The Lazy Invitation

With General Convention coming up, I’m thinking about Communion Without Baptism again, prompted by occasional mentions of it I see around.

Clearly I’ve got strong opinions on this topic, but it’s occurred to me that I rarely express the real problem with it…

Bear with me here for a moment. My take on it is the traditional and the canonical one: that there is a theo-logical order to the sacraments. Baptism begins an individual’s covenant relationship with the Triune God through the church; the Eucharist nurtures that covenant relationship and helps one grow in intimacy towards a deeper connection with God and all of the other members of Christ. These are two major parts of the sacramental path to discipleship. Following Jesus starts on a whole new level with Baptism, then the rest of the sacraments help us follow that path more clearly and deeply into love of God and neighbor. That’s why I think this whole debate is important. Because it’s about follow-through: at the end of the day, it’s about discipleship.

The parish I currently attend  issues an open invitation to all to the altar. I’m not a fan of that. And, yes, my rector knows that full well. However, I don’t have quite as big of a problem with it at this parish because the clergy are very good at follow-up and emphasizing discipleship. I know that if an unbaptized person starts attending and starts communing, the clergy will begin a discussion with them about getting baptized and getting engaged in the community. No, they’re not doing it right and they’re not following the canons. But, at the end of the day, all of this connects into whether we are about forming communities of discipleship.

Ok—that having been said, the real problem that I have with Communion Without Baptism is the lazy invitation. I think that some clergy and/or congregations welcome anyone to the table because 1) they want to demonstrate to themselves how inclusive they are and 2) because it avoids the hard conversation. Let’s break these down…

1) The Thrill of Inclusivity

One of the complicating factors in this discussion is the question of post-schism Episcopal identity. So few of us are now Cradle Episcopalians. (I’m not.) As a result, we don’t always know what being “Episcopal” looks and feels like. However, a lot of us are refugees from churches that have done us spiritual damage; we may not know what “Episcopal” should feel like, but we sure do know what it shouldn’t feel like! And exclusivity is often a very big part of that, and a major source of past spiritual damage. As a result, there are many Episcopalians who will reflexively choose what appears to be the inclusive option whether it has theological integrity or not. Indeed, I’ve been in Episcopal parishes who will trumpet their inclusivity all day long but aren’t very friendly or welcoming or…inclusive…at all. What’s important to them is their ability to see themselves as inclusive and therefore better than the churches they left.

2) Avoiding the Hard Conversation

What happens if a policy is announced from the chancel that a visitor doesn’t understand? What happens if the priest says in part “…only baptized Christians should receive the Eucharist…” (I say in part because, as I’ve argued at length before, how we invite people is very important and just saying this in this way is not the way to do it) and in doing so offends an unbaptized visitor? The two most likely possibilities is that the offended person will leave to never darken the door of that church again or else they will come with the very simple question: “Why can’t I receive?”Then, that leads to a potentially uncomfortable conversation where the priest has to explain that we actually believe that the Eucharist is important and that the Church has historically maintained rules around who does and doesn’t receive and why. And that can lead to tricky questions about whether we actually believe all of this stuff and what does baptism actually do anyway and do we really believe that Jesus is there in that little cracker in a special way. Which can lead to the look that says, you guys really are crazy and I can’t believe I just wasted a Sunday morning like this…

It also means hitting that point where we have to explain that we actually do believe these things that we say about God and Jesus, but that we don’t believe all of the things that other Christians believe that you may have heard in the media, and, yes, we think you can believe in God and dinosaurs and science all at the same time.

But at the end of the day that conversation has to get to the point where it says that we believe that the little cracker and the sip of wine are life-changing things. That they mean enough that we need to rethink and reshape the way that we are in the world on account of them. That Eucharist and baptism are about discipleship and that means reorienting the way we live. And I think that’s the hard conversation that gets avoided; it’s so much easier to give a lazy invitation instead.

