Thursday, June 28, 2012

Theology 101: Baptism and Holy Communion

Once again my friend Elizabeth Kaeton+ has put up a challenging article.  She challenges her readers to discuss the issue of the reception of Holy Eucharist of those who are not baptized.  This is one of those topics that is near and dear to my heart and I pick up her gauntlet.

The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) does not tell us anything about who and who cannot receive Holy Communion.  That is only found in the Constitution and Canons (Title I.17.7).  I must admit I was surprised to find it in the canons but not terribly so.  It is of the nature of the C & C’s to be about the legal character of the Church.  The BCP deals with the pastoral needs of the Church and there is not proscription of the unbaptized from reception of the Eucharist.

An organization or a Church has the right to determine who comprises membership.  It is an important part of being an organization.  I have no problem with the Church determining who is and who is not a member.  It is a necessary aspect of maintaining order within the organization.  What I do have a problem with is demanding that the Sacrament of Baptism be a prerequisite for the reception of Eucharist.  And I think it is significant that the BCP does not make it a requirement.

From very early in my catechism as a Roman Catholic I learned of the Baptism of Desire (Baptismus Flaminis), an understanding that those who have come to faith yet die without the benefit of the sacrament of Baptism are deemed saved by their faith.  It is an understanding that the mere desire to be baptized is enough. It is an understanding that it is not the human action of pouring water is what makes the baptism efficacious.  It is the act of God. With this in mind that I have often communed those who present themselves for Holy Communion without the benefit of the initiatory rite.  Who am I to determine who is worthy of Christ’s invitation to the table?

The Eucharist also had a similar understanding.  If a person cannot receive Eucharist for some reason, it was always understood that others could receive the sacrament in the name of the other and the grace of the sacrament would be upon the one who could not receive.  It means that the grace of sacraments is not bound by the outward and visible sign, but by the inward and spiritual grace of God.  In other words, God is the arbiter of the desire for faith, not the Church.

At times during the history of the Church, the Church needed to guard the integrity of the Sacraments of the Church.  When Christian sacraments devolved in popular theology into magic, it was necessary to prescribe solid theological understanding for those who found in the sacraments the necessary spiritual support to sustain them.  It is interesting that the Eastern Orthodox understanding of Baptism is much more elastic than is that of Western Christianity.  The Eastern understanding that baptism conferred salvation was always understood in a spiritual context.  In the West, Roman discussion of the sacraments until the Council of Trent was a bit vague, too.  The advent of the Reformation in the 16th century drove Roman Catholicism to articulate a rather rigid and demanding understanding of the administration of the Sacraments in order to refute the protestant critique. 

In the Anglican Communion we have had two different understandings of the sacraments: one catholic and one evangelical.  And although Anglo-Catholicism draws its roots from its Carolingian forbearers, most of its heritage comes to us today from the Tridentine manifestations of Roman Catholicism that made the sacraments almost mechanical in their efficacy.  Most Anglo-Catholics eschew the evangelical understanding of baptism that it is the result of the grace conferred in the surrender of the believer to the grace manifested in the salvific work of God alone.  But Anglicanism has always been a faith in which both the catholic and the evangelical approaches to the sacraments have been held in tension.  In other words, we Anglicans have been rightly hazy about our theology of the sacraments in a way that is not only acceptable but laudable in a pre-Reformation way.

Consequently when presented with those who wish to receive Holy Communion, I want to err on the side of the generosity of Jesus’ life and invitation rather than being ‘protective’ of God’s grace.  If we truly trust in God to make known the efficacy of the signs of God’s presence, then I do not have to be a watch dog.

If I were to note that someone that I knew was not baptized was regularly coming to the altar, as a pastoral response, I would ask them why or invite them to a class leading to Baptism.  But I do not choose to have a ‘window into the souls of men [sic]’ as someone is making the decision to commune with their God.  Baptism does not need to be the gateway to Eucharist.

I too am aware that many are coming to our churches who have never been baptized. At a recent new comer luncheon there were at least 5 who admitted that they had grown up in no religious tradition. There are those who come to weddings and funerals that have never seen the inside of a church and yet present themselves to receive Holy Communion.  But I will not refuse them because we as Church need to recognize that we have brought on this problem ourselves.  By failing over several generations to educate our members in a solid theology of faith and the signs of their faith, we have to recognize that we now have generations of attenders who have some really skewed sense of religion in general and Christianity in particular.

In her book Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass shows that somewhere in the last 50 to 100 years we who call ourselves Church have promoted faith by adherence to tenets of faith.  We have invited to our membership those who would embrace certain doctrinal points and called that faith.  If someone had some water splashed over them, then they were baptized.  If they had hands laid upon them, they were confirmed.  If they had received Communion three times and were known to the treasurer, they were then considered to be ‘in good standing.’ But we never inquired into the relationship they had with God.  Oh yes, we taught the history of the Church and how we had come to this wonderful place in which three-legged stools supported their faith.  And we counted them on our parish records, but we never went deeper.  We never invited them to a life of personal prayer. We developed few programs on personal prayer or invited anyone to anything Eucharist.  We made the Eucharist not only the ‘primary worship ’ but in most cases the ONLY manifestation of worship. We counted all heads at Mass, but we never really talked about how people could love Jesus.  (Of course, good Episcopalians would have never used those words—it might sound too evangelical)

We used the Belief-Behavior-Belong progression to gather the people to Church never really recognizing that we had really gotten the progression wrong.  The community of Faith—the Qa'hal Yaveh is really developed first by Belonging then Behaving and then Believing.  And if we are going to last in this new era of ‘spiritual AND religious’, we must put much more emphasis on how we welcome those who are longing for an encounter with the Holy. 

Part of the belonging has to do with table fellowship.  Jesus knew this.  He ate and drank with everyone—tax collectors, sinners, women, etc.  It is at his table that people knew that they were welcomed and loved.  And when he called them, they knew that they were a part of his family (Mt. 12:48).  It is the community in worship that molds the faithful into claiming their faith and articulating that faith.

As I see it, the future is going to be determined by just how we invite those who seek relationship with God.  We don’t invite people to encounter the Holy by denying the Eucharist.  Jesus never said you had to be baptized to believe in him.  He just said ‘Follow me.”  And I would suggest that Baptism may just be the sign of one who has come to the place in their lives that says I wish to follow Jesus.  Sacraments need to be signs of God’s grace, not barriers to community.  Baptism should be in every Christian’s life.  But it should never be a barrier to communion.

Granted, I come to this from the position of a pastor rather than an administrator who is responsible for numbers that need to be reported.  I come to this theology not just from my Catholic roots but also from a type of Anglicanism that straddles fences for a good cause.  I also come to this way of sharing in God’s holiness as a priest who recognizes that we have failed generations of thirsty seekers by demanding the Christian jump through hoops just to be deemed one of us.   It is time to re-think the sacraments. 

Just as the Blessing of Same-Sex relationships is calling us to re-think marriage and blessings, so this new Age of the Unbaptized calls us to re-think what are the signs of God’s love in the world.  We know that Christ instituted Baptism and Eucharist.  No conditions were placed upon those marks of Christ’ presence, however.  How then, can we?

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