Baptism before communion is still church's norm

Convention debate shows practice doesn't always follow canons

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Jul 25, 2012

The 77th General Convention affirmed that it is “normative” for people to be baptized before receiving communion. ENS photo/Mary Frances Schjonberg

[Episcopal News Service] The seeming disconnect in some parts of the Episcopal Church between the theology and practice of admission to communion became newly apparent to the Rev. Canon Beth Wickenberg Ely on a recent Sunday morning.

Ely, canon for regional ministry in North Carolina, who was presiding at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, had to consult her notes to remind herself exactly how to describe who was welcome to receive communion.

“I didn’t know whether they say ‘everybody come’ or ‘baptized Christians’,” she recalled during a July 23 interview with Episcopal News Service. “I go with what the church does, and it varies.”

For Ely, who chaired the diocesan deputation to the recently concluded 77th General Convention, that moment at St. Martin’s epitomizes why her diocese proposed (via Resolution C029) that the Episcopal Church spend the next three years studying its theology that underlies access to Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.

Convention rejected both that suggestion and one from the Diocese of Eastern Oregon (Resolution C040) that would have allowed the church’s congregations to “invite all, regardless of age, denomination, or baptism to the altar for Holy Communion” by eliminating Canon 1.17.7, which says “no unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.”

Instead, the convention passed a substitute for C029 in which the Episcopal Church “reaffirm[ed] that baptism is the ancient and normative entry point to receiving Holy Communion and that our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to go into the world and baptize all peoples.”

The substitute resolution came out of the convention’s legislative committee on evangelism to which C029 and C040 were assigned.

“The committee worked very hard with the two original resolutions and it was very clear that even those who would be leaning more towards the open-table idea were not ready to change the canon at this time,” the Rev. Canon Dennis Blauser, the Northwestern Pennsylvania deputation chair who also chaired the deputies’ Evangelism Committee, recalled during a July 25 interview with ENS.

Blauser said the committee heard from nearly 50 people during its hearing on the two resolutions. Some witnesses voiced concern over East Oregon’s proposal to do away with the baptismal requirement while others gave personal or second-hand testimony of people “who had had this powerful call to go to communion — to receive communion — and [how that experience] brought them into a new relationship with Christ and with the church, and eventually being baptized into the body of Christ,” according to Blauser.

In the end, the committee members sensed from the witnesses and amongst themselves that “there was really no strong pull” to abolish the canon, but they wanted to acknowledge that unbaptized people were receiving communion in the Episcopal Church.

Thus, when the House of Deputies first considered the committee’s substitute resolution on July 9, it included a second sentence saying: “We also acknowledge that in various local contexts there is the exercise of pastoral sensitivity with those who are not yet baptized.”

That sentence remained in the version of the resolution the deputies passed, despite an attempt by the Rev. Canon Dr. Neal Michell, chair of the Dallas deputation, and others to remove it. He told the deputies that accepting the sentence would give clergy permission to violate the canons of the church.

The Very Rev. Canon James Newman of Los Angeles, who opposed removing the sentence, said those distributing communion do so amidst a tension between deciding what do when someone puts out his or her hands to receive the sacrament and knowing what Canon 1.17.7 says.

In the end the House of Deputies passed the committee’s resolution on a vote by orders, by 77 percent in the lay order and 64 percent in the clergy order. The resolution then went to the House of Bishops.

When the bishops took up C029 on the morning of the last day of convention, they eventually rejected the “pastoral sensitivity” sentence after first considering rejecting the entire resolution or referring it to their theology committee, which convention had done in 2003 (via Resolution A089) at the bishops’ behest.

Missouri Bishop Wayne Smith told the House of Bishops during its debate that the issue is “an ongoing concern” for the house’s theology committee and so “whether you tell us to or not we will keep addressing this matter.”

Bishop Duncan Gray III of Mississippi, chair of the bishops’ legislative committee on evangelism, said that the bishops and deputies’ committee chose to rewrite C029 (and eventually discharge C040) because the former “was a more appropriate vehicle for what the committee wanted to say.”

