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.