Reflections on CWOB

I’ve been thinking, writing, and talking to groups around the church for a while on the topic of Communion Without Baptism (CWOB). With the persistence of the topic at this year’s General Convention, I’m gathering some of my key thoughts about it here in a concise form.

  • We’re not engaging the real question. First, there tend to be two rather starkly drawn positions: “You’re exclusive, but thank God I’m not” and “You’ve got bad theology, but thank God I don’t.” Neither is particuarly conducive for discussion as to the real issues on the table. The central position in favor of CWOB is actually built around identity—Is the Episcopal Church the welcoming, inclusive body that it claims to be?—that sometimes manifests as anxiety—If we don’t let visitors commune will they be offended, feel excluded, and not come back? The central position against CWOB is built around a traditional understanding of sacramental theology. It has impeccible grounding in Scripture and Tradition. However, it functions best as a system of thought; too often it seems incapable of wrestling with or satisfying questions that come from the perspective of human needs and hungers—and, very frequently, wounds from the hands of other church bodies. To complicate things further, I think we frequently try to address a host of different issues and concerns under one label and would do ourselves a favor if we separate them out a bit to have greater clarity about what we’re really struggling with. So—if these aren’t the real questions, what is it? Here’s my take on the bigger question that we’re all trying to answer as best we can: How can the Episcopal Church be a welcoming and inclusive community with clear practices of hospitality that enact a coherent and compelling sacramental theology?
  • We’re dealing with several different levels of engagement: we need to discuss like with like. We have a canon in place throughout the Episcopal Church that says that the reception of communion is only for the Baptized. The central point of argument especially for the pro-CWOB position narrows the focus to a signle moment: when a priest is distributing communion and comes to a visitor with their hands out. Thus, the question is usually constructed along these lines: Should the canon be overturned for the sake of the pastoral act? Again, this is the wrong question because its an imprecise question that skips over important considerations. It’s far better to break this into at least two big questions with attendent discussions beside. These are the two big questions: What are the practices of hospitality in our worship gatherings? and How does the church understand the relationship between the sacraments with regard to discipleship and the broader life of faith?
  • We are not clear on our practices of hospitality. I do not believe for an instant that anyone on either side of the discussion wants people to feel excluded, rejected, or inadequate. To assume, imply, or assert that this is the position of “the opposite side” is a poor rhetorical ploy. Typically, the argument for CWOB is directly connected to its “missional” character. That is, CWOB is understood by some as a means of sacramental evangelism. The logic is that properly welcoming a stranger into our midst means allowing them to participate in every activity that everyone else does. I’m not sure this is actually the case and gets into the broader question of our confusion and uncomfortability with boundaries—when they are appropriate and when they are not, where they are helpful and where they are harmful. As a community that—in theory—is willing and—hopefully—eager to welcome strangers in, how do we do that properly? And are we doing it consistently? Do we welcome all to the table in the chancel yet give guests the cold shoulder at coffee hour?
  • The role of host must be performed intentionally with regard for the guest. When it comes to hospitality and welcoming the stranger there are two fundamental roles here, guest and host. The stranger who comes in among us (known or not, invited or not, Episcopal or not, baptized or not) is the guest. We, the church community generally and the priest particularly as the leader of the liturgy, have an obligation to be a good host. The role of the host is to welcome the guest and, formally or not, lay down expectations for how things should proceed. (This is becoming especially important as there are more and more visitors who may have never been in a church before and have no clue what we do or why we do it and that specific actions have meanings.) The role of the guest—and yes, being a guest is a role with its own demands as well—is to be welcomed and to observe the expectations as possible and appropriate. There are “good” hosts and “good” guests; there are “bad” hosts and “bad” guests. The way that boundaries are constructed and negotiated relates directly to how these roles are played. For instance, when I go to a Roman Catholic Mass, I do not receive the Eucharist. Do I feel in my heart that I am able to receive that Eucharist? Absolutely! But to do so would be to transgress my role as guest. I (personally) don’t feel excluded because I know perfectly well going into it that my host—the Roman Catholic Church and the people who represent it—reserve the Eucharist for Roman Catholics. They are being a good host if they remind me of that, and I am being a good guest when I respect it irrespective of whether or not I believe they are correct in that practice. On the flip-side, they would be bad hosts if they don’t make it clear who is welcome and who is not; likewise, I would be a bad guest if I disregarded a clear direction and received anyway. Of course, they would be an even better host if they made it clear that I was welcome to come up and receive a blessing with clear directions around what I should do—because that gives me clarity as a guest and helps me join in with those around me even if I am not receiving the Eucharist. (The most uncomfortable I’ve ever felt in a Roman church was when I joined the queue, came up to the priest with my arms crossed over my chest to indicate that I wanted a blessing, and he just stared at me in utter uncomprehension…) In our role as host, are we being clear with our guests?
  • Choosing to be a bad host is the wrong answer. My fear is that, in some places, we choose to be bad hosts because it is the easier option. If no announcement is made, if the practice of the church is simply skipped over, no-one has to feel excluded or uncomfortable. CWOB becomes the default because the host is not willing to speak up. The real problem here is that it sabotages the agency of the guest. Those who are baptized, who are the leaders in the church, are robbing the guest of even knowing that there is a choice to be made. They are imposing their own sense of propriety (and sometimes their own anxieties) upon a guest who may not share them at all. If a declaration is made along these lines: “All are welcome to come to the altar. Baptized Christians are welcome to receive the Eucharist—put out your hands as the priest comes by; If you wish to receive a blessing—cross your arms over your chest,” it fully fulfills the hostly role. The guest is presented with the choice—they are allowed to have their own agency. If you are baptized you have the choice to receive or not receive. If you are not baptized you have the same two choices. At this point, the host goes with whichever action the guest makes.