Northern Indiana Bishop Ed Little told his colleagues that “we don’t need to tell clergy in the parish to be pastorally sensitive, and this will be read as opening the door to communion of the unbaptized and will put a resolution of General Convention in conflict with the canons of the church, so I urge a no vote.”

Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island, who converted to Christianity from Judaism and was baptized as an adult, said that when her priest invited her to consider being baptized, “I had to deal with my identity. I had to deal with what it meant to make a public affirmation of faith.”

“And for those who have found their faith through communion I say ‘Wonderful, I’m happy for you. I’m not going to turn you away if you come up to the altar rail.’ But I also want to say I’ve written a little banner here for myself that says ‘open baptism’,” she said “I rarely ever see the invitation to adult baptism expressed in our churches and if we’re talking about identity and if we’re talking about faith and mission I believe this is where it begins.”

New York Bishop Mark Sisk moved that the bishops strike the “pastoral sensitivity” sentence but approve the rest of the resolution because doing so “communicates clearly where we are.”

Blauser said the deputies’ committee then faced in the “last minute on the last day” whether to recommend that the House of Deputies concur with the amended resolution, of which he said “we thought that it really gutted the resolution as we intended it.” The committee did recommend concurrence and the one-sentence resolution was accepted by the entire house.

The Rev. Anna Carmichael, who helped write the Eastern Oregon resolution, told ENS on July 23 that she wished convention had accepted the entire substitute resolution because she found it to be a “really great example of how we try to find a middle ground and work together in this church even when we don’t necessarily always agree theologically or even pastorally.”

Carmichael, for whom this was her first foray into General Convention resolution drafting, said she was glad C040 “sparked a lot of conversation both online and actually at convention.”

“We should be proud as a church to be willing to engage in these kinds of dialogues,” she added.

Ely admitted she was “very frustrated with the disconnect that I see between the interest in the particular topic and the unwillingness of some people to have a church-wide discussion on it,” which she said was “all we were trying to do with what we sent” to convention.

“There were many people at the hearing that wanted to talk about this particular thing and I think when people show up to give their input and they show up in such numbers it’s irresponsible of the church to basically shove it aside,” she said. “It’s time for a conversation.”

Blauser told ENS that the committee rejected the idea of a study, “which was going to cost money and we felt that we did not to have another committee set up to do this [because] the study will be done by the reality that this practice has been in the church and will continue in the church at some level, and we will continue the discussion.”

Both Carmichael and Ely agree that the question of what is variously called open communion, open table and communion of the non- or unbaptized is not going to go away.

“I think we go back to meeting it head-on with a resolution in three years, again saying we’re doing one thing and we’re saying another,” Ely said.

Carmichael said she was not entirely surprised that the committee’s resolution was amended in the House of Bishops, “but I think it gives us great some food for thought and an opportunity to reflect on how we could better present a resolution like this in the future.”

“This discussion is ahead of us and we’re not going to be able to avoid it forever, particularly if we re-vision ourselves,” Ely said, referring to convention’s decision to re-imagine the work of the Episcopal Church in the 21st century.

She said that future decisions about open communion will inevitably be “a by-product of the way we’re going to be church in the future.”

Meanwhile, Carmichael says she will not change her practice of inviting all people to receive communion at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Hood River where she is rector.

“While I understand that as a priest I have taken a vow to uphold the rubrics of the prayer book, I feel that sometimes pastoral care and pastoral sensitivity are equally as important as our theology behind what we do,” she said, adding that the Episcopal Church is always striving to extend its welcome to all people “and I hope that at some point our welcome will include unbaptized at the communion rail.”

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service. The Rev. Pat McCaughan, an ENS correspondent, and Melodie Woerman, a member of the ENS General Convention news team, contributed to this report.


Comments (58)

  1. V. Tupper Morehead, MD, MDiv, TSSF says:

    Were all of the folks at The Last Supper baptized? Did Jesus exclude anyone from The Last Supper? It seems to me that Jesus included Judas Iscariot in the eucharistic meal. I suppose Jesus must have said, “Get on this side of the table if you want to be in the picture.”

