Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Against Communion Without Baptism: Some Anecdotes

A follow up to my last post regarding Communion Without Baptism:

Much of the argument for communing people regardless of baptism is anecdotal – testimonies of feeling welcomed by the indiscriminate invitation to the Eucharist or stories of folk who received Eucharist before they were baptized and through that experience eventually were baptized. These can be powerful testimonies. But, as AKMA Adam has observed,
Narratives about who received communion before baptism and how it affected their lives may inform, to some extent, the discussion — but they can’t decide the issue. Last January, a climber fell 1000 ft during an attempted ascent of Ben Nevis, tumbling down three cliffs, and survived with only relatively minor injuries. He may have reconciled himself to his enemies during that fall, he may have attained blissful oneness with the universe, he may only have enjoyed the adrenaline rush of confronting death — but none of those makes ‘falling off Ben Nevis’ a good idea as a normative practice, no matter how benign its effects in his case. If someone can show that communion without baptism as a general practice builds up the Body of Christ, that’s one thing; but no matter how much we give thanks for the positive effects of pre-baptismal communion in individual cases (such as Fr Kelvin himself, Sara Miles, or any other person) these remain the marvellous instances of the unpredictable power of the Spirit, rather than decisive warrants for a far-reaching change in the theology of the church.
AKMA's Random Thoughts

As one who opposes changing the traditional discipline of reserving participation in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ to those who have been baptized into the body of Christ, I want to offer some anecdotes of my own.

We have a blurb in our bulletin that invites all baptized Christians to receive Communion, but I do not generally say anything about it. I do always make a point of inviting everyone to join us in sharing food and drinks at our fellowship time immediately following the liturgy. I do not interrogate visitors who come forward to receive. Contrary to common misrepresntation, this is not about trying to protect Jesus from the unworthy or ignorant.

1. We have a member of our congregation who received communion every Sunday for several months before mentioning that he was not baptized. He had been raised in, and had been an officer in, the Salvation Army which does not do sacraments. Upon learning this, we had a conversation in which I explained the rationale for requiring baptism. We then met for several months of baptismal preparation during which time he came forward for a blessing. Once baptized, he received communion again.

2. There are ways to make noncommunicants welcome while still respecting distinctions. Another of our members is married to a man who years ago became a Buddhist while he was in college. In many ways he is more active than many of our baptized members, attending congregational events beyond his regular Sunday attendance. He and his wife linger long at our fellowship time after the liturgy. He is even the chair of our IT committee. I can assure you he feels most welcome. When I asked him what he thought of our limiting Eucharist to the baptized and if it bothered him, his response was, “Why would I take Communion, I am not a Christian.” I suggest that we respect him more and he us by acknowledging that distinction than if we pretended it was irrelevant.

3. I was a guest speaker a year and a half ago at an event at a mosque around the corner from St. Barnabas (What I said at the Mosque). Since the main event took place in their place of worship, they requested/made us take our shoes off before entering. I could have taken offense, I suppose, at this expectation since I believe it is sufficient to remove the sandals of our hearts (though as one who takes bodily action seriously, I do wonder if they are onto something). Would I not be guilty of presumption if I had ignored the request? Would they not have been disrespectful of their own tradition’s understanding of God/Allah had they not insisted? Would they not have been less than respectful of me and my convictions if they had just said that our differences don’t matter and I could go ahead and wear my shoes if I wanted to since we are all just generic people seeking an experience of a generic 'Holy'?

I remain convinced that an indiscrimate invitation to Eucharist is a theological error that is neither respectful nor hospitable. Striving for both hospitality and honesty is harder, but better.


Benedict Varnum said...

My consistent position on this is that we teach the story of the rite -- however briefly -- during the Eucharistic prayer. When people tell me that seems an insufficient understanding, I can't help but wonder when any of us have a "sufficient" understanding of the mystery of the Eucharist.

More, though, I don't want to limit the possible role that receiving communion can play in the spiritual journey of any person. I certainly understand the Buddhist's sensibilities around not being a Christian, but if someone hears "On the night before he died, Christ took bread," and feels drawn to "take, eat, and do this in remembrance" of the salvation history we pronounce, I don't want to stand in the way of that.

Our theology of baptism is that it is full inclusion into Christ's Body the Church . . . but many of us hold that our theology of sacraments (including baptism) is that they make visible something that has been becoming real before the event. Can receiving communion, then, be an entry into "partial" inclusion in Christ's Body the Church?

The anecdotal corpus I'm aware of has as its greatest share a set of stories of people (often "lapsed" Catholics or gay Christians who left their church-of-origin because they felt it refused to encounter their full self) who are already Christians, and have a sense of what it means to receive communion. I know of several people with Catholic family members who have felt called to receive communion in an Episcopal Church (in spite of Catholic official teaching that it is not really the sacrament) because of the welcome or the context.

