As if the current raft of controversies isn’t enough, the Episcopal Church is moving towards open debate about the relationship between the Eucharist and baptism. The other weekend, I attended a gathering in the Diocese of Connecticut on this issue.
What struck me at the gathering was not so much the arguments about the issue at hand (which I’m not going to rehash here, although I do find that this article has a helpful new take on old questions) but that each speaker acknowledged in one way or another that the questions raised by this debate go much deeper than the relationship between the Eucharist and baptism.
I think this is right. This conversation is bubbling up in the church at this particular time not so much because of a sudden, pressing need to re-evaluate the church’s historic teachings on baptism and the Eucharist but because it is a useful proxy issue for countless other conversations the church needs to be having.
As I see it, the debate about baptism and the Eucharist is also about the following (and this is a non-exhaustive list):
- What is the church’s relationship with the culture in which we find ourselves? One way of asking this is to wonder about the relationship between the claim to “radical hospitality” and “anything goes” nature of our world.
- People are wounded. The way the world works exacts a huge cost on people. I think of this anytime I hear people preach a theological anthropology that stresses the goodness of people—we are all “magnificent creations of the divine” as I heard recently. Rather than stressing the way in which Jesus brings about change in our lives, the church is in a position of preaching that we are all really just OK and we can all be “radically included.” We preach that because so much of the world says otherwise.
- Relatedly, what do we do not want in church? As one of the speakers at the event said, “If you ran a church that was ‘radically inclusive,’ you’d probably be in jail.” How do we say “no” in the church?
- I have a hard time imagining that we would be having this debate if church attendance was growing. In this light, proposals for open communion can look like a desperate attempt to get people to stay in church, out of fear that if we tell them they need to be baptized first they’ll never come back. How do we avoid approaching ministry from a position of fear about church decline?
- Do we value theological coherence in the church? If we do, I have a hard time seeing how we can square the baptismal ecclesiology that has been so prevalent recently with open communion. I suspect we don’t value coherence so much as we value “bums in pews”… and we’re willing to do anything we can to get them there. What would an ecclesiology that takes no account of church size look like?
- How is our liturgy related to our witness to the world? Do we have to have Eucharist at virtually every service (“Eucharistic inflation” as I’ve heard it called)?
Whatever the outcome of the various resolutions that are pending on this question, it seems unlikely that there will be much change in practice. Those who do now give communion to those who are not baptized will likely not change. If the canons are changed, it seems unlikely that congregations supporting the traditional teaching of the church will change either.
But what could change is that the church could have a larger conversation about some of these larger questions. Rather than getting lost in a welter of confusion over a question that really isn’t going to change much, maybe we could start addressing some of the serious underlying issues.
What other questions does this issue raise for you? And what else would you like to see the church discuss?