    Who are we as laypersons, Religious, deacons, presbyters, and bishops of The Episcopal Church to judge who is and who is not welcome at the table of the annointed Jesus? If we believe that Jesus is really present in the eucharistic meal, then we must believe that all are welcome at His table; to do otherwise is heretical. Do you believe that Jesus is the anointed ruler in your life? Do you believe that Jesus stretched out His arms on the cross for ALL? If so, let go of your ego, your controlling, your privilege, your power, your affluence, your acheivements, your big hats, and your vestments of empire, and welcome all of your brothers and sisters to the table of Christ with humility and love.

    The table of Christ does not belong to The Episcopal Church. The Real Presence is in the eucharistic meal, but not in church doctrine and dogma. Thanks and praise to the holy and undivided Trinity, one God of all, baptized or not. Some, I suppose, only want to admit the circumcised to the Episcopal table; let the clergy start checking to see who qualifies. Or perhaps baptized persons should be required to bring their certificate of baptism with a photo I.D. to Jesus’ table in order to receive Him in the eucharistic meal.

  2. Linda Barber says:

    We have a Thursday “soup kitchen” and welcome all to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. I would not want to get to the point where we have to ask each person if they were baptized.

    It is not for us to exclude people. Amen.

  3. The Rev. Robert M Rainis says:

    As a pastor in the ELCA, a full communion partner with TEC, the invitation in the congregation which I have been called to serve is ” All Baptized Christians who believe that the bread and wine about to be received is the True Body and Blood of Christ, are invited to commune at His table. All may come forward for His blessing”. If I read TEC Canon referred to in this thread, belief in the “True/Real Presence” is not required? Therefore those who believe that the bread and wine are somehow “symbolic” of His Body and Blood may also commune? And yes, I do know (and regret) that the ELCA is in full communion with Christian communities that hold to “symbolism”, ie The RCA, Presbyterian. Thankfully the UMC is moving toward a different understanding of the Lord’s Supper. I would also note, that a number of responders have stated that they were “baptized Catholics’, I would offer that all who are baptized by water and the Holy Spirit are baptized into the Body of Christ and not a particular Church body. Good discussion thus far, as we “sinner/saints” continue to ponder His words, “This IS My Body….This IS My Blood”

    1. Angela Hock says:

      Thanks so much for your comments. And you touched on something that is a pet peeve of mine — the use of “I was baptized a _______ (name the denomination). We still have LOTS of baptismal teaching to do, I guess! “I am baptized” should suffice, I’d think.

  4. Anna Highsmith says:

    I was baptized in the Episcopal Church as an infant, confirmed as a teenager, and was a weekly churchgoer until I left home for college. As a young adult, I went to various churches a few times a year, but had no sense that I “really belonged” and didn’t know how I could reconcile my own imperfect faith with the declarations from the pulpit, but I still had a desire for communion — in all senses of the word.

    It wasn’t until I heard “whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome” that I realized I didn’t have to be a Perfect Christian in order to participate in the life of the church. I felt more welcome at that church than any before, and I came back to the Episcopal church as a weekly churchgoer and pledging member. I am baptized and confirmed, but I feel most welcome as part of a community that embraces, loves, and serves without discrimination.

  5. Wendy Beckers says:

    Sometime during the summer of 1933 my father’s sperm entered my mothers uterus. For nine months, the embyro was supported and nourished in a body of water. This is such a miracle in itself that from such a beginning came a person made in the image of God. Could this not be a baptism in itself? There was no church in the little mill town where I lived for the first eight years of my “earthly” life. I grew up un-churched, but never felt disconnected from God.

    My mother finally got around to having me baptized when I was twelve because it was the thing to do. At one of the morning gatherings of youth which preceded our Sunday School Class, we were asked to stand up and tell why we felt dancing was a sin. My fondest memories of my father were that of when he would place my feet on top of his feet and “dance” with me. Not knowing any better, I stood up and announced that I did not consider dancing a sin.

    Much later in my life, I attended a midnight Easter Vigil at a Greek Orthodox Church. The entire service was in Greek; but, I understood all that was taking place.

