Baptism and Communion: identity and inclusion

by Maria L. Evans

“Scripture itself provides no unambiguous or explicit guidelines on the question of communion of the unbaptized. It could be argued that the question never arose. However, baptism clearly plays an important and foundational role in the community that gathered around John the Baptist and later Jesus.”

–Tobias Haller, BSG, from the book, Water, Bread and Wine: Should we offer communion to people before they are baptized?

Hopefully, the statute of limitations has run out on what I’m about to confess. Many of my best friends growing up were Roman Catholic, and when I would go to Mass with them, I went through a period where I became more and more curious about “just what was in that Sacrament from which I was excluded”–and more in more intent on getting it in my mouth to see just what the fuss was all about. So, I enlisted the help of one of my friends, whom I was pretty sure he would not worry much about being consigned to Hell for being the accomplice in my scheme. It was a subterfuge that only a pair of adolescents would think was plausible (or even desirable,) and we pulled it off with all the finesse of the theft of the Crown Jewels. He was to go up for Communion like always. When the bread was popped into his mouth, he was not to swallow it, but bring it back in his mouth and deposit it in my hand while he was kneeling in post-Communion prayer, and I could see for myself. (I always knelt with him during his post-Communion prayer, even though I wasn’t post-anything.) The fact that it was slightly tinged with the sip of wine he consumed, and a little soggy from his slobber didn’t seem to matter. I had eaten from the table from which I was excluded.

I doubt the church in Rome would have been too happy about me, but I’m pretty sure Jesus chuckled.

Now, my story isn’t really an exact parallel to the question raised in the book from which I quoted above (I was baptized, but in another faith tradition,) but it does illustrate the level of desire the Sacraments induce in people, and the more I read the various opinions “for” and “against” Communion Before Baptism, the more I’m convinced this is not a question that needs to be answered this week. If I have one criticism of this book (and it’s worth a read, if you haven’t read it) it is that the premise of the title itself frames for debate rather than discussion. The title asks the reader to say “yes” or “no” to the question, but after reading this book, I think I can say “yes” to every single person’s essay in this book, no matter which “side” they were asked to champion. There’s another parallel in real life. Most of us would say baptism and catechesis is important–very important–in framing our understanding of our rich Anglican traditions. Yet most of us also know that this issue is the equivalent of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the Episcopal Church. Everyone in the process for ordination knows what the “right answer” is in front of the diocesan Commission on Ministry, but we also know this canon is broken all the time, and for many plausible reasons. Sara Miles’ book Take this Bread is a perfect example of how the Sacraments have power within themselves to change people in a way we can only hope formal catechesis changes them.

In short, it’s a balancing act between identity and inclusion.

Perhaps the real task before us in the Episcopal Church is to meet the challenge of how to change the canon to hold it all–to make it clear that baptism is the fundamental statement of community in the Christian faith, yet at the same time leaving room to let priests be priests, rather than bouncers, and to free them from the fear of canonical and ecclesiastical persecution by a hypothetically capricious bishop. It should not–and does not–have to be a situation where priests are held in tension between two aspects of their vows–to “conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church” while they simultaneously endeavor to “minister the Word of God and the sacraments of the New Covenant,” and to “be a faithful pastor to all whom they are called to serve.” After all, being a faithful pastor has elements of all three.

Our canons are not set in stone–we have changed them many times in the life of this church. Nor is the path to the Eucharistic table. It was only until the 1979 Prayer book came along that we fully changed from being a confirmation-minded community to a baptismal-minded one in terms of how we saw access to the Eucharistic table. We’ve paid a lot of attention to the Eucharistic table in our Anglican tradition, and rightly so. In the secular world, whether it’s on vacation, or during a hospital stay, or during our years in school, the one thing we react to most viscerally and sticks with us the longest are our feelings about the food. Our holy food and drink deserves no less attention.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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