By Daniel Martins
According to the materials that have been made available to bishops and deputies who will be in Baltimore this summer for the 80th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, there is yet again a proposed resolution that seeks to abandon the ancient ecclesial discipline that Holy Baptism is a proper prerequisite to the reception of Holy Communion. Resolution C028 calls on the convention to “repeal CANON I.17.7 of the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church (2018 Revision, page 88), which states: ‘No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.’”
Of course, this is not anything new. At least as long ago as 2012, there was a similar resolution that came to convention. As I recall, there was not a single audible Aye vote cast in the House of Bishops. Three years later, there was a proposal merely to formally study the question of Communion before baptism. This one did have some support among the bishops, but it still fell short by a fairly wide margin. In that same session, there was a motion to reconsider the action, and it failed as well.
The arguments pro and con seem largely fixed, not subject to any discernible evolution or shifting nuance. Those who advocate for a liberalized practice cite hospitality as a core gospel value. Jesus, after all, is actually the host at the eucharistic banquet. It’s his party, not ours. Who are we to turn away people whom Jesus would undoubtedly welcome wholeheartedly? In Baltimore, testifiers will line up at microphones to recount how they were led to the font by first being welcomed at the altar.
Those who want to adhere to the ancient discipline point out the internal logic of the sacramental system, how seeking covenanted grace from Holy Communion for someone who has not been baptized makes no more sense than expecting an internet browser or a word processor to run on a computer on which an operating system has not been installed — to say nothing of an unbroken tradition that is shared among all the Christian communities to which things like unbroken tradition even matter.
Where does this leave us, then? It looks like the textbook example of a “stuck” situation. There’s not a lot of wiggle room to speak of on either side of the question. Of course, the conventional wisdom in a case like this is the clichéd counsel to “think outside the box.” This is as often as not a useless nostrum because the “box” is not self-evident. Sometimes, though, it is … and I would like to suggest that this is one of those times. Let me describe what I see.
Over the last three or four decades, it has become commonplace in church circles to speak of the demise of “Christendom.” For many hundreds of years in European and North American culture (and, for that matter, in Latin America as well), secular social structures generally supported the Church’s wellbeing. Church membership and some level of involvement were presumed social norms. It might have been said of the United States in the 1950s, while not everybody necessarily attended Sunday worship regularly, nearly everyone at least had a particular church that they didn’t go to! Going to church was never universal, but it was respectable, and socially advantageous.
Christendom has all but completely disintegrated during my adult lifetime. Youth soccer has replaced Sunday school as the “place to be” for middle class American children on Sunday mornings. But it often seems as though the last ones to get the memo about this massive social upheaval are the ones who are most deeply involved in the life of the Church. We behave as though we think Ozzie and Harriet episodes are still being aired on prime-time television. We think of Sunday worship as a public event that is at least in the back of the minds of the general population as a possibility for how they might spend their weekend morning.
This causes us to devote a great deal of thought and attention to curating the experience of those elusive and increasingly hypothetical tabula rasa strangers who will wander into our churches off the street to check out what goes on behind those beautiful bright red doors. We include the words and music of the service in the leaflet each week to relieve the visitor of having to juggle a prayer book and a hymnal. We provide clear signage to the nave, the restrooms, and to childcare. And, in many places, we make sure nobody feels awkward or excluded by welcoming them to receive the sacrament “wherever you are on your spiritual journey.” It’s all part of a single hospitality package.
It has not always been thus. There was a time before Christendom. It was long, long ago (and, for Americans, far, far away). Access to information about what life was like for Christian communities prior to the middle of the fourth century is fragmentary. Such experience was diverse, and varied from place to place within the Mediterranean world (all of which was part of the Roman Empire). But we do have enough data on which to establish some educated inferences. The truth is somewhere between a stab in the dark and a documented historical narrative.
Persecution was constantly running in the background. Even during the periods when official government persecution ebbed, there was social opprobrium attached to Christian identity. Sunday was an ordinary workday in most places. Christians gathered for the Eucharist secretively, usually assembling in homes. There was no published time and place; it was word-of-mouth. You had to know somebody who knew somebody. Unknown walk-in visitors were not expected! They would have been received with suspicion and some considerable fear.