Two other beliefs cause me to question the theological necessity of ordering the sacraments in the same chronology as they take place in the Gospels. One is that when we take on the example of Christ, there are very few places where we do it in a way that is as literal as chronologically-arranging our spiritual journeys would seem to be. The second -- and this is more powerful to me -- is that it is our strong tradition and practice to return to both the font and the table: we reaffirm our baptismal vows with every Christian's baptism, we receive the reminder when we are asperged with Holy Water, and we return to the table week by week -- our tradition is not that there was but one sacramental communion, of which all others are only remembrances, but that the rite is sacramental.

Does this leave open the possibility of abuse? That someone might receive communion half-heartedly, or only because others in the congregation have gone up? Certainly. But dare we presume this isn't happening amongst those baptized as infants? Is it a worse abuse (and I believe this question deserves some actual gravitas) than God suffered within the incarnation? The respect we can offer the rite as worshipping congregations seems to me a better defense against this than holding the line of baptism, although creating a practice of gentle refusal can certainly have the effect of drawing a certain kind of attention to the sacrament as well.

To my mind, the strong argument that remains is the effect that the discipline of abstention until baptism can have for spiritual growth and awareness. I've heard anecdotes like the one above about those who feel called into baptism beginning to abstain from receiving communion, and I don't believe this practice is threatened by opening the altar rail. Others may be confused, having heard in previous contexts that communion follows baptism; that is also a conversation that can be had.

These thoughts I offer are by no means authoritative, but I do believe they represent a stronger conviction than a mere matter of politeness or a failure of nerve.

Ben Varnum

Sydney said...

nice post, Matt!

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Sydney.

Matt Gunter said...


Thanks for engaging this post. And thanks especially for attempting to do so with more than emotional appeals. It is odd that those who make most of the place of reason in our tradition are often the ones who often resort to emotional testimony as their basis for argument – and not just on this issue.

Have you read my attempt at defending the traditional discipline?
I would be interested in where you think it fall short.

Here's my response to your response above:

BV: I can't help but wonder when any of us have a "sufficient" understanding of the mystery of the Eucharist.

MG: It’s not about "sufficient" understanding. It is more about belonging and the responsibilities and accountabilities that go with belonging - belonging to Jesus and belonging to the body of Christ, the Church. It is analogous to growing up as a citizen of a country. An infant, a twelve year old and an adult are all citizens. Tourists and guest workers are not. It is still important to instruct citizens in the responsibilities and accountabilities of citizenship and form the habits and virtues peculiar to the realm.

But, ‘sufficient’ understanding is not what makes you a member. And insufficient understanding does not absolve you from the entanglement of loyalties and mutual responsibilities that come with citizenship.

Part of the problem is that in the modern era we have gotten used to treating the church like an association of individuals rather a community of belonging.

BV: the spiritual journey of any person

MG: Again, if it is about belonging, it’s not primarily about the individual’s spiritual journey. Bishop Katherine got a lot of heat from some conservative circles after stating at the last GC that faith is about more than a personal relationship with Jesus. I think she is correct and those who picked at her were wrong. But, inviting anyone to the Eucharistic table is the ‘progressive’ version of the same thing. We cannot resist this cultures hyper-individualism and consumer mentality by reinforcing it in our central communal practice.

BV: something that has been becoming real before the event

MG: There is no doubt that God is always wooing everyone everywhere and that no one comes to Jesus “unless the father draws them.” But, baptism is the threshold for incorporation into the body of Christ which is what the Eucharist is about.

BV: often "lapsed" Catholics or gay Christians who left their church-of-origin because they felt it refused to encounter their full self

MG: "lapsed" Catholics or gay Christians are presumably baptized, no?

BV: “Two other beliefs cause me to question the theological necessity of ordering the sacraments. . .”

MG: I confess I do not understand these two arguments.

BV: Does this leave open the possibility of abuse? That someone might receive communion half-heartedly, or only because others in the congregation have gone up? Certainly. But dare we presume this isn't happening amongst those baptized as infants?

MG: The church is a community of promise and a community under judgment. Those who are baptized have been incorporated into the community of particular promises and particular expectations of discipleship and life together – and hence are under particular judgment. Inviting others to commune places them under judgment and is irresponsible.

Again thanks for the response. And for going beyond “a mere matter of politeness or a failure of nerve.” Still, I remain convinced that even when not based on (the more common) emotional appeal or sentimentalism, the move to change or ignore the church’s practice in this is based on faulty theological premises.

Benedict Varnum said...

I'll have to consider this at greater length later, but for now, I'll try to expand the two arguments.

The first argument speaks against the need to place baptism before eucharist on the basis that this was the order in which Jesus ordained those two sacraments (which is, it bears saying, not the only or the loudest voice in favor of the practice). So it's relatively unimportant to me.

The second argument is more important, which is that the urgency of ordering baptism before eucharist in the life of the believer (the member?) is, to my mind, somewhat blunted by the fact that as a community, we return to both many times during out life together as Christ's Body the Church. Thus, while we each have one baptism, and while Christ held one Last Supper, we make the promises over and over again at the baptism of every believer and at times throughout the year, and so too we receive communion week by week, doing so in remembrance of Christ.

I'll make a point of returning to this (and to the post you referenced early on -- I DID read it briefly before replying, but focused my response mainly on this) after Holy Week. I hope yours is well-blessed.