Communion without Baptism?

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By Derek Olsen

So—what is the connection between the foregoing discussion about salvation and sacraments and the current issue upon the table—Communion without Baptism (CWOB)? The issue is about liturgical practice and how we greet strangers and seekers in our midst, not theology, right?

Well, I’m not so sure… I’m fond of telling my students that there are no such things as liturgical changes; rather, there are theological changes with liturgical implications. While there is more than a bit of hyperbole in that statement it captures an essential truth: our rites communicate our theology. When we change our rites, very often there is a change in the theology we are expressing whether we recognize it at the time or not. Thus, when faced with a decision about our liturgical practice (i.e., whether or not we should invite the unbaptized to receive the sacrament of the altar) we must first remember what we believe and why we believe it.

You see, Anglican—Christian—sacramental theology is the logic and theology of intimacy. Even the metaphors Scripture uses for the relationship between God and believers bespeak this intimacy: to abide, to dwell with, to remain within. The prophets and poets of sacred page have used time and again the figure of bride and groom in scandalous and sometimes shocking ways to communicate both the depths of intimacy (Revelation and the incomparable Song of Songs) and intimacy’s betrayal (Ezekiel and Hosea). Remembering the logic of intimacy, remaining faithful to its vision of life in relationship grounds our ritual ways, our liturgical practice, in a theology that honors the God who has chosen to be in relationship with us.

At the heart of intimacy is commitment. Nothing more—and nothing less. Intimacy is not instant; it grows over time. Intimacy is a process of growing into knowledge, love, and trust gradually—and its gradual nature demands that those growing remain committed to the process and to each other. It grows through hearing promises, then seeing those promises come true; through sharing truths, then recognizing and confirming those truths embodied in the patterns and rhythms of everyday life.

In our sacramental life, the moment of commitment is baptism. Like promises exchanged between lovers, like the promises made before the altar in marriage, baptism is a covenant relationship. God is constantly inviting us into relationship, simultaneously presenting and fulfilling the promise to be in relationship with the whole creation and with each individual member of it. In Baptism, individuals—or those presenting them—both recognize the call of God and return the commitment, recognizing the identity of God as it has been revealed to us in the baptismal creed and promising to be faithful to the relationship with God. This, we believe, is an everlasting covenant. Even if we fail, even if we fall away and betray the promises made or refuse their claim on us, God continues to love and call us again to the fullness of a life hid with Christ in God.

When we accept this call, however, God’s ongoing commitment and revelation of his deepest self to us comes through the Holy Eucharist: Christ’s own flesh and blood, given to us as a true sharing of body and essence, true intimacy. In the Blessed Sacrament we receive Christ into ourselves to abide, remain, and dwell so that we likewise may abide, remain, and dwell in him.

Furthermore, this intimacy to which we are called is not just about individual gratification or knowledge. For as we are baptized, we are baptized into the whole company of faithful people, into the company of all those also joined to Christ and most especially those embodied in our local communities. As we approach the altar we never do so alone; rather we participate—in the most literal sense—in the Communion of all the saints without regard to time or space or the limits of the flesh. For this too is part and parcel of the mystery of the life hid with Christ in God: as we grow in love, trust, and intimacy with God, we grow too towards one another and to the whole of humanity, indeed God’s whole creation, as we learn to love as God loves. This is the logic of Communion with Baptism; this is the theology of intimacy.

Coming from this perspective, Communion without Baptism misreads the logic of the liturgy. It demands intimacy without commitment, relationship without responsibility. To apply this same logic to another sphere of human relationship, this is the logic of the one night stand—the logic of the “meaningless” fling. Is this the relationship that we wish to have with the God who knows us each by name and who calls that name in the night, yearning for our return to the Triune embrace? But then again—who is this “we”? Exactly whose relationship are we talking about? Is this “we” the clergy, the members of the vestry, those who populate our pews day in and day out? Are those the ones invited to receive communion without baptism? No. The seekers, the strangers, the wanderers in our midst—they are the ones in view here. And here is my question; this is what we must answer to the satisfaction of our own consciences: Do we have the right to choose for the stranger and the seeker a relationship contradicting the logic of intimacy without offering them a yet more excellent way? Do we who make decisions for the church uphold our own baptismal commitment and covenant by offering the strangers and seekers less than what has been offered to and received by us?

The call of God is to all. God’s radical hospitality is for all. Truly Christ stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace. Truly the Spirit moves over the waters of renewal and new life, beckoning and inviting. To the stranger, to the seeker, through our mouths we offer and issue God’s words of invitation: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden…” inviting them through the waters of Baptism into the household of God. And in doing so we fulfill Christ’s commission to baptize those of all nations and teaching them his words and ways, the depths of his love, the depths of a life hid with Christ in God.

Derek Olsen blogs at Haligweorc. This essay is part of a continuing reflection on the place of the sacraments in the life of the Episcopal Church. A future essay will focus on Scriptural issues. For a differing view, read Deirdre Good’s essay on hospitality, and visit the Cafe on Monday for an interview with the leaders of a church that practices open communion.

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12 Responses to "Communion without Baptism?"
  1. Reminder: Read the "Reminder" in bold just above the box where you enter your comment. At the Cafe you are required to sign comments with your full name. Thank you.

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  2. Thanks for the reflection - I go back and forth about CWOB. Children are baptized and take communion from before they are able to make a commitment to the relationship with God and the community - it seems that those drawn to Christ in Eucharist without being baptized first could be more committed to intimacy than the children. Eventually most who participate do become baptized. I am not sure that it matters to God - it is more important for the institution perhaps.

