in the Gospels---that the focal point of Christ’s ministry was his presence at table with those who found themselves outside of God’s covenant—that through that presence, they found themselves suddenly included in the table fellowship of the covenant, not as an end in itself, but as a step towards their full inclusion in that fellowship if they would only join themselves to Jesus (…baptism).

You describe the Eucharist as a sacrament that builds on something previous, but what builds that something previous? I suppose we could answer baptism, but baptism already bears the character of a response---it is our choice to join ourselves to the grace, the reconciliation, the love that we’ve found in Jesus. Practitioners of the open table believe under the guidance of Scripture and the sacraments that we first encounter the love of Jesus at Table. That, to answer you question, is now the practice of the Open Table makes sense---it is a practice of the covenant community seeking to extend Jesus’ offer of covenant to all of God’s children by extending his offer of table fellowship. I don’t think this is a confused understanding of Grace—I think it’s the understanding that we find in the Gospels.

This liturgical theology of the open table would also want to deepen our understanding of Baptism, emphasizing more that through Baptism we are taken by the Spirit, we give over our agendas to God, and we join ourselves to Christ’s paschal mystery as we now offer ourselves to the world in, through, and with Christ. But this response is long enough, so I’ll leave it at that right now.

Stephen Edmondson

Derek,
A second comment, related to your understanding of covenant. I have a long-winded version of this comment, but my last comment was long enough—so I’ll keep it brief.
The Church is the community of the new covenant---so understanding the church should give us some insight into the content of that new covenant. Archbishop Temple once commented that “The church is the only society on earth that exists for those who are not its members.” If that is the kind of covenant community that we are, then that gives us some sense of the covenant to which we are bound. Surely the Eucharist, as the covenant meal of this community, must also be said to exist for those who are not already members of the community---those whom we want to call into community with the Jesus who is present at our table.

Stephen Edmondson

Sorry--didn't recognize how names got on posts.

The last two posts were by

Stephen Edmondson

Stephen+,
On your first point you said: "...the focal point of Christ’s ministry was his presence at table with those who found themselves outside of God’s covenant..." This is often said by those arguing for CWOB, but it's unfortunately incorrect. Jesus directed his ministry to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt 10:6; 15:24). The sinners and tax collectors with whom he scandalously associated were indeed within the covenant community of Israel. Rather than being outside of the covenant, they were those who had failed to uphold their covenant obligations. Rather than shaming or shunning them, Jesus spoke with them, ate with them, ministered to them and through his presence we see signs of their return to the covenant and reconciliation with God.

Those outside of the covenant in the time of Jesus were the gentiles. Interestingly, the Gospels never speak of Jesus eating with gentiles. Indeed, it would have been entirely in the interest of the Gospel of Luke to report such a thing and had Paul had such traditions to hand he could have made great hay of it in his argument with Peter conducted in Galatians and reported in Acts. The closest that we get are discussions about meals in the presence of gentiles (viz. Matt 8:11-12|Luke 7:1-10; Matt 15:26-27|Mark 7:24-30).

Baptism beings our relationship with the covenant community who confesses Jesus as God.

But, as I mentioned above, sacramental grace is not the only grace there is... I attended a Methodist seminary and fully believe in the notion of prevenient grace (as taught by that good prayer-book Anglican John Wesley) and I believe that this is indeed the grace that spurs people to seek God and his grace in the sacraments.

I would like to believe your affirmations that the "Open Table" deepens our understanding of Baptism, but I see it primarily as a cheapening rather then a deepening as it makes it completely dispensible.

Regarding Archbishop Temple's statement, I confess that I don't know his works well enough to speak of his intent within its full context. The key question to me is how the Archbishop intended his words with reference to the Great Commission--the call to baptize all nations. I understand his words to be an evangelical statement: the church exists to look outside of itself in order to bring those outside in to participate most fully in God's reconciliation.

Alex: thank you for your note and comments. Regarding “why us and why now?” I don’t know. But here they are, knock-knock-knockin’ on heaven’s door. :)

I imagine when Peter went up to the roof to pray he was expecting lunch afterwards, not visions and visitors. All I’m arguing for is a via media here. Yes, baptism should be first, but sometimes it simply isn’t – here they are, knocking on heaven’s door. Let ‘em in. Clear things up later.

