My Take on “The Statement on Baptism and Eucharist in the Episcopal Church.”.
(I’ve been writing mostly on Facebook, but am beginning to want to return to the Blog to put “on record” some of my writing.)
My take on the “Statement on Baptism and Eucharist in the Episcopal Church.”
A group of 22 theologians have written “A Statement on Baptism and Eucharist in The Episcopal Church.” It urges the Episcopal Church General Convention to make it clear that “Holy Eucharist is not intended for “all people” without exception, but is rather for “God’s people.”
I believe It is profoundly misguided on many levels:
The notion that Baptism “is the sacramental foundation of our common life with God and one another” and “is the fountain from which all other sacraments flow” may make for good theological fluid mechanics, but it is terrible sacramental theology.
Sacraments are, as we remember, outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. There is no suggestion in that simple definition of any sort of hierarchy of sacraments. The sense in which Baptism and Eucharist were “instituted by Christ” does not tell us anything about having to be baptized first, and only then being able to participate in the Eucharist. All of that is part of the discipline of the Church, not the result of limitations on the workings of Grace.
The writers say, “Baptism is what makes the Church the Church and therefore what enables us to participate in all the other Christian sacraments or sacramental rites, such as the Eucharist.” This is the “ticket to ride” theory, and it does not bear up very well under biblical scrutiny. Participation in Christ, taking the body and being the body, can be initiated by any means the Spirit determines.
After a small bow to the Book of Common Prayer (and only the most recent version of that), the writers refer to the “Commentary on Eucharistic Sharing,” that has as its authority that as a commentary it was approved by General Convention and is part of the Handbook for Ecumenism. Commentaries are just that - commentaries. Not canon or common prayer or direct extensions of biblical materials. Commentaries. The description given says nothing about exclusion from Eucharist if not baptized, but rather that being baptized, Eucharist is the “special offering of thanksgiving” and “serves to bind into a common body those whose differences He has reconciled.” That is, those baptized are enjoined to celebrate Eucharist. Nothing is said about those not baptized.
The writers then conclude, “Unlike Baptism, Holy Eucharist is therefore not intended for “all people” without exception, but is rather for “God’s people” understood above as a common body united by a common faith.” The “therefore” just does not follow.
And, who, pray tell, are “God’s people.” Best we not reject someone because we defined just who God’s people are, and it didn’t include that person, only to find it was a messenger of God disguised.
Furthermore “all people, without exception” is a lead into the issue of “moral and theological commitments” that the writers assume are part of restrictions. The objection seems to be that open invitation means that “just anybody” could come and receive, but that “just anybody” already includes me, “I am unworthy to come to thy table…” and includes me I suppose because I don’t share in the theological subtleties that seem to drive the writers.
The writers contend that, “There are thus specific moral and theological commitments both expected in and expressed by the act of reception.” Indeed that is true. But it is mostly true for those of us who receive as committed Christians. We are expected to bring our understandings and faith commitments to the table. But that does not necessarily exclude those whose faith has not been formed.
The writers introduce a quite amazing close: “Finally, in liturgical terms, the Eucharist is understood to be the repeatable culmination of the baptismal rite of initiation, in which those who receive the elements publicly reaffirm their baptism, as the post-communion prayers clearly indicate.”
OK. Take a look at the first post-communion prayer for Rite II. It reads, “Eternal God, heavenly Father, you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and you have fed us with spiritual food in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord. Amen.” This is a prayer said by the whole congregation. Not every member of which gets it, that we are “members” of the body of Christ by baptism (not mentioned by name in this prayer), and certainly not every member will get the notion that this is “a repeatable culmination of the baptismal rite of initiation.”
Baptism can, and often is, and was apparently at the very beginning, a rite of its own, a sacrament sufficient in itself as a carrier of the Grace with which it was endowed. Its culmination is in the pentecostal fire. The notion that the Eucharist is a ‘repeatable culmination of the baptismal rite of initiation’ is a long stretch and smacks of invention.
The writers then sign off with a really fantastic bit of theological bludgeoning: “These are the basic sacramental convictions of The Episcopal Church, and however the canons express them they need to be acknowledged as such.” I suggest they are not the “basic sacramental convictions of The Episcopal Church,” but rather the convictions of some theologians about the way The Episcopal Church ought to view the sacraments.
All of which is to say, these writers have some really interesting things to say about Baptism and Eucharist, but about the linking of the two and therefore the forbidding of persons to receive communion, they fall short of decent argument.
On a practical level, my sense is the invitation to the table (and not compelling but inviting) is mostly an issue for those occasions when a good number of people who are not baptized Christians are likely to be in attendance - namely weddings, funerals and large Church occasions. Some sort of guidance seems in order, maybe something like, “We gather at this Altar Table as Our Lord Jesus Christ desired, becoming one with Himself, and of his Body in the world. Those who are prepared to be and become one with The Lord Jesus in his death and resurrection are encouraged to receive Communion. Those who wish to bless and be blessed in their presence with us, please come forward to be blessed at the altar, and to bless us by being with us.” (This is a rough cut…but you get the idea.)
These writers will carry a lot of wight, with their titles and degrees. That’s the way it goes. But this piece will do the church no good. It is a mess.