Thursday, July 26, 2007

On CWOB: I May be a Heretic

It seems that I have failed to convince my e-audience that CWOB should be permitted. Derek recently wrote up a piece for Daily Episcopalian against it, and it looks to me as if he has broad support. As his position remains the official--canonical--position of TEC, and of much of the rest of Christianity as well, I'm compelled to consider: Did I go wrong here? Maybe I did; for all I really know, I may be a heretic. Arius could have felt justified with his old-school logic, and he might have gone to the grave unconvinced; just so, my unshaken conviction does not imply the truth of my position.

Maybe Derek et al's tenacity is at least in part a function of TEC's success in liturgical formation. It may be, as the BCP '79 is almost thirty years old, his voice represents a formed conviction among the first generation of Episcopalians raised entirely--or mostly--within the BCP '79. And there is no way of getting around the centrality of Holy Baptism, and the Baptismal Covenant, in the BCP '79. CWOB from such a perspective threatens to displace the rightful place of Holy Baptism in our liturgical life, and to do so for largely unarticulated liturgical reasons at odds with the liturgical format, and tradition, set forth in the BCP '79. Of course, this is not to say only the BCP '79 figures in their response to CWOB, as the BCP '79 in many places obviously reaches beyond itself and its own denomination.

If I really am a heretic given my continuing stand in favor of permitting CWOB, it is--I should hope!--merely material. Our community, by which I mean to include Anglican churches and movements most broadly, has not really progressed to the point of having a clear conceptual framework within which to argue about the permissibility of CWOB. We have clearer liturgical forms, and to some extent they may do our theology for us, but the problem is liturgy is just too rich for theology. It cannot be limited to/exhaustively expressed in theology; like Scripture, liturgy underdetermines theology in part because theology just is not the main point of liturgy or Scripture. At its best, I submit, Anglicanism understands this about liturgy and Scripture.

The consequences of liturgical (and even more: Scriptural) underdetermination are hard to live with. For instance, it may be that life with the BCP '79 and associated liturgies forms a sensibility under which CWOB betrays the nature of Baptism and more besides. But due to the richness of the liturgy, the very same BCP '79 may form a contrary sensibility under which denying the permissibility of CWOB betrays...the nature of Baptism and more besides.

A paragraph like this from Derek's article is to the point (brakets added):

...[A] the message of the Gospel is not simply a message of hospitality alone. Scripture also insists upon the reality and the responsibility of the covenant community. [B] True Christian hospitality is a sharing of not merely of things or of time—as valuable as these are. [C] Through these vehicles it is a sharing of what God has done for us, a sharing through both deeds and words, [D] and an invitation for the stranger to remain a stranger no longer but to enter the covenant community through Baptism.

I take it Derek is summarizing his case here. But note how much of what Derek says could be accepted as-is by a proponent of CWOB. The call for responsibility/commitment along with hospitality he makes in [A]? Nothing about CWOB implies a rejection of responsibility or even a deferral of commitment. The point in [B] that true Christian hospitality is more than sharing things and time? That flies with CWOB too, where the risen Jesus and the love of the Trinity are shared, neither of which are merely things in time. And of course we may share our story, the things God in Christ has done for us that Derek refers to in [C], even with CWOB. Finally, an invitation to Baptism, mentioned in [D], is compatible with--and even called for--by CWOB. In short, it is very difficult to see where the sound reasons for rejecting the permissibility of CWOB are when CWOB can enfold and incorporate so many of the practices of concern to its critics. But behind the argumentative critique here, note something much more important: how the underdetermination of theology by liturgy is an issue. The various practices Derek notes and mentions as part of his case, most of which are connected to liturgical action and spirituality,can fit well both with forbidding and permitting CWOB. They won't "do the deciding" for us alone.

I'll close with a tenuous observation. The Episcopalian center-left includes groups formed in various ways by contrary sensibilities, in spite of their common and firm devotion to Jesus, the authority of Scripture, and the liturgy of the BCP. One of the center-left's growing segments is low-church, connected to the emerging church movement and left-evangelical emphasis on justice (thinking Tony Compolo)--I think of venerable Episcopalian churches with stonework and stained glass flying rainbow banners inside and sporting portraits of notables like Martin Luther King while taking pointed license with various shortcomings in the BCP's official forms. If there is a constituency for CWOB in the Episcopal Church, it is here. And if that constituency really is growing, and will continue to do so, there will be a reckoning on CWOB on the level of General Convention soon. We had best continue to learn to speak one another's language before that day, lest that day be another occasion for division without comprehension.


At 10:56 AM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

I think what you're missing here is included in the paragraph of mine that you cite: the reality and responsibility of the covenant community.

If, as you suggest, "an invitation to Baptism, mentioned in [D], is compatible with--and even called for--by CWOB" then why not proceed to Baptism first?

At 2:54 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

I suppose we are both thinking of unbaptized--not just unchurched--youngsters we know, whose parents are baptized but actively chose not to be involved in any church. That is, these kids were not left unbaptized from negligence or oversight--something different was at work: perhaps a revulsion at Christianity the way one might recoil from a plate of rotten squid.

I am close enough to these kids and young adults to know what they think of Christianity, or at least what they want me to believe they think.

For I am not sure that they in every case have given it much serious, critical thought at all. In part, Christ and the category of sin in general may seem unworthy of thought, in a visceral sense of "seem"--so that they feel, in their bones, only an idiot--perhaps in a noncognitive sense--would pray or, say, seriously regard Jesus as God.