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  3. This is another wonderful reflection. I was deeply moved by Deirdre's piece on hospitality, but I am still not convinced that CWOB is the only truly hospitable stance. What Derek says here about intimacy and commitment seems correct to me, too.

    The difference I see for baptized children being admitted to communion is that we (parents, godparents and congregation) have committed to raising them in an environment where they can learn what that commitment means and prepare to make it for themselves. Adults who come to the table without baptism may have no such support. I would feel better about CWOB if I knew there was a concerted effort to help move those people from table to font. Of course, all that assumes that we still believe baptism to be important, which leads to my other concern about CWOB: How does the practice of CWOB affect what we teach about and how we practice the sacrament of baptism?

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  4. I would posit that the true intimacy IS instant. It is the vision of seeing God in the stranger. There is no outsider no insider and it does not depend on whether you were baptized or not. It is the vision that Christ is calling us to have.

    We should welcome all to the table as Christ did.

    Alice L. MacArthur

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  5. Thank you, Derek, for the excellent article. It has always been my belief that pastoral issues, in this case welcome, trump theological ones. Care for the people first and welcome them to God's table (not the church's), and then as they do begin to up their commitment we talk about baptism.

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  6. Thanks, Josh. But I must disagree with one point--you're setting up a false dichotomy between the pastoral and the theological. The pastoral *is* theological as well. What it means is that you're choosing a different theology...

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  7. I received Communion before Baptism.

    I had been living in a Catholic Worker community for about a year, and considered myself a "non-church" Christian, in the footsteps of Ammon Hennacy. My girlfriend, also living at the Worker house, took me out to visit her mother's parish in Eastern Washington (where her mother serves as Rector).

    I'll never forget those moments at the altar rail. I had not yet taken, nor even read, the Baptismal covenant, but I had precisely the content of those vows on my mind. I had a pretty good idea of what it meant to be a Christian, and I had a much better idea of how far I fell short. As the Bread came around, I thought to myself, "Well, this is it. I've got to love people. Even the people whose actions I believe are hurting others."

    The priest, my future mother-in-law (who presided over our wedding), stopped for a moment in front of me. She leaned over, touching her forehead to mine, and whispered a blessing before offering me the Sacrament. She baptized me several months later.

    I agree that commitment is vital to intimacy, and that the liturgy is designed to highlight this. But commitment also IS vital, in fact inherent, to true intimacy, and I'm not sure it is possible to authentically take communion without being cognizant of a serious and jarring commitment. I'm not as concerned about whether others are baptized before communion, as I am concerned about whether I am as present to the meaning of communion at the alter rail as I was that first time.

    I believe that there are greater things at stake here than arguments over ritual, no matter how dear the ritual. I moved out of the Catholic Worker two months ago, after four years in that community. There is an empty bedroom in the house I live in now. How can I honestly claim to "respect the dignity" of the homeless (with whom I still have a relationship), when I do not give my excess wealth to meet their immediate need? After all, is it not these same poor in whom we discover Christ? And, frankly, how often is anyone in my church plagued by these same questions?

    The matter at hand should not be "are we doing the liturgy right?" Rather it ought to be "are we living our liturgy?"

    -Phil Owen

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  8. While I like this discussion of the role of commitment in the sacrament of communion, I think that your likening of communion without baptism to a one night stand is flawed. While I agree that a one night stand is a form of intimacy without commitment, so too can be the relationship between a couple that lives together but isn't yet (or isn't able to be) married.

    I think it is telling that nowadays, and for many younger generations, there are many more long-term relationships that involve intimacy without full commitment. You might consider these to be "seeker" couples, who want to try out their relationship for a while before they fully commit. Perhaps this is a pattern or way of life for people in younger generations, in a world where change comes so quickly and uncertainty about our future (individually and globally) grows on a daily basis. Is the practice of communion without baptism just another way the Church is trying to keep pace with the culture around it? Is this perhaps a way that the Church can be more open to the needs of young adults (a population that is increasingly hard for the Church to attract and retain) for exploration before full commitment?

    I agree with others that this “communion without baptism” would hopefully not literally be communion without ever being baptized. Commitment is an important part of any relationship, and a commitment to the Body of Christ through baptism should be the goal of anyone seeking intimacy with Christ. If communion without baptism is to be practiced then there needs to be an associated movement from the table to the font.

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  9. Some of my views of the subject:

    1. Eucharist, at least as I've studied it, has traditionally been seen as the completion of Christian initiation, begun with baptism for us or baptism and confirmation/chrismation for Catholics and Orthodox. Through baptism, one enters the Body of Christ and is then nourished by Christ in the Eucharist. If the latter precedes the former, then what is link between the two theologically?

    2. As a practical matter, though, I probably wouldn't deny communion to someone who comes up to receive even if I know he or she had not been baptized. However, if that person continues to come up over several Sundays, I'd probably one-on-one strongly recommend baptism to that person and perhaps suggest refraining from receiving until after baptism. Compare it to a short time of fasting to prepare oneself for the feast.

    Anyway, those are some of my thoughts, fallible as they are.

    Kevin Montgomery

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  10. Here's my wondering ...

    Can we find a middle way between hospitality so open that it risks robbing baptism, and ultimately Eucharist, of its potential depth and meaning, and a rule so rigid that it turns away (some of) those who might otherwise join the Body of Christ?

    Here's a thought in that direction. We might authorize CWOB in certain special liturgies, ones designed to encourage seekers to "taste and see", but which are comparatively rare (say quarterly or some such) or part of a seeker program. I'm not sure exactly what criteria to use here or how best to put a boundary on it, but I think there needs to be one. I like the angle of working towards intimacy.

    - Eliot Moss

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