    1. Wendy Beckers says:

      Sorry, i hit the wrong key. I have never felt any disconnect from God; but, I was so pleased when I finally “found” the Episcopal Church in 1995 and was invited to receive Holy Communion without having to produce any document that said I was qualified. It is such a joy for me to be able to go to a retirement home once a month as a representative of St. Mark’s and offer Holy Communion to all who desire to receive it. It is a wonderful experience to see the expression on faces when someone asks “Is it okay for me to receive since I am of another church” and they are invited to partake. It is not for me to judge, but to invite.

  6. Doug Desper says:

    So, what canoncial consequences will be exercised with those clergy in our Church who continue to create their own ecclesiology on this, i.e; teaching and offering communion to anyone without discretion? If our canons matter on the parish’s real estate property then should not canons matter on the care and development of Christian souls?

  7. Linda Nichols says:

    I have been a member of the Episcopal Church since I was 22, when I started attending with my then husband. I was skeptical at first, but quickly fell in love with the traditions and the history of the Church. I was raised in the Baptist Church, whose traditions and history were somewhat less than fascinating to me. I took no communion until I was baptized. Now I take my grandchildren (ages 5 and 7) with me to church, since their father is not interested in going and their mother is from a different tradition. My granddaughter was baptized this January, when she asked to be. Both her parents jumped on “Is she ready? Does she know what it means?” Yes, I believe she did. Her little brother, meanwhile, is still waiting for baptism, waiting for when he expresses interest and his parents are convinced he wants it. Both children take communion. Tell me, what is the difference? Will my granddaughter be taken up into Heaven if we should all be killed in an accident, and my grandson not be taken? I watch them, and I believe they both have a pretty good feel for what is going on at the communion rail. I will continue to work for my grandson’s baptism, but am glad that he is not denied communion in the meanwhile.

  8. Debra Goebel says:

    I will never forget overhearing a young boy in the next pew tell his young friend “I can’t go up there (to the communion rail) because I’m not a member of this family.” His father had refused to allow him to be baptized or to receive communion (which in my parish was offered him regardless of his baptismal status.) I was devastated by this young boy’s statement. Of course he was a member of our family, Christ’s family, and I told him so later on. But he did not feel he was because he was not permitted to share our meal of fellowship. He instinctively understood that he was excluded from something that was central to our life together as Christians. (Because of his father’s wishes, not our rector’s. I am using this incident only as an example of how excluding a child of God from Christ’s table is spiritually damaging to that person.) I did a lot of reflecting on baptism and Holy Eucharist. If baptism is an “outward and visible sign” of God’s grace, this is an ongoing grace, which begins at conception and never ends! A friend once asked me if I thought anything “special” happened at baptism. As far as what God does, nothing any more special than what He had been doing since He created that new life. As far as what we do, yes. We have set aside a special day, created a special ritual, called together our community of faith, and given thanks for what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do in the life of this person. If we believe every person on this earth is a child of God, made in His image and a recipient of His grace, it may be extremely important to acknowledge that with baptism, but I do not believe it must be a prerequisite for communion. The little boy in my story understood, appreciated the significance of communion. He knew that he was “excluded” and felt the pain of being denied a place at the table to which everyone else was invited. Somehow I cannot imagine Christ turning him away and saying, “When you, a seven-year-old boy, have convinced your father to allow you to be baptized, you may come to My table.” As far as the disciples being baptized, no one knows. However, as far as we know Christ never said “Do this in memory of me, but only with those who have been baptized.” If this was important, I suppose He would have been more specific. As He sacrificed Himself in order to restore the whole world to God, I tend to believe the celebration of His sacrifice should be available to the whole world. I believe we are called to baptize not in order to initiate people into Club Christian, but to celebrate God’s love which is transforming the world through each and every individual. Another observation. We may pour excess wine that has been blessed back into the earth (which I do not believe was baptized), and yet we cannot offer it to a unbaptized child? “Even the dogs may eat the crumbs…” It is offensive to me to see a priest “finish off’ leftover hosts, while others in the congregation are left spiritually hungry…

  9. Bob Boyd says:

    My grandson was baptised when he was 6 months old. Over the years, whenever he was with me I took him to the communion rail. At 3, without receiving permission from the priest, I started giving him a piece of my communion bread. Thereafter he received directly the bread and eventually wine also. Other parents in our parish followed our example. I think this has a positive impact on my grandson even at his young age of 8. I can only hope the same is true for others who receive communion, regardless of being baptised or now.

