The topic of communion without baptism has raged, off and on, for some time now. Recently, General Convention again laid to rest any policy that would officially allow it. Our canons still rule it out. And yet, voices continue to advocate for it, and are, in turn, countered by those with a more traditional view. The argument for communion before baptism tends to revolve around hospitality and the case against it hinges on the deep connection between baptism and communion.
What often remains beneath the surface is the question of what exactly communion is. I am reminded of a conversation I had with my pastor when I was a Lutheran. This was back in the days when it was more common to only celebrate communion on the first Sunday of the month. I had asked him if we could celebrate it more often. He remarked that if we did, the communion would lose its power.
I have reflected on his answer many times. I wish I had asked him more directly what he thought communion was, for I have become convinced he had a very different idea what was going on from what I thought then, and certainly what I think now. I’m convinced he thought of communion as primarily a social, psychological, or emotional event.
By a social, psychological, or emotional event I mean that the effects, and the cause of those effects, are found in the emotions and feelings of the people receiving the bread and wine. What matters is how they feel about themselves and their fellow communicants. It is not surprising that hospitality becomes the focus. If communion is about the psycho-social state of the participant, then how the visitor is responding emotionally to being in the communion service is of prime importance.
I believe that neither this pastor nor today’s advocates for communion without baptism are entirely wrong, at least not about the importance of the social and emotional dimensions of communion. While worship (and therefore communion) needs to be God-centered, to leave out all considerations of the “human factors” involved would be a mistake. For a variety of reasons, John’s gospel omits a “last supper” narrative. But nevertheless, John has a meal in progress the night before Jesus’ death. Jesus is at pains in his so-called upper room discourse to deal with a variety of human factors, not the least of which was the command to “love one another.”
An image I can’t get away from is the elevation of the chalice during the Great Thanksgiving. On so many levels this is a climax of the rite. What often strikes me is the thought that if I had better eyesight, I would be able to see everyone gathered in that space reflected in the mirrored surface of the cup. Whatever else is happening in that moment, we are certainly a people gathered together.
There are psycho-social and emotional aspects of communion. Those who affirm this as the primary center of communion are a long way (mostly) from treating communion like an alien anthropologist might treat it — as purely a ritual conducted by an interesting specimen of an emerging intelligence. When communion without baptism advocates speak of an unbaptized person being drawn to communion, they reveal their belief that what is going on in communion transcends the psycho-social world. How we deal with that person is a matter of evangelism and catechesis that would naturally lead to baptism. There is no need to check for baptismal certificates at the communion rail!
What is in question is how we phrase the invitation to communion. The assumptions behind what communion is will directly influence the language of that invitation. What is problematic are those arguments, often based on hospitality, that view communion as merely a human-centered event. Scripture, the liturgy, and the tradition of the Church point to a much deeper explanation of communion.
For the sake of brevity, I will leave consideration of Scripture and tradition to others. Our liturgy has some powerful elements that point to deeper things that must be taken into account.
In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer’s Eucharist Prayer A the celebrant says, “Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament.” Why do we need to be sanctified to faithfully receive? It seems that good intentions are not enough, and that we need external help.
Prayer C has an evocative section:
Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.
It seems that there is “strength” and “renewal” available at this Table. And lest we think it is only a spiritual pep rally, the text points out that it is the grace of this Holy Communion — not us or what is ours — that will make us one, and send us to serve.
Prayer D says something important as well:
Lord, we pray that in your goodness and mercy your Holy Spirit may descend upon us, and upon these gifts, sanctifying them and showing them to be holy gifts for your holy people, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, the Body and Blood of your Son Jesus Christ.
I have no wish to restart the long, sometimes tedious history of asking what it means for the bread and wine to be the Body and Blood of Jesus. But certainly we are confessing in the liturgy that what we are given in communion is more than a psychological pick-me-up! I can do no better than Flannery O’Connor, who when her dialogue partner said the Eucharist was a symbol, responded, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”
Our liturgy does not allow us to ignore the fact that more is at stake in communion than issues of hospitality and psychological and emotional benefit. I wish I had asked my pastor if he only ate once in a while, or if he only took a breath once on the hour! Eating and breathing do not lose their effectiveness by being done more frequently. How much more will communion be effective because it is “the bread of life and the cup of salvation?” This very effectiveness also reminds us that we deal here with something not to be trifled with.
This has direct bearing on our discussion of communion before baptism. If communion is more than just a “religious social event,” then we should be wary of reasons to invite the unbaptized that do not take into account the deeper levels of the nature of communion.
Charlie Clauss is a technical support representative for a company that builds humidification equipment.