Support the Café

Search our Site

Communion before baptism at General Convention

Communion before baptism at General Convention

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.


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

What sense does it make to admit someone to Communion if they don’t know what it means or what they are committing to by taking it? Make no mistake – by taking Communion you are making a commitment to yourself, to God and to your fellow Christians. You learn what that commitment is when you get baptized (or during the later instruction that your godparents make sure you get when you grow up in the Church after infant baptism).

Why, then, should we not tell someone who might take Communion “Taking Communion is a commitment. It would be unfair to you to let you take it before you understand what it is.”

Ron Fox.

Jeffrey L. Shy, M.D.

@ C. Wingate

At the risk of “monopolizing” this conversation, it seems that I owe you the courtesy of a reply. I think, perhaps, you read too much into my comments, namely that I somehow intended to “declare that the ‘old’ paradigm has passed away and does not require refutation.” I certainly do not intend to do that. What I intend to say is that it is possible that we need to broaden our discussion/discernment beyond the “merely” factual and admit that “truth” in a religious sense cannot be merely assent to factual statements which one affirms or denies. I believe that if the church continues to take this as its only path to discernment, it will inevitably fail to do anything other than what it has already done, and it will leave valuable voices out of the process. My “assertions” were only to suggest that one of the reasons that the different “sides” fail to understand one another is that they may have rather different ideas about what constitutes something that is “true.” I believe that the “call” for “open” communion is coming from persons who are seeing things from a more “progressive” or “emerging” paradigm view, and the “arguments” made in traditional terms may not be persuasive to them as they do not seem to describe well their non-logical experiential perspectives. On the other side, the “arguments” advanced by the progressives may be seen by those who tend to place more emphasis on “factuality” or “logical refutation” as simply so much “fluff” without substance. If we are to have any “discussion” we need to be aware that there is more “in the room” so to speak, than just logical argument.

C. Wingate

Dr. Shy, the only lack of discussion I see going on here is your appeal to the supposedly new paradigm in order to simply declare that the “old” paradigm has passed away and does not require refutation. My position is that this “new” paradigm is not new and does not override the considerations behind the supposedly old paradigm. There is a sense in which I do not disagree with the poetic language in which you express the new, but since one can find the sort of language you use among the stalwarts of the old position, it would follow that one does not contradict the other, and that therefore the assertions of the ancient church traditions are not refuted by adopting the language you use.

Chuck Till

No communion without baptism, I say. It’s cheap grace, although well-intentioned and not lacking in highly articulate and passionate argument in favor. If baptism needs reform, let’s reform it — not abandon it, which will be the inevitable consequence of communion without baptism.

A Facebook User

It truly is perplexing to me why people believe that baptism should not be the legitimate and necessary entry into the full life of the Christian community. All and, I repeat, all the arguments strike me as last gasp attempts to draw more people into our sadly depleted fellowship. It seems to me that many people have forgotten the necessity for thorough and continuing catechesis or the role of the Holy Spirit in informing and convicting people to become Christian.

The liturgy of the Word contains an abundance of riches to feed and prepare the hungry soul for life in Christ.

It seems to me that people who truly want to be Christian will respect certain prohibitions and wait with a good deal of joyful expectation on the time when they will be able to receive the Holy Communion. This certainly seems to be the practice of the early church and the experience of those I know who have come to faith as adults.

I must also wonder why people are so afraid of boundaries? The news is full of the devestating consequences of boundary breaking and those consequences are manifested in our personal lives as well.

The whole liturgy of the Holy Eucharist is a liminal experience unless we have forgotten the joyful wonder of it all. It is best not to leap in unprepared!

I think that, perhaps, this discussion is taking place because we have concentrated our attention on only one aspect of the Eucharist – table fellowship. If that is our only concern, then this discussion may make some sense. However, the Eucharist is much, much more than that and we lose those other aspects to our peril. Carlton Kelley+

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café