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Baptism and Communion: identity and inclusion

Baptism and Communion: identity and inclusion

by Maria L. Evans

“Scripture itself provides no unambiguous or explicit guidelines on the question of communion of the unbaptized. It could be argued that the question never arose. However, baptism clearly plays an important and foundational role in the community that gathered around John the Baptist and later Jesus.”

–Tobias Haller, BSG, from the book, Water, Bread and Wine: Should we offer communion to people before they are baptized?

Hopefully, the statute of limitations has run out on what I’m about to confess. Many of my best friends growing up were Roman Catholic, and when I would go to Mass with them, I went through a period where I became more and more curious about “just what was in that Sacrament from which I was excluded”–and more in more intent on getting it in my mouth to see just what the fuss was all about. So, I enlisted the help of one of my friends, whom I was pretty sure he would not worry much about being consigned to Hell for being the accomplice in my scheme. It was a subterfuge that only a pair of adolescents would think was plausible (or even desirable,) and we pulled it off with all the finesse of the theft of the Crown Jewels. He was to go up for Communion like always. When the bread was popped into his mouth, he was not to swallow it, but bring it back in his mouth and deposit it in my hand while he was kneeling in post-Communion prayer, and I could see for myself. (I always knelt with him during his post-Communion prayer, even though I wasn’t post-anything.) The fact that it was slightly tinged with the sip of wine he consumed, and a little soggy from his slobber didn’t seem to matter. I had eaten from the table from which I was excluded.

I doubt the church in Rome would have been too happy about me, but I’m pretty sure Jesus chuckled.

Now, my story isn’t really an exact parallel to the question raised in the book from which I quoted above (I was baptized, but in another faith tradition,) but it does illustrate the level of desire the Sacraments induce in people, and the more I read the various opinions “for” and “against” Communion Before Baptism, the more I’m convinced this is not a question that needs to be answered this week. If I have one criticism of this book (and it’s worth a read, if you haven’t read it) it is that the premise of the title itself frames for debate rather than discussion. The title asks the reader to say “yes” or “no” to the question, but after reading this book, I think I can say “yes” to every single person’s essay in this book, no matter which “side” they were asked to champion. There’s another parallel in real life. Most of us would say baptism and catechesis is important–very important–in framing our understanding of our rich Anglican traditions. Yet most of us also know that this issue is the equivalent of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the Episcopal Church. Everyone in the process for ordination knows what the “right answer” is in front of the diocesan Commission on Ministry, but we also know this canon is broken all the time, and for many plausible reasons. Sara Miles’ book Take this Bread is a perfect example of how the Sacraments have power within themselves to change people in a way we can only hope formal catechesis changes them.

In short, it’s a balancing act between identity and inclusion.

Perhaps the real task before us in the Episcopal Church is to meet the challenge of how to change the canon to hold it all–to make it clear that baptism is the fundamental statement of community in the Christian faith, yet at the same time leaving room to let priests be priests, rather than bouncers, and to free them from the fear of canonical and ecclesiastical persecution by a hypothetically capricious bishop. It should not–and does not–have to be a situation where priests are held in tension between two aspects of their vows–to “conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church” while they simultaneously endeavor to “minister the Word of God and the sacraments of the New Covenant,” and to “be a faithful pastor to all whom they are called to serve.” After all, being a faithful pastor has elements of all three.

Our canons are not set in stone–we have changed them many times in the life of this church. Nor is the path to the Eucharistic table. It was only until the 1979 Prayer book came along that we fully changed from being a confirmation-minded community to a baptismal-minded one in terms of how we saw access to the Eucharistic table. We’ve paid a lot of attention to the Eucharistic table in our Anglican tradition, and rightly so. In the secular world, whether it’s on vacation, or during a hospital stay, or during our years in school, the one thing we react to most viscerally and sticks with us the longest are our feelings about the food. Our holy food and drink deserves no less attention.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid


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Annie Bullock


As I understand it, the question is whether to alter the rubrics so that all persons are invited (as some parishes already practice) or whether to leave things as they are. I have never heard anyone suggest a bouncer, a checkpoint, or a tattoo. I’ve never even heard a genuine express concern that unbaptized people might receive Eucharist if they come to the rail. I presume this happens. I think it’s just fine. The question is whether we invite all people regardless of baptism as a general practice–and the issue is the implications of that particular practice for our theology.

I think what most people who oppose CWOB want to see is the continued practice of inviting all baptized Christians to communion, communicating anybody who comes to the rail, and conscientious discipleship that would encourage a deepening spirituality–beginning with baptism for the unbaptized.

To be frank, the idea that anybody in this discussion wants to put a bouncer at the door is a caricature.

Annie Bullock.

Troy Haliwell

Can we look at the practical as well as the theological argument on a baptism requirement? Practically speaking-how would you enforce this rule?

Would you have bouncers waiting to trunce you back to the pew if you came forward un-baptised?

Will we tattoo a mark on you indicating baptism?

Will we start issuing cards you will be required to show as you approach the rail?

Will our priests and deacons start asking “Are you baptized” just before your receive the Body of Christ or the Blood of Christ?

All this theological discussion is valid, please do not misunderstand, but the practical application of theological discussion should be included in any discussion.

