Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Communion Without Baptism

The Diocese of Eastern Oregon will present a resolution at the 2012 General Convention calling for a change to the canon law of the church to permit something called Communion Without Baptism (CWOB). This  resolution, if it passes, will change Canon 1.17.7 which currently states that "No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church." (A pdf of Title 1 of the Constitution and Canons is available here). A document, written by my seminary classmate the Rev'd Michelle Meech, supporting the resolution can be found on her website as a pdf.

The practice of extending Communion to those who are not Baptized has been much discussed in the past few years. I agree with Derek Olsen that this is the next big controversy in the church, now that same-sex blessings seem to be a done deal (according to the Presiding Bishop). I should say here that I am generally a conservative when it comes to this issue, meaning that I tend to wish to conserve the status quo, that the reception of communion is ordinarily restricted to those who are baptized.

We ought to be clear about what we are talking about when we talk about CWOB. We are not referring to the ecumenical sense of "Open Table". Classically, "open table" has meant a policy of sharing Holy Communion with Christians of another doctrinal community, e.g., Methodists and Roman Catholics being invited to Communion at Episcopal Church masses. CWOB is instead the practice of explicitly inviting anyone to receive Holy Communion, regardless of whether they have been baptized. We are also not referring to casual or accidental reception. Nobody on the side that opposes CWOB has called for "checking baptismal certificates at the altar rail", although this is a straw man that seems to show up in every comment thread on every blog post on this topic. CWOB instead deals with a stated policy that invites or even encourages people to come to the Altar Rail for communion even if they haven't been baptized.

This is in fact already the practice in some parishes. The Diocese of Northern California (the diocese that sponsored my ordination) did a survey in 2004-2005 (8 years ago!) to find out how widespread the practice was. The practice is apparently not unknown in Canada; the Canadian bishops issued a statement rejecting CWOB last April.

Matt Gunter has compiled a list of blogbits that discuss this topic, and I've shamelessly ripped it off to post here.

Additionally, Anglican Theological Review carried a splendid conversation between James Farwell and Katherine Tanner on this topic back in 2004, which can be read on the ATR website.

So many good people have written, and the primary purpose of this blog post is to try to put all the resources into one place so I don't lose them, as well as to encourage both of my readers to become familiar with the discussion. I do have two or three ideas beginning to take shape, however, but they are far from complete. 

First, when talking about CWOB, pro or con, we tend to focus on the reception of Holy Communion. The central action under consideration is the act of a person getting up from their pew, and walking to the Altar Rail, receiving and eating the Bread, and receiving and drinking the Wine. What is often missing from these conversations is whether or how a non-baptized person can participate at all in the eucharistic celebration. I'm not advocating that we return to the old discipline of escorting people out after the sermon (from this, the Orthodox liturgy retains the cry "The doors! The doors!", i.e., they were to be closed and locked to prevent the un-initiated from experiencing the rest...) but I'm considering the Eucharist as a single grace-filled action between Christ and his church. In other words I'm keen to see this in light of participation, not just of reception. 

In some ways, this is a far bigger deal than same-sex blessings. This issue plunges right into the heart of our worship and our sacramental theology, both Baptism and Eucharist. It has huge implications for our understanding of the structure of the church and the meaning of Christian identity. It has huge implications for our ecumenical and Communion relationships.