Kevin McGrane

Derek,
I’ve encountered this notion that Jesus’ meals were confined to those already within the covenant, but I have yet to give the idea the attention that it is due. Here, though, are a few initial thoughts. Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, seems to equate the position of tax collectors and gentiles in relation to the covenant community (18:17). The Pharisees believed that his inclusion of tax collectors and sinners in meal of the community was sufficiently out of bounds to seek to kill him. In his encounter with the Syro-phoenician woman, Jesus recognizes that both Gentiles and dogs have some place at the table, if only to lick up the crumbs… (Mark 7: 24-30).
I do think you need to explore more fully how those who practice an Open Table view Baptism. For instance, we don’t tend to call it Communion without Baptism (or at least I don’t), since the point is not on “without Baptism” but inviting all to the table. I don’t think you’ve grasped an open table approach to baptism because you say that we make baptism dispensable. This would be the case only if the primary import of Baptism was welcome at the table. But if through Baptism God’s Spirit bestows itself on us, we clothe ourselves with Christ and join ourselves to his paschal mystery, and take up his ministry of reconciliation in the world, then I’m not clear how an inviting all of God’s children to Jesus’ table would make that indispensable. Baptism, from my view, doesn’t so much give us a seat at the table; rather, it invites us to serve at the table.
Stephen Edmondson

Dear All,

I was convinced that the traditional sacramental disciplines are crucial (pastoral exceptions notwithstanding), by the consideration that there is a key difference among Jesus eating and drinking with tax collectors and other sinners, and say, the feeding of the 5,000 on the one hand, and the Last Supper (only with his disciples) and subsequent Lord's Suppers (only with Christians) on the other.

There is a crucial difference among charity, hospitality, evangelism on the one hand, and Christian formation and discipleship on the other.

Feed, clothe, welcome, tend, minister and preach the Gospel at all times, to the least of these, "and when necessary use words."

Initiate, confirm, grow and deepen the faith and discipleship of Christians through prayer, worship and sacraments.

Derek, I don't find your saying the catechism in the 1979 American Prayer Book is "fundamental enough" reassuring.

You said:

"...fundamental enough that all Episcopalians—no matter their party affiliation—can get behind it." What would getting behind it look like?

The 79 Prayer Book says the catechism is not a complete statement of the faith but merely a point of departure for instruction. It is not clear how much of the point of departure the learner is supposed to keep. I see an irreducible gap between its incomplete nature and its answer-and-response rhetoric.

"It is a commentary
on the creeds, but is not meant to be a complete statement of belief and
practices; rather, it is a point of departure for the teacher, and it is cast in
the traditional question and answer form for ease of reference."

Is it a test of faith or merely a testimony of faith?

Gary Paul Gilbert

As for enforcing the Baptism requirement, I think we need go no further than is currently done in many (most?) places: have a statement in the bulletin and/or said as part of a general welcome stating that "All baptized Christians may receive" and let people police themselves, with the clergy dealing appropriately and pastorally with individuals offline, as it were. No police work at the Communion rail other than what's required. But no lying, either, about "All may receive, without restriction."

Scott - please sign your full name next time you comment. Thanks ~ed.

Gary,

The prayer book also says that the catechism serves "to provide a brief summary of the Church's teaching for an inquiring stranger who picks up a Prayer Book" (BCP, 844). When it says that it serves as a point of departure, I understand it to mean that these represent the fundamental points that we as a widespread community agree on but have differences in how some of the points get elucidated. It doesn't mention only picking and choosing the ones you like...

Currently, Canon I.17.7 reads: "No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy
Communion in this Church."

I wonder if there's some way to rephrase the canon in a more positive way that still states that baptism is expected to take place prior to communion.

Derek, A "summary" can also be represented as something which gives people a general or vague idea of what the denomination stands for. The 1979 Prayer Book catechism is a radical departure because previous catechisms were meant to be memorized and recited. This one is a vague summary intended to help outsiders understand where Episcopalians stand. It is cast in a form which creedal outsiders, such as Lutherans and Presbyterians, can understand but the denomination is not a creedal church. It does not supplant the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral for ecumenical talks.

And it is not a catechism to which one is expected to subscribe. It rather depends how one reads it. Written for a broad audience, it can have no authority above creeds and scripture, which themselves can be read in a variety of ways.

Anglicanism is definitely about picking and choosing.


Gary Paul Gilbert

Gary, since we say the creed every Sunday and on major feast, I do not see how we are not a creedal church. The quadrilaterals also press the same position. Anglicanism is not about picking and choosing; it is about not fighting every theological battle to the death.