  • How much of this is really about us, how we perceive ourselves, and how we want to be perceived, rather than about the guest? Here’s a thought experiment for you… If you went to a service at a Hindu temple with a friend and, at one point, your friend turned to you and said, “This part here is only done by sworn devotees of this deity,” would you feel offended and excluded and insist that you had a right to participate? For myself, I wouldn’t because to do so would be to disrespect my friend’s culture and beliefs and sense of what is holy and sacred. Why do we assume that letting visitors know that Eucharist is for the baptized would make them feel offended and excluded? The bald fact of the matter is that we do not have hordes of unbaptized people clamoring at our doors for an opportunity to receive the Eucharist. Very often a “wide welcome” is put out for the benefit of the people already in the pews—to reassure us about what kind of people we are (welcoming and hospitable [whether we actually are, in truth, or not]) and about what kind of church we belong to (a welcoming and inclusive one [not like those other ones—perhaps especially the one we might have left]). A pro-CWOB stance helps us feel a certain way about our self and our church regardless of that feeling’s basis in fact.
  • Sacraments are part of a larger pattern of being and doing. When the discussion about CWOB is focused on and condensed around that single moment—the priest coming up to a stranger with outstreched hands—we lose sight of the larger scope of the issue. In some of the rhetoric in favor of CWOB, the Eucharist is presented as a generic sign of God’s love, affection, and grace. To withhold it, then, is seen as ecclesiastical control and therefore denial of God’s love, affection, and grace to the unbaptized. This is both false and a misconstrual of what the church teaches about both Baptism and Eucharist. I’ve already written at some length on this point so I’ll refer you to that discussion if you want to see the logic, but the prayer book clarifies that the grace channeled to us from God in the Eucharist is grace to better inhabit and more fully embody the covenant relationship created in Baptism. Apart from that relationship it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense! The sacraments were given to the church for a reason. Through them, we enter into the reconciliation offered to us by God through Christ mediated by the Holy Spirit. They are a means of helping us live more fully and share more deeply the life of God, which—on our end—looks like a life of discipleship chiefly oriented around following Jesus on the way of the cross. To offer the Eucharist apart from Baptism renders our sacramental theology incoherent. This relates directly to the issue of altering the canon. If we simply remove our church-wide canon against the unbaptized receiving the Eucharist, we will be establishing a policy of incoherency. This is fundamentally different from the pastoral question of whether an unbaptized stranger can or has been moved by a form of prevenient grace that has inspired them to broach the obligations of hospitality and receive the Eucharist. Can this form of extraordinary, prevenient grace occur? That seems to be the testimony of some, including the oft-cited Sara Miles. But it would be just that—an extraordinary operation of grace. Jesus is the victim, the food, and the host of the Eucharistic meal; however, the Church is the steward of the mysteries. The Eucharist didn’t just appear in the middle of a sidewalk somewhere; it was given by Christ to the Church to administer in keeping with the Gospel message. The ordinary channel and means of grace taught in Scripture, Tradition and—yes—centuries of Experience moves from Baptism to Eucharist. That’s not to deny that it doesn’t sometimes occasionally work the other way around, but that is not what has been handed over to us. CWOB as a policy undercuts the importance of Baptism and—in particular—undercuts the theological foundation of the ’79 Book of Common Prayer which places a particular importance on Baptism, the baptismal covenant, and the concept of a baptismal ecclesiology.
  • Don’t underestimate the Eucharist. When I said up there that we needed a coherent and compelling sacramental theology, I meant “compelling” in a quite literal sense. When I was doing a presentation on a variety of prayer book topics in the Atlanta area in the Spring, I met up with some friends. In the course of our discussion I mentioned that I would be talking about CWOB and one of them asked, rather urgently, what I was going to say about it. I responded that I didn’t think it was a good idea. “Good!” she said, “Because not being able to take communion was what made me a Christian!” My friend was Jewish and, on going to an Episcopal church with friends, became intrigued about what she was not allowed to do.  What was so special that it was reserved in such a way? Answering that question led her to Baptism. “If I had been allowed to take it, I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it,” she told me. Do we believe that the Eucharist is something special, something sacred? And if so, do our practices demonstrate that? There is a perception—often in the name of inclusion—that boundaries are exclusive by nature. I would suggest that the boundary around the Eucharist is not one put in place for the purpose of excluding but for the purpose of demarcation in order to preserve the logic and intention of the sacramental life of discipleship. What is exclusive, therefore, is not the fact of a boundary, but the practices of hospitality around it—do we indicate its reason and purpose in a way that invites the stranger to investigate and understand what we find so compelling about it, or are we simply refusing themmin a truly excluding way, or are we abdicating our hostly responsibility because it feels nicer, gratifies our self-image, and absolves us of the need to do the engagement of evangelism?
  • We need respect, solid theology, and good practices. As I said at the outset, I don’t think we’re actually wrestling with the right question. We need to do so. Doing that will help us frame our discussions in a far better way. We need to respect and listen to one another. A key component of this debate is that it frequently touches on places of deep woundedness. People have been deeply hurt by churches—often, usually, the churches in which they were raised. Sometimes it was because of ways that those churches deliberately excluded them because of their gender, sexual orientation, or marital status. Sometimes it was because of ways that they felt the church had betrayed them by altering their teachings. The first is more common than the second and, in my experience, many of the people who advocate for CWOB do so because of these wounds. On one hand, those arguing against CWOB—like me—need to be attentive to this fact and consider practices of hospitality that do not trigeer or replicate this pain in others. On the other hand, personal feelings do not absolve us as a church of the need to do solid theology and to enact it in good practices.

