By Derek Olsen
So—what is the connection between the foregoing discussion about salvation and sacraments and the current issue upon the table—Communion without Baptism (CWOB)? The issue is about liturgical practice and how we greet strangers and seekers in our midst, not theology, right?
Well, I’m not so sure… I’m fond of telling my students that there are no such things as liturgical changes; rather, there are theological changes with liturgical implications. While there is more than a bit of hyperbole in that statement it captures an essential truth: our rites communicate our theology. When we change our rites, very often there is a change in the theology we are expressing whether we recognize it at the time or not. Thus, when faced with a decision about our liturgical practice (i.e., whether or not we should invite the unbaptized to receive the sacrament of the altar) we must first remember what we believe and why we believe it.
You see, Anglican—Christian—sacramental theology is the logic and theology of intimacy. Even the metaphors Scripture uses for the relationship between God and believers bespeak this intimacy: to abide, to dwell with, to remain within. The prophets and poets of sacred page have used time and again the figure of bride and groom in scandalous and sometimes shocking ways to communicate both the depths of intimacy (Revelation and the incomparable Song of Songs) and intimacy’s betrayal (Ezekiel and Hosea). Remembering the logic of intimacy, remaining faithful to its vision of life in relationship grounds our ritual ways, our liturgical practice, in a theology that honors the God who has chosen to be in relationship with us.
At the heart of intimacy is commitment. Nothing more—and nothing less. Intimacy is not instant; it grows over time. Intimacy is a process of growing into knowledge, love, and trust gradually—and its gradual nature demands that those growing remain committed to the process and to each other. It grows through hearing promises, then seeing those promises come true; through sharing truths, then recognizing and confirming those truths embodied in the patterns and rhythms of everyday life.
In our sacramental life, the moment of commitment is baptism. Like promises exchanged between lovers, like the promises made before the altar in marriage, baptism is a covenant relationship. God is constantly inviting us into relationship, simultaneously presenting and fulfilling the promise to be in relationship with the whole creation and with each individual member of it. In Baptism, individuals—or those presenting them—both recognize the call of God and return the commitment, recognizing the identity of God as it has been revealed to us in the baptismal creed and promising to be faithful to the relationship with God. This, we believe, is an everlasting covenant. Even if we fail, even if we fall away and betray the promises made or refuse their claim on us, God continues to love and call us again to the fullness of a life hid with Christ in God.
When we accept this call, however, God’s ongoing commitment and revelation of his deepest self to us comes through the Holy Eucharist: Christ’s own flesh and blood, given to us as a true sharing of body and essence, true intimacy. In the Blessed Sacrament we receive Christ into ourselves to abide, remain, and dwell so that we likewise may abide, remain, and dwell in him.
Furthermore, this intimacy to which we are called is not just about individual gratification or knowledge. For as we are baptized, we are baptized into the whole company of faithful people, into the company of all those also joined to Christ and most especially those embodied in our local communities. As we approach the altar we never do so alone; rather we participate—in the most literal sense—in the Communion of all the saints without regard to time or space or the limits of the flesh. For this too is part and parcel of the mystery of the life hid with Christ in God: as we grow in love, trust, and intimacy with God, we grow too towards one another and to the whole of humanity, indeed God’s whole creation, as we learn to love as God loves. This is the logic of Communion with Baptism; this is the theology of intimacy.
Coming from this perspective, Communion without Baptism misreads the logic of the liturgy. It demands intimacy without commitment, relationship without responsibility. To apply this same logic to another sphere of human relationship, this is the logic of the one night stand—the logic of the “meaningless” fling. Is this the relationship that we wish to have with the God who knows us each by name and who calls that name in the night, yearning for our return to the Triune embrace? But then again—who is this “we”? Exactly whose relationship are we talking about? Is this “we” the clergy, the members of the vestry, those who populate our pews day in and day out? Are those the ones invited to receive communion without baptism? No. The seekers, the strangers, the wanderers in our midst—they are the ones in view here. And here is my question; this is what we must answer to the satisfaction of our own consciences: Do we have the right to choose for the stranger and the seeker a relationship contradicting the logic of intimacy without offering them a yet more excellent way? Do we who make decisions for the church uphold our own baptismal commitment and covenant by offering the strangers and seekers less than what has been offered to and received by us?
The call of God is to all. God’s radical hospitality is for all. Truly Christ stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace. Truly the Spirit moves over the waters of renewal and new life, beckoning and inviting. To the stranger, to the seeker, through our mouths we offer and issue God’s words of invitation: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden…” inviting them through the waters of Baptism into the household of God. And in doing so we fulfill Christ’s commission to baptize those of all nations and teaching them his words and ways, the depths of his love, the depths of a life hid with Christ in God.
Derek Olsen blogs at Haligweorc. This essay is part of a continuing reflection on the place of the sacraments in the life of the Episcopal Church. A future essay will focus on Scriptural issues. For a differing view, read Deirdre Good’s essay on hospitality, and visit the Cafe on Monday for an interview with the leaders of a church that practices open communion.