The Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon has released a supporting statement regarding its General Convention resolution (you can visit the General Convention page and scroll down to C040 to find it linked) calling for Communion regardless of Baptism. The document is theologically problematic, culturally myopic, and logically flawed.
As Christendom was waning, the Episcopal Church ratified a new identity in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. This new identity brought us to practice baptismal ministry and made the Eucharist the central part of our Sunday worship. Now, after living this theology for over 30 years, we are faced with the growing practice of Open Table in the Episcopal Church. The two are not unrelated.
Yet, baptismal ministry has been the core of the Church’s identity for 2000 years. The Eucharist has been the central act of worship for large parts of Christianity since Christ said “Take, eat, this is my Body.” Somehow, over 2000 years, this has not been a source of tension. This was the pattern in lean times of persecution and in the bloated years of full-blown Christendom and in every era in between. Wax or wane Christianity has held, at its core, Baptism as entry into the life of Christ.
The challenge is not that we have a ministry of the baptized and Communion as our central act of worship – the challenge is that we have clergy ill-trained in Sacramental theology administering them. We have laity that we have failed to form in Sacramental living. We now have a wide body of our priests that do not believe anything much actually happens in the Sacraments.
Do you believe the Holy Spirit descends upon a person and transforms their very being in Baptism so that they are united with Christ? Do you believe that Christ is truly present in the Body and Blood we receive at the Altar? Are the Sacraments God’s action or ours? I have heard far too many talking of Baptism as an entry rite rather than as transformation just as I have heard too many speak of Communion as a “meal” alone rather than the very Presence of Christ among us.
If you have a clergy addicted to modernism and reformation charged with carrying out the catholic Sacramental life of the Church then you will, indeed, have tension. But the tension should not between upending the Sacraments or administering them faithfully as they have been across the centuries. The tension should be between doing or not doing them. You can choose other ways of ministry that do not involve undoing the historic Sacraments of the Church if you are not comfortable with the faith and order we have been welcomed into as both baptized and ordained leaders.
In a recent conversation with a clergy person about this issue, they mentioned an older person in their parish who was receiving Communion but had not been Baptized. The priest said, “I just can’t see making him go through some ceremony.”
To open our boundaries to the beloved children of God means that we first must understand our relationship to God in a way that empowers us to be Christian ministers.
We already open our boundaries at the font. In that action of washing and being made new in Christ we come to understand our relationship to God. I cannot help but notice that up to this point, and through much of the document, the emphasis is on one person of the Trinity (I am assuming they are referring to the Father, but it is difficult to know). Yet the Sacraments are about our union with Christ. Communion and Baptism are not a vague encounter with a Divine Source –they are the receiving of the Son by the work of the Holy Spirit.
Creation is not the chief Sacrament.
The Sacraments exist for the sanctification of humanity because we are not just fine on our own. We need the life-giving encounter with Christ to be fully alive as creatures of God.
This is the crux of the dilemma, in many ways. Why baptize? If people are fine as they are and not to be challenged to the life of transformed living in Christ, then the Sacraments are, indeed, irrelevant and can be toyed with to suit the perceived needs of the day. The Catechism reads, “From the beginning, human beings have misused their freedom and made wrong choices” and we are rescued from that misused freedom (which includes walking apart from Christ) in Baptism.
We must, indeed, understand our relationship to God. It is a relationship that is defined in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we do not see Christ as decisive in the salvation of the human family then our Sacraments do not really matter. They are an indifferent thing if redemption is an indifferent matter.
At Baptism, our lives begin their irrepressible movement toward fulfillment in Christ. Moving through that door, toward that fulfillment, is a synergistic interplay of our faith and God’s promise, the living of which, in and of itself, is an act of faith. For it is the recognition that we can be more, that Christ offers more for us, of, and to us and calls us to nothing less.
We die in the water and are reborn in the spirit. All of the historical understandings of baptism require the work of the cross for completion. The washing away of sin is incomplete without the work of the cross. If one downplays the notion of washing away sin in baptism and prefers to conceive of baptism as rebirth, that too requires the cross. Baptism opens a door to the treasure house of grace and the true refuge of the sinner; and it wedges that door open for all time.
We are the Body of Christ and we choose to offer ourselves as sacrament to all the children of God.
This is a troubling theological statement. We are, indeed, the Body of Christ – the Church. The whole Church is the Body – the whole Church throughout time, across borders, transcending theologies, and beyond horizons. The whole Church has Baptism as the core of its identity. The Baptism of Christ is ours. The Baptism of every saint is ours. The Baptism of every sinner is ours. Just as ours is theirs. The Sacraments commanded by Christ are of the life of the entire Body of the Church.
The troubling thing about this entire section of the essay is its implication that somehow there is an entitlement to undo the Sacraments. “We are the Body of Christ and choose…” Yes you are, but so are the countless souls gone before and that will come after. So are those in Churches across Christianity that understand Baptism as the mark of Christian living and the entry into the life of Christ.