What is radical about the inclusion of a catechism in 1979 is neither its form nor nature, but that things had degraded by that time to point where it was thought necessary to spell out answers to these questions.

C. Wingate, Saying the creeds doesn't necessarily dictate a particular theology. That the 79 catechism is cast in a question-and-answer format doesn't mean it really offers answers. Anglican fudge is written to appeal to many camps.

We are not like the Presbyterians with their Westminster Confession. Liturgy or worship is what generally unites Anglicans.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Stephen, you wrote, "Is there room in our understanding of sacraments for the communication of God’s initiation of relationship in Jesus? Or more specifically, could it be that in Jesus’ gift of himself at table, we find precisely that initiation? That’s the testimony that many of us hear in the Gospels---that the focal point of Christ’s ministry was his presence at table with those who found themselves outside of God’s covenant—that through that presence, they found themselves suddenly included in the table fellowship of the covenant...." My problem with that is that Jesus' critical gift was in his death and resurrection. WIthout his death and resurrection, his words at the table are little more than generous sentiment. That the table came historically before the cross and tomb does not change our experience that the cross and tomb give meaning to the table, and not the other way around.

I would suggest, too, that the first experience of grace in and through the Church is not at the table, but in the Body, the community that maintains the table. That is, the first powerful experience is in the Incarnate body, made present in the folks who invited that person, not to the table, but simply into the building. Folks who do not find the community welcoming are no more likely to feel called to the table than they are to feel called to the font. Once again, while the Body is fed at the table, it is born in baptism.

I've said here before my presumption of "when in doubt, feed." Nonetheless, I don't see grounds to change our norms.

Marshall Scott

Gary, you can say that, but then, anyone can say anything. I, and I think anyone with an ounce of intellectual integrity, would say that if you are repeating "we believe in one God" while disagreeing with it, clause by clause, then you have separated yourself from the "we"; the Apostle's Creed makes the hypocrisy more plainly evident. That's why I resolved something over two decades back to refuse communion from the hands of a priest who I knew to reject parts of the creed. The creed is in the liturgy, so if you cannot say it honestly, then you are not united with the rest of us in the liturgy. Besides, quadrilaterals do hold the creeds as part of the deposit of Anglican faith, and I would hold them to be more defining of Anglicanism than a statement from you or any other random layman or cleric.

What you call "Anglican fudge", I call a now-ingrained abuse of church institutions. This "fudge" is a church character flaw, not a virtue.

C. Wingate, separating yourself from the eucharist because the priest is not pure enough for you is not traditional. This is the heresy of Donatism. Whatever works for you, great!

I am not clergy and not that invested in what happens at the altar. The church is the whole people of God. I still don't get why we are fighting over who can receive the sacrament rather than who wants to go out and do work in the community.

Theological language will always be imprecise because none of it can be proved or tested.

If you want to impose a catechism, it should at least be one that has been around for a long time rather than one written in the late seventies.

Gary Paul Gilbert

It seems to me that your characterization of Donatism is inaccurate, but in any case, I do not claim that the rites dissenting priests are invalid, so I am not a Donatist.

Past that assertion, it seems to me that your response consists of irrelevant platitudes designed to divert the discussion from the issue that you appear to me to approve of the grossest hypocrisy by perhaps all but apostate churchgoers. the imprecision of theological language is not the big problem that modernists want to make it out to be, and besides, as a rule they don't take it to be imprecise, but to be precisely wrong in well-defined ways. And considering the content of older and more detailed catechisms, I cannot take seriously your claim to prefer them.

C. Wingate, So I write "irrelevant platitudes?" How charitable of you! Yes, I try to make sure my platitudes are as irrelevant as possible, but that would require some calculation and perhaps accurate knowledge of what is relevant.

As to older catechisms, my point was that a traditionalist should prefer them to something written in the late seventies.

Gary Paul Gilbert

My question is this: while it is good and right to have a discussion about the open vs closed table, just how exactly would you enforce that rule? It is not like you have a mark on you indicating baptism, not like there is a card checker as you approach the rail. It is not like you are asked "Are you baptized" just before your receive the Body of Christ or the Blood of Christ.

All this theological argumentation does nothing for the practical application.

Troy, there is room for advising people that communion is meant for the baptized. Amazingly, some people do actually take advice.

Add your comments
Reminder: At Episcopal Café, we hope to establish an ethic of transparency by requiring all contributors and commentators to make submissions under their real names. For more details see our Feedback Policy.

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Advertising Space