My presentation for the Society of Catholic Priests on Communion without Baptism (CWOB) went up on the Episcopal Cafe last week. Due to its length, it was broken up into three parts:
The goal was to provoke thought about the issue and I think we did. Jim tells me that as of today, the pieces have a received a total of 5,800 page views. (How many of those were unique I don’t know, but it’s still a lot of pondering…)
I think we reached a record on number of comments as well. Over the course of the series we had 138 comments. Editorial conflation of some edits drops the true number to 134.
What’s significant is that of these 134 comments, there were only 25 total commenters. Of these 25, 8 were responsible for 74% of the comments (100). Within these, there were some clear “identities”.
- 28 were from a couple who chooses to play the role of “village atheist” on the site
- 34 were supporting the piece and were advocating for the traditional order of things (16 of these were my own comments)
- 24 were defending the communing of the unbaptized from the “liberal establishment”
- 14 were from a fellow contributor who seems to agree more with the traditional position but who was playing the role of “gadfly”
So—the comments display sustained argument within a small group with set convictions. While there was much discussion, I think there was little true give-and-take. I’m not about to change my position and neither were my interlocutors. On the whole, then, we may well have produced more heat than light in the comments.
A few thoughts on what I did see in the comments…
- Lack of Engagement. I didn’t see much engagement with the issues I was raising in the main body of the text. In particular, I think my main contribution to the debate was the notion of purpose, that “Discipleship, communal transformation into the Mind of Christ and love of God, is the fundamental pattern in the sacramental economy.” That’s not to say there was no engagement—Sara Miles and Donald Schell did address this topic albeit insufficiently to my mind. Far and away, though the conversation continually returned to the notion of “inclusion”. Note this and note it well. What I take from this finding is that the center of the discussion about CWOB is not around sacramental theology. This is fundamentally not a debate about theology. If we continue to argue it as if it were a theological debate, we will go unheard and the majority of the church can and will be persuaded that CWOB is a good idea.
- The Proper Place of Inclusion. I believe that most of the people arguing for CWOB believe that they are doing so for the right reasons, and I think that this movement is driven far more by identity issues than theology issues. The Episcopal Church is branding itself as the welcoming church, the inclusive church. As this concept filters through the body, practices that appear to be unwelcoming or uninclusive are viewed by more and more as anti-Episcopal. I think that most people in our pews want to be nice and make people feel welcome. Too, they want to believe that their parish is the kind of place that makes people feel welcome and included (whether unbaptized people ever show up or not). One of the brief one-off comments encapsulates this view perfectly: “Perhaps giving communion to the unbaptized is the community welcoming the stranger?” This is the view that has and is taking root. Now—we don’t want to argue against inclusion for two reasons: 1) it really is part of the full Gospel message—that’s what the movement of grace to the gentiles is all about; 2) no argument is going to be won from a rhetorical perspective by being “anti-inclusion” or “anti-welcoming.” It’s just not going to fly (especially since it’s not what we really mean either). So—the discussion needs to be re-framed somehow. If, in a discussion around the topic of CWOB, you find yourself being portrayed as the “anti-” side in an argument for or against inclusion or welcoming, you got to take a step back and re-frame the debate. How—well, that’s the question, isn’t it? My current strategy is to move from Communion to Baptism. We are very inclusive when it comes to Baptism. We do want to welcome and include people at the altar and the way that we do that is by not only welcoming them to the altar but welcoming them to the font (first). Additional re-framing thoughts are welcome.
- What You Call It Matters. I noticed a new tack I hadn’t seen before in the comments: referring to Communion Before Baptism. I find this term very unhelpful because it elides away a major problem. One of the central problems of CWOB is that it does not take place within a communal sacramental framework that leads through Baptism to Discipleship. The use of “before” instead of “without” implies that Baptism will follow. And I simply don’t believe that the implication is true. I would be somewhat less concerned if I believed that follow-through were occurring and that those who communed out of ignorance or through misguided hospitality were directed from there to Baptism and discipleship—but that follow-through is fundamentally not on the radar for most places doing CWOB. And this may be one of the big differences between a place like St Gregory of Nyssa and other parishes. My sense is that St Gregory’s does do a better job at follow-through and, as a result, Donald Schell can point to people like Sara Miles who did come to discipleship through this process. But St Gregory’s is not the norm for places that offer CWOB.
Those are my thoughts—what are yours?