2 Replies to “Reflections on CWOB”

  1. These are just some rambling thoughts on your excellent article. I am old enough to remember when Confirmation was considered to be the prerequisite for receiving Holy Communion. (It was also, of course graduation from Sunday School and once you were Confirmed you didn’t have to go to Church any more. Sort of the booster shot to the inoculation you received at Baptism.) I remember the horror on my mothers face when I, at age 12 raised up my hands, received the host, and consumed it. Confirmation wasn’t until 7th grade, i.e.. age 13. (A Christian “Bar Mitzvah…?”)

    That all changed in 1973 or so when my parish began to admit children to Communion around age 7 thus following Roman usage. Since those days, I have been at some parishes where infants, at their baptism, are given the Blessed Sacrament, and receive from then on. (Much like the Orthodox do.)

    Each of these practices has their merits. Reception of Communion since infancy means growing up at God’s Table as well as ones family table. This of course presupposes that the child is being raised in a faith filled household as well as being a part of the household of faith. When I was DCE at one parish, I was asked at the Annual Meeting if we were having trouble getting people to teach Christian Education. I replied no, each of the children have at least one parent or caregiver who will do that, and we will reinforce what they teach their children.

    Yet there is also great value to the “Rite of Passage” concept. I still commemorate my Confirmation Day 49 years ago, as the day when I first “properly” received the Body and Blood of our Lord.

    Finally, if Baptism is not necessary for receiving the Eucharist, why is Ordination necessary for Consecrating it? In other words, why not Lay Presiders?

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