by Jeffrey L. Shy
In a recent thread in The Lead section of The Episcopal Café, another extended discussion in the comments began and continued to over 80 posts on the subject of “open” communion, known by some under the acronym of CWOB or “Communion WithOut Baptism.” This will be one of many issues to be considered at the upcoming General Convention this summer, and if the exchanges on The Café are any predictor of what is likely to ensue there, the debate may be long and probably contentious. Although I had previously read former discussions and initially even this recent post with somewhat of a “ho hum” attitude, it was for the first time in the comments thread that I had somewhat of a “lightbulb” moment and began to consider the question both seriously and from what was, for me, a new perspective, and I was asked afterwards to consider contributing a brief essay on the issue to The Daily Episcopalian.
Just as in the preface to my briefer comment on that thread, I should probably and immediately be open and be honest about just who and what I am – a theologically and socially very liberal but liturgically pretty conservative (or probably better, very “high church”) Episcopalian. As one of many “refugees” to come to The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the last 20-30 years, I was drawn (long before reasons related to sexuality) to TEC by its liturgical traditions, musical heritage and practice and its prayerbook, and this, of necessity, included developing a certain point of view and understanding with regard to the sacraments of the church. Having never witnessed a single adult baptism in church as a youth and growing up in a tradition where one simply did not “take communion” until after (the Presbyterian equivalent of) confirmation, I never previously gave much thought to the issue of the propriety of CWOB. My first experience in TEC of child communions struck me first as a bit “odd” but, on reflection, I had to conclude that there seemed to be no convincing reason that we should exclude our baptized children from this central act of Christian worship and community. In more recent years, when the question of CWOB began to percolate, it seemed at first to me that the argument about “welcome” as a reason for CWOB was a little bit of a stretch. Of course “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!” We put it on signs outside of all of our churches, don’t we? We just went to the mat on the issue of LGBT inclusion, didn’t we? The church where I currently assist as interim organist has on its website that it “welcomes everyone,” particularly those who may have “felt unwelcome in other churches.” I myself, as an early-middle-aged, 24-years-same-sex-partnered, non-theist, former-Presbyterian, former-Lutheran, organist, neurologist, am a veritable poster child for the kind of “odd ball” who gets routinely “welcomed” in TEC today.
Imagine my surprise, however, when it occurred to me that maybe I needed to rethink this issue of CWOB with some level of care. In medicine, particularly specialty medicine such as neurology in which I practice, it is often necessary to discard previous diagnoses or assumptions by and about persons who come for consultation and treatment in order to make any progress. At first, radical changes may be greeted with great skepticism or even anger, but with time, as the fruits of the “change” begin to be felt, resistance fades and falls away, hopefully to beneficial effect. This cannot happen, however, without approaching the case with an initial broad open-mindedness. My “lightbulb” moment in the midst of our recent CWOB discussion recently came when I began to think that, perhaps, we might be framing the question in a slightly off-kilter manner. We should perhaps not be talking about communion “without” baptism, but communion “before” baptism. This may not be about marginalizing the sacrament of baptism or conversely devaluing the sacrament the Lord’s supper, but simply changing the order in which persons first experience these sacraments to meet better the spiritual and religious needs of a changing world. Placed in this new light, a host of thoughts began to percolate as to why do we think that it is necessary that baptism must or should precede communion rather than follow it other than the arguments that, in the end, might boil down to evolved customs and post-hoc theological rationalizations that provide “explanations” for what we are already doing in the first place? What, after all, is so critical about the order in which sacraments are received?
Once I had experienced this breakthrough “Aha!” moment, I began to envision all sorts of cases in which the sacraments might come “out of order” particularly in a world where “straight arrow” cradle Episcopalians or even cradle Christians are a rapidly fading memory. How about someone whose first sacramental experience is of the visitation and anointing of the sick? Could not the rite of healing be the first sacrament that we receive as “the outward and visible sign” of the “inward and spiritual grace” and our gateway into a religious life? Lots of precedent for that – Jesus himself was a first “big offender” there. There’s lots of indiscriminate healing going on in the Gospels. What about the sacrament of penance? Could not someone come first to the church plagued by guilt and in need of counseling and forgiveness first experience that “inward and spiritual grace” through the rite of confession and reconciliation of a penitent? Uh oh, Jesus again a big offender. Is it easier to say “your sins are forgiven” than “get up and walk?” – out of order again. Ok, I know, some will point out that these are the “lesser” sacraments, not the “big two” of baptism and communion. But, how about those big two? We believe that Jesus received the baptism of John. We have no written record of the later baptism of any of his first disciples, although some were perhaps former Johanine disciples. Jesus never is recorded as baptizing anyone, but he certainly “gave communion” to a group of somewhat unruly, rebellious, fickle, oafish and very-possibly unbaptized disciples. Even the “great commission” conclusions to our Gospels charging us to “baptize” and “make disciples” may now be seen to be likely “post hoc” anachronisms grafted onto the original events, and in some cases like our earliest Gospel of Mark, literally pasted into the original text.
