by James Papile
After a few days of perspective I have been collecting my reflections on the 77th General Convention. Without a doubt the most exciting and hopeful thing about convention was the presence of young people. Finally, after several conventions the assembly was able to hear the voices of young Episcopalians. Even with several positive actions, I left the event disheartened. This year one of the most controversial resolutions, beginning the process to change the canons to allow for the administration of communion to those not yet baptized was so altered in the House of Bishops as to be essentially changed. Although I voted for, and am a strong proponent of the canonical change, my discouragement comes from the fact that last minute changes to controversial issue come to the deputies with no time for conversation. When we think about changes to structure this issue needs to be addressed.
Providing communion before baptism, a new crisis in the church is our reworking of an ancient crisis experienced in the earliest days of the faith. For Paul and Peter the contention was over the necessity of a male convert to be circumcised. The Jerusalem contingent wanted all converts to be circumcised before they were to be allowed in the community.
Now there are the new traditionalists who want the “gentiles” to be baptized before they are allowed full inclusion in the Church (the right to receive communion). Although this modern day discussion isn’t anywhere near as painful physically,it has the same, I believe, monumental implications for the future of the Church.
For those to whom Paul was evangelizing, non-Jews, Jewish ritual and Jewish law was meaningless. Never having been exposed to Torah-the way of Jewish life – going through the action of adult male circumcision would have been dangerous due to the possibility of infection, very painful, and without rationale. Paul argued, apparently convincingly, with Peter and others that requiring circumcision would have been a major impediment to those who might otherwise embrace the Jesus-following community.
I’m not suggesting that being baptized is anything like the trauma of adult circumcision, although I have baptized a few infants who couldn’t have put up much more of a fight or seemingly been more traumatized! But what I am saying is that unchurched folks walking into a Jesus-following community of today will find the practice of baptizing equally lacking in meaning.
Inside the community, we grew up knowing the meaning and the importance of baptism. This amazingly transformative moment is difficult to describe to those who know nothing about the Church. For some newcomers, there will be an attraction to the life of the community which will give them time to absorb the meaning of this powerful sacrament. They will wait to receive after they are baptized. But what about those who need another way to feel included? Must we also ask those individuals to wait until they feel the power of the Holy Spirit and the welcoming of the community? How fair, or realistic is that? How effective can we expect this process to be in bringing folks from the contemporary culture to Christ?
A few weeks ago we read the story of Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch, a story that has powerful implication on many levels for the Church today. By today’s standards, Philip’s action would have been questioned. Did he adequately inform the individual of the theological meaning of baptism; did he impress upon him the importance of a “home parish,” was he convinced of the eunuch’s intention to remain a faithful church-going person? Early Church documents record a catechumenate period of up to two years. Today many parishes require an adult candidate for baptism to go through a series of classes, teachings about scripture, church history, and contemporary polity. By these standards Philip’s baptismal preparation was deficient.
In these missionary times we have significant challenges, but also powerful opportunities. Some practices, some time-honored customs may need to be suspended, even altered. Did the community in Jerusalem keep circumcising? Probably, yet to what effect? Paul’s way was different. Daring to break from tradition, his work spread the faith to the four corners of the known world. He will forever be the model for Christian evangelism. We should be as far seeing today, for a stronger, more vibrant Church.
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body…” ~Ephesians 2:13ff
The Rev. James Papile is the Rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, Reston VA and often writes about baseball, the church and faith.