Donald Schell


Your addition is useful. I wasn’t meaning to claim that Gregory of Nyssa taught or practiced the Eucharist as a converting sacrament, only that the core of his theological framework, an early and mature Trinitarian theology that’s not interpreting our condition or experience in the terms of original sin, gives us a voice within the tradition for interpreting ‘discerning the body’ or ‘seeing Christ’ or ‘serving Christ’ in every person in a wholly coherent way. St. Paul, after all, gives us an eschatological hope and vision of Christ all in all and Episcopalians of many different persuasions are familiar with describing the Eucharist as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. The question our secular and multi-religious setting is posting freshly for us is just how fully realized our eucharistic eschatology is. Clearly there’s a breadth of response in the tradition. And on this important question, I know I’m NOT in territory where I can or even want to say, “I know I/we are right about this.” Clearest I can get to is something more like,

“It feels clear to me and many others working in missionary settings that the Spirit may be asking us to risk explicitly and openly inviting all to the Table. There seem to be strands of scripture and tradition that point to this possibility. We’re glad for that continuity because we also know a break like this is risky. And here in the voices of people finding the sacrament DOES effect conversion and who DO seek baptism, and here in the voice of communities practicing an eschatologically-realized Eucharist as Jesus’ beginning the feast in Isiah 25, here’s what we’re learning from the practice.”

Donald Schell


I simply agree with you that baptism and eucharist are grace-filled, transforming encounters with the living God. I take comfort in your saying, “…reception of the Sacraments WILL forge connections and spiritual influences that cannot be undone.” Clearly enough we’ve come to terms with that in baptism. What if an infant baptized grows up and abandons the church community and adamantly rejects everything it stands for, do we say, “the baptism didn’t take?” I think instead we trust God that in making these ritual offerings of God’s unmediated presence we’re engaging God’s relentless work of drawing the world to God’s self.

From my experience as a missionary priest in Eucharistically-centered congregations at deeply skeptical places like Yale University and urban San Francisco, I have seen the eucharist’s remarkable almost magnetic power. Blessed, Jesus said, are those who hunger. The saying says two things to me – one is that any reckoning of God’s blessing on an outcome of prosperity reckons on another God besides the God of Jesus and of slaves’ deliverance from Egypt. The other is that God blesses our deepest hunger and desire with more than we know to ask for, and that is exactly what happens, baptized or not, to someone receiving communion.

Sara Miles, whom I had the privilege to baptize some months after her first communion writes eloquently of what many others experience:

“I came late to Christianity, knocked upside down by a midlife conversion centered around a literal chunk of bread. The immediacy of my conversion experience left me perhaps freakily convinced of the presence of Jesus around me. I hadn’t figured out a neat set of “beliefs,” but discovered a force blowing uncontrollably through the world.

Eating Jesus cracked my world open and made me hunger to keep sharing food with other people. That desire took me to an altar, at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, where I helped break the bread for Holy Communion, then to a food pantry that I set up around the same altar, where we gave away free groceries to anyone who showed up. From all over the city, poor people started to come every Friday to the church–100, 200, 450, 800–and like me, some of them stayed. Soon they began to feed and take care of each other, then run things, then start other pantries. It was my first experience of discovering that regular people could do Jesus’ work.

–Sara Miles, from the introduction to her book, Jesus Freak.

My experience is that few people take an invitation to communion lightly. We did our best to make it clear that we were offering invitation in God’s name, not compulsion. People made their choices, regularly came back for more, chose to be baptized, and continued to grow in faith, commitment, and practice. Sara’s story of the food pantry continues to the present, a dozen or so years later. Now, each week, 500 hungry people lining up to receive seven tons of free groceries in the most beautiful, joyful free grocery, gathered around the altar at St. Gregory’s. Sara has also become a remarkable preacher and teacher, anchors (with a couple of other lay people) the daily morning prayer at St. Gregory’s, and manages the whole church’s (clergy and laity’s) active engagement in day to day pastoral care.

Along with the book Maria’s reflecting on here, the current Anglican Theological Review has three articles (Ruth Meyers’, Bishop Tom Breidenthal’s and mine) share your perspective of sacramental realism while engaging the question of the missionary relationship between baptism and eucharist from differing perspectives. My article is substantially telling a story – how a priest and congregation in missionary circumstances came early (1982) to the decision to invite all to communion. I think that ‘how’ matters because it is the argument of the Book of Acts. As Acts offers a story of lowering the threshold to the community and inviting unexpected people in, our work in mission at Episcopal Church at Yale and at St. Gregory’s, San Francisco pushed us to a conclusion and practice that we were not seeking but in which, consistently we seemed to find the Spirit at work.

tobias haller

Having just taken a look at Gregory of Nyssa’s Sermon On the Baptism of Christ and his Catechism, it seems clear to me that he would have found communion apart from baptism problematical. He seems in these documents to be clear that the body of the faithful, the Body of Christ, subsists in those who are baptized. By analogy he references the eucharist, which before it is blessed and sanctified, is “common bread” but once blessed and sanctified by the action of the church becomes the Body of Christ.

I think these teachings, consistent with the normative understanding of the interrelationship of the two great sacraments of the gospel, have to be taken into account.

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