Because you don’t need to have the hard conversation if you can give the lazy invitation. If you get up in front and say “all are welcome, no questions asked,” well—then they won’t be. The questions won’t be asked, and the consequences of these sacraments won’t get discussed.  The follow-through won’t happen. The discipleship will be lost by the wayside. And that’s what worries me about this whole Communion Without Baptism thing.

It’s one thing for a parish to ignore the canon if the follow-through and the commitment to discipleship are there. It’s another thing entirely to try to get rid of the canon, to make a policy of not even asking the question. The sacraments are about discipleship. They’re about how we are converted into the Body of Christ and, from there, drawn into the mind of Christ. That’s why this matters. It’s not about inclusive vs. exclusive—that’s the wrong framing because that’s not a fight I’m even interested in having. It’s about discipleship and whether we are fostering and promoting it or if we’re more interested in taking the easy way out.

5 thoughts on “The Lazy Invitation

  1. Peter

    Good food for thought.

    I think there’s an important “all welcome, try before you buy” aspect to the all-inclusive communion experience. There’s nothing for the attendee to parse to determine if they qualify, and thus there’s no fear of potential embarrassment (beyond the usual “I don’t know what I’m doing, I hope I don’t screw up”).

    I’ve seen the wavering several times… everyone in the chapel is getting up and walking to the front to gather around the alter for the part of the service that includes communion… and there’s this ONE PERSON who is sitting in a chair/pew wondering what’s going on and if they can go along. Heck, I *was* that person… until somebody quietly said to me smiling: “Come on and just do what everyone else does! It’s no problem… come on!” That was nice. I was relieved. I enjoyed the experience. And I’ve subsequently said the same to people who I’ve seen in that situation myself.

    If somebody starts showing up and communing regularly, let’s HOPE the clergy will make an attempt to reach out and engage that person… because they want to know that person’s story and get them involved in the broader life of the church. Regardless of the cannon regarding who’s officially eligible for receiving Holy Eucharist.

    So… I think it’s a very positive thing when parishes extend the invitation to all and sundry to communion.

    Having SAID that… I’m not at all sure that cannon law needs to change to reflect the “everyone is eligible” policy. I think you make a valid point about what the meaning of the Eucharist is… and I don’t think THAT needs to change or should be changed.

    In summary, I guess I’m in favor of the status quo: Cannon law remaining the gold standard, but parishes feeling free to apply it leniently. And if the follow-up for regular “new and potentially unauthorized” communicants that you mention doesn’t occur… well… that parish has a LOT more problems than their policy on communion. Don’t you think?

  2. Peter De Franco, OSB

    While I understand the argument, from my perspective there is an issue of sacramental theology around the relationship between the Holy Eucharist and the ministry of Jesus. From that perspective, the Holy Eucharist is rooted in the table fellowship of Jesus. While that table fellowship in most of our liturgical texts is limited to the Last Supper, there is a broader table invitation made by Jesus during his ministry. It is that broader table fellowship, the invitation by Jesus to sinners and tax collectors, those outside the standard of inclusion, which makes for the broader invitation. That invitation to the table also includes an invitation to a change of mind and heart and the beginning of discipleship.
    I also understand that the church had developed a theology of Baptism as the door to the fellowship and sacramental life of the church. Baptism has been understood by us as the consecration of the person into the Body of Christ and, because of that identify, the other sacramental actions find their place.
    While all you say about the sociology of inclusion as defining the Lazy Invitation, for some of us the inclusive table fellowship of Jesus also under girds the theology of inclusion. Like the table fellowship of Jesus, that invitation to the table is an invitation to discipleship.
    I wonder about the sociology which lies beneath the Tradition of the church on the primacy of Baptism before the other sacraments. I wonder if there has been some study of the sociology which lead to this theological practice.
    I also believe that a strong precedent underlies the Traditional practice in the connection between Baptism and initiation of gentiles into the community of faith as articulated by Paul and other 1st century biblical authors. From my reading and study of this material, a very convincing argument is made in favor of the Tradition.
    I continue to see the other side of the argument as rooted in the open table fellowship of Jesus. You seem to highlight this practice in the church which you attend.

