Recognizing that the majority of Pray Tell Blog readers are Roman Catholic and the internal arguments of the Anglican Church in the United States (known as the Episcopal Church) are only slightly relevant to the general conversation, I want to present an issue that is alarming in its lack of theological foundation (particularly ecclesiological and sacramental theology) as well as a line in the sand for many Episcopalians.
For many years I’ve heard the quip that “when Anglican theology is good, it is very good,” referencing the via media not as a wishy-washy compromise or postmodern shrug of “whatever” but as a comprehension of holding together inevitable and life-giving tensions. Here’s a case of “when it’s bad, it’s really bad theology…” The first part of the title above, Baptismal Ecclesiology without Baptism? I’ve borrowed from myself – a book chapter included in a festschrift on baptismal ecclesiology dedicated to the late Revd Dr. Louis Weil (Drenched in Grace, Wipf & Stock, 2013). Louis Weil was a strong advocate of baptismal ecclesiology – first and foremost as the antidote to clericalism – not just in practice but as a theological definition of the church. He argued that the essence of being grafted onto the vine which is Jesus the Christ is not ordination but baptism, disputing a hierarchical ecclesiology in which “every aspect of the church’s life was understood through the prism of holy orders,” (“Baptismal Ecclesiology,” in Equipping the Saints, 18-34). This all sounds so obvious in 2022, but it was not always so (and yes, Anglicanism has excelled at clericalism in many places and times in its history).
Building on this rediscovery of baptismal ecclesiology has been a renewed emphasis on baptism as a new birth, restoring a bit of the imitation of Jesus’ own baptism in the texts of the liturgy, retaining the theology of Romans 6, and putting less emphasis on baptism as solely the forgiveness of sins. In the US 1979 BCP these multiple theologies are presented, and even the structure of the “new” prayer book became a theological statement: holy baptism followed immediately by holy eucharist.
But then things started to go wrong, and baptismal ecclesiology became a rallying point for some voices advocating that equality and hospitality were the primary virtues of Christianity. Now, equality and hospitality are difficult to argue against – they are important and central. But what happened was a confluence of several issues. First – the 1979 BCP bizarrely (the word used by Paul Avis, a leading English Anglican ecclesiologist) stated that “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s body the church.” (BCP 298) This sets aside any theology for chrismation or even confirmation as initiatory, but more importantly, denies the culmination of initiation in the Eucharist – a fairly amazing stance considering the growing chorus of ecclesiologists advocating to remember that Anglicanism is rooted in the early church, not just in the sixteenth century. This 1979 statement is undoubtedly a factor in the poor reception that the re-introduction of the catechumenate had in the Episcopal Church, despite its careful adaptation and crafting from the RCIA by a number of liturgical scholars, particularly Michael Merriman at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in the 1980s.
But another conversation was also underway, driven by a perceived urgency of parish communities losing people. How do we make the church more hospitable, more appealing to “young families”, the goldmine of new members? At a conference presented at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale in 2012, I was one of several presenters speaking to the intimate relationship between baptism and eucharist. At the end, a very angry audience member stood and yelled about how horrible it is to demand that people be baptized before welcoming them to communion. First, it’s not hospitable, and second, it fences off what “we do” – receive communion. It was her next statement that astounded me: “baptism demands something, eucharist does not, so we should make it easier for people.” Therein is revealed a generation (or more) of really poor catechesis on sacraments, sacramental theology, the church, and oh so many other things…
Where is all of this whining going? It’s going to resolution CO28 “All Are Welcome at the Table” to be presented to the General Convention of The Episcopal Church this summer (July 2022), written by the Diocese of Northern California. It aims to undo canon law (canon I.17.7) which states “no unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.”
Why? Because baptism is a “barrier…to receive a Holy Meal.” There are eight points, including
- We should be known as a welcoming church
- There is no gospel mention of being baptized before reception at the last supper
- It is uncomfortable to think of Jesus turning away anyone
- The catechism (1979) is not explicit in the prerequisite
- A repeat of the lack of the baptismal prerequisite in the gospels
- A repeat of the Episcopal church removing barriers
- One doesn’t want to card-check at communion
- And, the clincher, “this could help grow congregations by reducing the number of visitors who do not return because they felt excluded during communion”
There is not enough room in a single blog to address these points (8 which are actually 6). Just to mention one argument I have made elsewhere at the intersection of ecclesiology and eucharistic theology, it is the church, with its head Jesus the Christ, which makes eucharist. The church is formed of Christ and the baptized – the non-baptized do not “celebrate” the eucharist. They may be present in the room, but there is not a participatory reality there. So, what is it to receive communion (or better, to “do” communion – not an object-subject encounter, but a subject-subject encounter) in this context? A second point – why is the cultural preference for democracy (applied to the liturgy) assumed to be preferable (where everyone does everything all together all the time) as opposed to the body of Christ imagery in which diversity of being and roles is an organic necessity? Or, a third point, why are churches which actually make demands growing faster than those who welcome all to everything and adapt themselves to whatever people want? You can imagine there are many other points which could be made…
In the end, this is most likely simply an announcement of the trials of one member church in the body of Christ. But it is increasingly a house divided (over this issue and others). Of your charity, pray for the Episcopal Church in the United States…