At this point, it is probably best that I leave most of the new-testamentizing, early-churchizing, sacramental-theologizing to those who are experts those fields, something that I most unequivocally am not. But think, just for a moment, about someone coming really fresh into an Episcopal church on a typical Sunday morning. I am never before baptized, never before saw a Eucharistic liturgy, heck, never even darkened the door of a church before, but somehow, some way, I was curious enough to waste a perfectly good weekend morning by “going to church.” From the first, I hear strange stuff, not about “God-Blessed-America” but about this other country, “God’s Kingdom.” The next thing you know I am singing “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.” Just when I thought I was in safe territory sitting and listening to bible readings (Isn’t that the main thing Christians do, read the Bible and then argue about it?), suddenly everyone is standing up and singing “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia…” as a big gold-covered book gets carried down from the altar surrounded by candles, smoked with puffs of incense and is suddenly not read or debated but sung to me! “Come unto me, all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest….” Before you know it, we are on our feet yet again and claiming to sing along with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven,” “Holy, holy, holy… heaven and earth are full of your glory.” Then more curious still, most are on their knees on these little fold down things in the benches and there are more words: “In your infinite love you made us for yourself…you sent Jesus…to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us… He stretched out his arms upon the cross and offered himself… took bread…gave it to his disciples…’This is my body’… took the cup of wine… ‘This is my blood’… the holy food of new and unending life… the joy of your eternal kingdom…the gifts of God for the people of God, take them…” Then everyone is going up to the railing around the altar and standing or kneeling. They get a little cracker, a sip of wine out of the same cup. Uh oh, a nice usher is smiling at me and gesturing for me to get up too. Best not to look out of place, so I shuffle up and stand (that seems OK) and get the little cracker and take a sip of the sweet port (relieved to see that they are wiping off the edge after each one drinks) and sidle back to my more safe personal space in the seat and have a look around at everyone else. There is something just a bit different about their facial expressions, the way afterwards that they stand, move and walk. They just look different. Do I look different? Do I feel different? I’m not sure if what it is, but there seems to be something… But it’s all over quickly after that, and several nice people welcome me, ask polite questions about me, invite me to the parish hall for a coffee or a sherry and a bit of food. They say they were glad that I came. They hope to see me again. Maybe I’ll come back and see if that something is there again, or perhaps I just imagined it…? And there you have it. Before you know it, someone comes in totally unprepared, gets caught up in what we sometimes zombie-like do every Sunday, takes the words seriously and literally and breaks all the unpublished rules. The Gentile is suddenly “in the Spirit” and we have to “deal with it.” Uh oh, quick, get the font warmed up… Aren’t we supposed to get baptized first? Isn’t that how the “economy of salvation” works? Hmm…do I really believe that it must be so?
And yes, I know, we could have “noticed” the stranger and “headed him off at the pass.” There could have been an explanation in the bulletin or some sort of announcement. The priest could catch on after a few more visits and curbside her to explain how it’s “supposed” to be done. He might then get diverted off to “Episcopal 101” and learn the “right way,” and until he is baptized go up with “arms crossed for a blessing.” But would that be a good thing? Why not this order first? Did her receiving communion before baptism demean this first virginal experience? Would he later regret that he had not “saved himself” for after baptism? Was there ominous thunder? Did she come down with a mysterious illness and die? Doesn’t God love and welcome everyone, baptized or not? Whose meal is this, anyways? Jesus didn’t say “All you who have been baptized and had the classes and understand exactly what this special meal is about (the disciples most certainly did not at first)” come and eat and drink,” or did a page drop out of my copy of the NT? For those of us who still are convinced that he was not “properly prepared,” are we really most concerned for him or perhaps it is more true that we are (unconsciously) resentful of the degradation of our own “insider” privileges? Am I the guy who went to work early in the vineyard and who ends up resentful that the one who showed up at the last minute got the same wages that I did but without all the work?
Obviously, there remain lots of questions and lots of assumptions that need to be considered, reviewed and reaccepted or rejected, and after all this initial review, I am still not sure what we should “officially” do. I have often felt that the Anglican tradition, at its best, sometimes understands that it might be better not to ask too many questions with definite yes/no answers or to make too many rules, at least at first. Maybe sometimes it is OK initially to just leave things a bit “unclear” and “poorly defined.” Maybe it is best not to pretend that we already have all this already worked out and let a diversity of practice continue for now. Maybe we need to “listen to the Spirit” and “look for the fruits” of those wild seeds of consecrated wafers scattered around indiscriminately. Maybe we need to let experience change and guide explanation rather than the other way around. Maybe we should ask those who have experienced communion before baptism, “How was it for you?” Maybe the old diagnosis and treatment plan is wrong and needs to be reviewed and revised and reconsidered, perhaps radically. Maybe, just maybe….
Jeffrey Shy is a neurologist in clinical practice in the east valley of the Phoenix metro area where he lives with his life partner, Philip, and an undisclosed number of feline companions.