  3. Sister Mary Winifred

    Well, I am a cradle Episcopalian and would stand on the side of Baptism before Communion; I don’t think receiving Communion should be the basis of deciding when a church/parish is welcoming. I’ve attended the Orthodox Church where I certainly could not receive Communion, but felt very welcome. There are plenty of times that welcoming Episcopal church is an oxymoron, but that has nothing to do with who is welcome at the altar.

  4. Derek A. Olsen Post author

    Peter, I’m familiar with the argument about the table practices of Jesus, but I don’t find that to be a compelling argument. Jesus was calling people back to their covenant relationship with God. Tax collectors and sinners were certainly on the outs with their religious communities, but were still people within a covenant. Hence the references to seeking out “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” If Jesus had been eating with Gentiles—those outside of the covenant—you can be quite certain that Paul would have brought it up in Galatians in his fight with Peter, or it would have been mentioned in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.

    The normative meals for understanding the church’s practice of the Eucharist are the Last Supper and the post-resurrection meals.

    And at what people do in the service, I think that’s where we really fall down on our practices of hospitality. Under Christendom we could assume that everyone who entered a church was baptized and could assume that they would know what to do at the Eucharist. In a post-Christendom society that’s no longer the case. More clear directions are more welcoming because they present the expectations to everyone present and allow the guests to respond as they wish.

  5. Weiben Wang

    I feel like I should tell my story, and I’m not sure I have a point, except, well, it might be pertinent. I’ll try not you make it too long.

    I grew up completely unchurched and blissfully religion free. My parents didn’t grow up and the United States, so they weren’t even culturally Christian. When I went off to prep school, I started attending Sunday church, more or less because some friends did. The school chapel was “Episcopal style”; it was officially interdenominational, but there were BCPs in the pews, and the head chaplain was an Episcopal priest. After church on Sundays, people who wanted communion stayed behind, and the chaplain celebrated the Eucharist in a back room. My friends stayed, so I did (and now I know that at least one of them was also not baptized at the time; I don’t think I knew that then). I didn’t know that there was a rule about communion for the unbaptized. The chaplain didn’t talk about it, and never asked. I don’t know what rules would apply anyway, since the chapel was not officially Episcopalian. This went on from most Sundays for a couple of years, until I went off to college.

    After college, I arrived in the big city, and for some reason I started going to church again. And always Episcopal churches. I’m still not sure why, I somehow instinctively gravitated to them. At some point I had figured out that I wasn’t supposed to take communion, but, communion was by that point part of the whole church experience, and I figured, oh well, too late now, so I kept on receiving. I never talked to the priests at these churches, and they never talked to me, beyond a good morning. I don’t remember anyone saying anything about receiving communion one way or the other, except maybe a note in the bulletin, “Baptized Christians may receive…” I would show up, do my thing, and leave. For at least some of that time, if a priest had approached me one way or the other, I probably would have run screaming out the back door. This went on for a couple of decades, off and on, sometimes regularly, sometimes not at all, until a church-going friend gave me a little nudge, the snowball rolled down the hill, I found myself at the baptismal font, and I’m now a full on, church going, dyed in the wool Episcopalian.

    So, now that I’m a insider, I have had to think about the question of communion for the unbaptized. I do have a bit of sympathy for communion for the baptized only, though I can’t possibly take that position out loud, given my history; the best I can do is stay silent. I think I can now say that the thing that drew me in, and brought me back, was liturgy (though I didn’t know the word until much later), and part and parcel of that was Eucharist, and receiving it. So, there might be a prescribed order to this, but it’s not how it worked for me, but it worked in the end, and with little human intervention. Rule or no rule, the Holy Spirit did his thing.

    Like I said, I don’t know that I have a point, and I’m mostly silent on the issue; I guess I’m thinking that my story might provide a data point. But what ended up working for me was don’t ask don’t tell, and not saying anything one way or the other about who can or cannot receive. No one gave permission or forbade, I did my thing, and the rest is history, or the Holy Spirit. So much for not making this story too long.

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