The normal way for newcomers to be received into the community was by accompanying established members, who would have already, both in the witness of their lives, and in their words, provided some rudimentary introduction and instruction in Christian faith and practice. Such newcomers would have been welcome to remain with the eucharistic assembly through the sermon. But prior to the creed and everything that followed, they would be politely but firmly excused. Those who expressed a desire to explore baptism, becoming catechumens, would gather in another place with catechists to “chew on” what they had heard in the liturgy of the word and in the homily. Only after three years of such formation, and with fairly intense scrutiny of their lives, would they be baptized at the Great Vigil of Easter, and for the first time, be allowed to remain with the baptized faithful for the prayers of the people, the sign of peace, and the celebration of the Eucharist. The occasion when they made their first Holy Communion was the same one in which they were able to even witness the entire liturgy.
Could there be a starker contrast between the underlying presumptions of the pre-Christendom model of Christian initiation and those of the “lingering Christendom” vision that energizes the proponents of Communion before baptism? One involves a well-considered decision, taken over a long period of time, with careful and caring input from others in the community, and deep, soaking, formation in the mysteries of Christian faith and practice — culminating in sacramental union with Christ in baptism as the beginning of Eucharist and Eucharist as the continuation of baptism. The other involves a hasty response to an ill-considered invitation, with virtually no discernment or preparation, and a sacramental experience that is incoherent for both the recipient and the community. One assumes that the Sunday Eucharist, with or without reception of the sacrament, is the first data point of a person’s encounter with the gospel and the Christian community, followed, over time, by catechesis, integration, and, possibly, baptism. The other assumes the Sunday Eucharist is the last element in a long sequence of introduction, instruction, learning by example, and formation in what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in this non-Christian (whether pre- or post-) world.
Obviously, we can’t transport ourselves to the fourth century, and do everything they did, even if we were able to see clearly what it was they did, which we can’t. Our situations are different. Our post-Christian culture is post-Christian, and not post-something else. The ruins and artifacts of Christendom are still there for us to poke around in, and that cannot help but inform how we see our missionary task. But our circumstances and those of our pre-Constantinian forebears are also probably more alike than we probably realize. One of the distinctive marks of the pre-Christendom church was an unmistakable sharp disjunction between the values and norms (moral, spiritual, social) of the Christian communities and those of the surrounding secular culture. To be a Christian was to be different, distinctive, a social outlier. To become a Christian was to voluntarily embrace this marginal status. We are arguably not quite to that point in the evolution of contemporary Western society, but we are right on the cusp. It may be that we are but a single generation away.
The comforts of ingrained habits, to say nothing of accustomed status and establishment, lead many in the Church, included ordained leadership, to resist such developments. Christendom remains a living memory, and we recall its perks fondly. For those of us in the liturgical/sacramental tradition, we hold onto the notion that the Sunday Eucharist is the platform on which we compete for the attention of our “market” — compete not only with the secular social order, but with other “brands” of Christianity. But what if we just stopped doing that? What if we stopped thinking of the Sunday Eucharist as the principal “show window” of the Church, the portal through which people enter the life of the community? What if, instead, we were more organic and intentional about introducing people to the gospel in other settings?
What if we made a strategic effort — as communities, not merely as individuals — to identify largely unevangelized and unchurched segments of the population in areas where we live? What if we were able to enter those environments, form relationships, and earn the privilege of talking to people about the most intimate area of their lives — their spirituality? What if, in that context, we introduced them to Jesus, in our deeds and in our words? What if some of them even began to be his disciples, alongside of us? What if we then introduced the subject of baptism — life in Christ through the power of his death and resurrection? And then finally, as if in an afterthought, we would say something like, “Oh, there’s this really cool thing called the Eucharist. You’re going to love it.” They would have no opportunity to feel excluded because they wouldn’t even see it before they were legitimately able to taste it.
Or … there’s a Plan B. If we can’t wean ourselves from thinking of public worship as an entry portal to ecclesial life, what if we offered public worship that is non-eucharistic, in which everyone who walks through the door is welcome to join fully? As Anglicans, it’s not like we don’t have this in our DNA. Before the recovery of the Holy Eucharist as the “principal act of Christian worship in the Lord’s Day” (a move for which there is no more avid proponent than this author), Episcopalians habitually worshiped on Sundays using the form for Morning Prayer. It allows for more evangelistic and catechetical preaching than does the eucharist and makes no potentially awkward demands on those who attend, whatever their baptismal status. Of course, the pastoral challenge here would be to persuade the baptized faithful that, even should they choose to support such a service as a matter of outreach, they would also need to attend a celebration of the Eucharist.
The way to extricate ourselves from the horns of the “Communion without baptism” dilemma may be to choose not to adjudicate the matter at all, but to render the question moot by rethinking how we go about what we do on Sunday mornings to begin with. If the Eucharist is no longer our public face, then questions of hospitality evaporate.