  10. Father Mike Waverly-Shank says:

    In my little Church in the Catskills we recently welcomed two new large families. When they came most were not Baptised. This did not present any problem. They gladly knelt and received a blessing. In June 4 of them were Baptised. The rest will be Baptised soon. They believe in Jesus and were so happy to be welcomed at St. Mary’s that waiting for baptism and Communion was no problem at all.

  11. Karen Morgan says:

    I am by no means a theologian, nor learned in any way about the Episcopal Church except that I have been a member since birth, with totals 68 years. I therefore have seen the transformation from the 1928 BCP that I was brought up on to the revised BCP 1976, to the present day which includes the Revised Common Lectionary readings. Again the changes in the Rite of Holy Communion were that I had to be confirmed before I was able to receive. My children who arrived after the 1976 revision were able to receive their “First Communion” when they were ?? whatever age the priest accepted, as long as they were Baptised. The congregation now in 2012 is invited to the Lord’s table if they are a baptised christian, no matter what denomination they belong to. My understanding was that they were invited to receive if they were baptised in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and if they believed they were receiving the “body and blood” of Christ, not just a token or substitute/representation of the body and blood. If they did not truly believe in the “Real Presence”, as stated in the Catechism in the BCP page 859, Q. What is the inward and spiritual grace given in the Eucharist? A. The inward and spiritual grace in the Holy Communion is the Body and Blood of Christ given to his people, and received by faith. If one does not believe they are receiving the real presence, the body and blood of Christ, then they should not be invited to the table. They however, should not be denied if they come to the table – that is their conscience.

  12. John Williamson says:

    I believe that all who truly seek God are welcome at his table.

  13. Dennis Maher says:

    That the Episcopal Church is considering open communion should receive more press. As a Presbyterian I fought in the early ’70’s for admitting children to the table before Confirmation. We succeeded in that, not in small part because a seminary professor’s 5 year old daughter wanted to participate. When asked why, she responded “Because it is about Jesus and about love.” I was much influenced by Norman Perrin who wrote extensively about the “table fellowship of Jesus” with sinners as foundational to the sacrament. So I have been in favor of open communion. A Roman Catholic priest explained to us at an ecumenical service that Canon Law prohibited non-Catholics from participating, but also forbade him from turning anyone away. The Episcopal Church was too extreme in the past. In the mid ’60’s I was asked to leave an Episcopal Christmas eve service midway through because I was not a member. I never went back.

  14. Peggy Williams says:

    I have read all of the foregoing and I deeply believe that the Episcopal Church should be inclusive and not exclusive. I had an experience today that shines even more light on what the Episcopal Church should be about. The doorbell rang, I was at home alone, sitting at my piano practicing an anthem for Sunday. From the piano bench, I could clearly see a young man approach the door. He had tattoos up one arm and down the other. His hair was long and tied back in a pony tail. I thought, o.k., Lord, where is this going, as I answered the door. I live in a gated community. We engaged in a friendly conversation and when I told him I was in a church choir and was practicing the anthem for Sunday, he expressed an interest in our church. I invited him to come to our Christmas Eve midnight mass, and he sounded as if he might actually come. I told him I would be looking for him. (He was actually delivering a business card from his boss, who had just been in our house to do some cabinet work.)

    So, now he comes to our Christmas Eve service; however, he notices in the bulletin that only baptized Christians were welcome to receive Christ’s body and blood at His altar. What a disappointment for him! He no doubt will feel unworthy and will not come back to our church. Shame on us! Are we not to receive the last, the lost, and the least? How about the unlovely, the sinner, the homeless (you name it). We are called to care for those around us with reckless abandon (borrowed from December 10, 2013, Forward Day by Day). Isn’t that what Jesus did? Can we do no less? I am disturbed and ashamed about this canon. I look forward to the day when everyone is welcome to receive Christ’s body and blood in the Episcopal Church.
    Peggy Williams, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Wilmington, NC.

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