In other words, being members of a Catholic body of faith does not mean we get to say “We are the Body of Christ” with anything other than a full recognition that this does not entitle us but rather binds us to one another and to the faith once received.
The Catechism says of sin, “Sin has power over us because we lose our liberty when our relationship with God is distorted.” Seeing ourselves as the Body unmoored from the discernment and practice of the Church throughout the world is a distortion of our relationship with one another and with God for it makes of salvation by the water a thing to be played with rather than the heart of the Great Commission.
If this just read, “It is no longer convenient for us to maintain the faith and order of the Church throughout history, so we give up” I would be happier for that would be an honest summary of where things are. We have given up and blame society for our inability and unwillingness to do the complicated and taxing work of discipleship, evangelism, and mission.
While we do declare the Church to be Christ’s Body, we also must be able to remind ourselves that it is a human institution, indeed our human endeavor to proclaim God’s profound and radical love for the whole world incarnate in Jesus Christ.
The Church is, indeed, a human institution and it can be captured by the winds of the day. This is why the whole, the entirety, is vital for conversations such as these. Across Churches and denominations, there is a wide understanding both within the Reformed and Catholic traditions that Baptism is the natural entry into the life of Christ. This human institution has spent millennia listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit which has led to the Sacramental life we share. We are indebted to those Christians across traditions and through the ages who have passed on this understanding to us.
I do not believe that the Church throughout the entirety of our history and across traditions has been failing to “proclaim God’s profound and radical love” because of its understanding of the link between Baptism and Communion.
Our new enlightenment must be something to behold for the priests martyred in South America, for those who were part of the Civil Rights movement, for those who advocated for better working conditions and wages in the slums, for those who throughout history have sought to stand in the path of the forces of depredation and exploitation. Courage to stand in the face of a violent humanity and proclaim true love does not come from humanism with a godly patina. That kind of courage flows from understanding the faith, the Church, and Christ Jesus as so decisive and upending that we can do no other.
A Church that wants to transform society cannot be shy about asking its members to be transformed. A Church that wants to impart the strength to challenge the systems of oppression and violence better offer more than enlightened self-interest to feed its people. Sacraments that don’t matter enough to wait, to ponder, to make a loving commitment to receive are not Sacraments that can fuel the Body.
This redemptive work cannot be done only by those within the system but must involve people outside the system. Therefore, when people feel called to our Table we, as stewards of our Table, are called to welcome them so that we might work together towards redemption.
…as Christians, we more than anyone should know that the mystery of our Sacraments is beyond our ability to comprehend and, by implication, beyond our ability to contain. Our location as Christians enables us to identify the Holy Spirit at work, not to own it.
The redemptive work is done. It is not done by us. It is not done by those outside the “system.” We do not work towards redemption.
Christ has done the work of redeeming and we are baptized into that redeemed life. The Catechism states, “Redemption is the act of God which sets us free from the power of evil, sin, and death.” It does not mention working toward it. Furthermore, “By his obedience, even to suffering and death, Jesus made the offering which we could not make; in him we are freed from the power of sin and reconciled to God.” It is that sacrifice which we are bound to in the sacrifice of the Eucharist. It is not just a meal – it is our offering to Christ to be joined to his own sacrifice and “We share in his victory when we are baptized into the New Covenant and become living members of Christ.”
The mystery of the Sacraments is, indeed, “beyond our ability to comprehend” and thus should not be undone because a small sect of Christians finds it inconvenient. It sounds harsh to say sect, but we will divorce ourselves from both catholic and reformed practice and will be exactly that – a sect.
The Sacraments are a mystery beyond our grasp and we can only shepherd, with faith and attention, that mystery. This is not ours to upend. The Holy Spirit is not only at work in your corner of Christendom in ways you would like to perceive – it has been at work across the ages in the hearts and souls of the faithful. The canons of the Church, the councils of the Church, the Catechism and faith of the Church – these too are expressions of the movement of the Spirit.
The grace and prayer of Baptism and Communion necessarily straddle time and space, for while the feeding and the washing take place within the margins of our awareness of space and time, they function in liminal excess, that place of nearness and distance from self and God where the tyranny of linearity is undone in the all encompassing will of grace that overshadows and conquers time, place, and distance.
The promise of Baptism is that the exchange between God and man takes place in the space of communal memory. That space of memory is one that is not simply an individual exchange, but an exchange of the community in which it renegotiates and reimagines its history as it encounters the grace of God. The call to unity is one that takes place outside of space alone. Thus one person’s intentional participation in Baptism can have manifold and deep benefit for the community they are a part of for they are helping to reshape and renegotiate the place of memory of and with God. Moreover one person’s, one diocese’s, or one priest’s decision to upend the tradition has an impact far beyond sight and space.
The interpretation of what is the movement of the Spirit cannot be held captive in a tyranny of the living alone.
The final sections, on mission and ministry, deserve their own post and this one has gotten over long I think!