It seems this veneer of antipathy is not omnipresent in uniform strength. There are moments where the light clearly breaks through: as at weddings or funerals with the Eucharist. These tend to be thin places for some: the unchurched, the unbaptized.

At some point in either a rector may feel obliged to divide the congregation into those who may and those who may not partake of the Blessed Sacrament, and request that those unbaptized not receive it.

Granting a certain operation of prevenient grace, that division could be an occasion for sanctification in the normal route--catechumenate, baptism, etc.
But there is no guarantee--at least here below--that even prevenient grace would be so well received.

From what little I know of these youngsters, that division would most likely be a confirmation instance for suspicions like: "Christianity is really a fraternity for back-scratching hypocrites," the requirement of Baptism being a special case of backiscratching here functioning to push people away from Christ.

In that case, it would be silly to think of the division--separating friends and family--as serving the interests of Christ. That it pushes--or at least on occasion pushed--the Others from Christ is one thing.

But it should be odious to baptized Christians as well. Love your neighbor as yourself, we are told--from which it follows we are obliged by Christ to offer others the love of God and an opportunity to love God in return.

Why you think we have permission to be stingy with the seeds of opportunity I do not know. It seems we are called to Sow at every opportunity, on all varieties of ground.

If God presents you with an opportunity at time T1 which can become actual only by letting the unbaptized first receive the Eucharist--who are we to tell God "Later". The kid may never respond to a call for "unrestricted baptism" (as if), and never come around to the catechumenate, and not be in a church performing the Eucharist again for years, decades, if ever.

As you know, this elevation of baptism as a necessary condition for receiving Christ seems to me backwards. First Christ, however he manages to come.

At 3:45 PM, Blogger RFSJ said...


I find myself going back and forth on my views on CWOB. (I still find the phrase "open communion" more desirable.) In my more post-Christian and post-modern moments, I see the invitation to come to the Table even before baptism as an opportunity to "try on" Christ. Over time, such an inquirer may fins oneself entering deeper and deeper into communion with Christ and may decide to make a commitment once and for all to Christ by becoming baptized. Or not. And that would be OK. I am informed by the rubric on p.298 in "Concerning the Service" that "[t]he bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble." The PoMo in me concedes that an inquirer may indeed inquire, to include regular Communion, and may conclude that he or she is not yet ready for or is not called into a formal - and indissoluble - commitment to Christ through Baptism. In this way, it's not so much Communion With Out Baptism (CWOB) as it is Communion Before Baptism (CBB). I see permitting CBB as a continuation and natural outgrowth of the 1979 BCP's restoration of adult baptism as normative and Baptism as central. Baptism is indeed central, and because it is indeed indissoluble, should not be undertaken lightly.

At the same time, I am fully aware and informed by the universal tradition of the Church since earliest times. Does merely a shift in world view (from Modern to PoMo) necessitate a shift in our sacramental theology? Perhaps not.

And so I'm of two minds.



At 11:10 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Just a thought:

If one becomes a member of the Body of Christ through Baptism, then how can one have communion (koinonia) within that Body before being baptized?

Also, in CWOB, what happens to the traditional theological idea that Eucharist completes Christian initiation begun in Baptism?

Kevin Montgomery

At 1:53 AM, Blogger Jon said...

So what do we do about the person who receives communion, hears the invitation to get baptized, and rejects that invitation? Should we continue to permit them to receive if they have made it clear that they don't want to be baptized?

It is clear that we are called to love our neighbor, including the unchurched and unbaptized, but it isn't clear to me that the most loving thing to do is to make sure that to deny our own identity in practice so that others won't feel put out.

I don't particularly object to CBB, although I think encouraging it it probably not respectful either of the importance of baptism or of what is being done in the eucharist. If an unbaptized person wants to receive Christ, they're better served by getting baptized than by taking communion while declining to be baptized. Of course this assumes that they want to receive Christ, but if they don't know if they want Christ they're probably better off getting to know him based on listening to and reading the scriptures, and seeing how the particular parish responds to those scriptures. Try on the congregations all you want; don't try to turn forming a friendship with Jesus into something like going shoping for clothes.


At 10:02 AM, Blogger RFSJ said...

Kevin -

In a CBB theology, it's Baptism that completes initiation into the Body - makes it irrevokable. and it ensures that one enters into it in the right state of heart and mind - it doesn't preclude infant baptism, but definitely shifts the emphasis on why we baptize in the first place.

Jon -

I would think that in a CBB theology, if one decided not to accept the invitation, then one should at that point cease receicing Communion. And I'm not sure that the better way to receive Christ is through Baptism first. Why is such a one better served by being baptized first? It seems to me that one might well receiver Christ in a more tangible way in the Eucharist. We humans are tactile people, and we know that people experience things in many different ways (cf. Gardner's multiple intelligences.) I don't think it necessarily follows that reading the Scriptures alone, or even hearing the Word proclaimed in worship alone, may be enough for some. Perhaps, under a CBB theology, the invitation is "All are welcome at the table, but let us then meet and instruct you on what regular reception really means."



At 10:06 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I was reading something a while back. Don't remember exactly where, but I'm reminded of it in these discussions. It was describing one of the apparent differences between Eastern (i.e. Orthodox) and Western (i.e. Roman Catholic, Protestant, etc.) traditions of Christianity. Whereas the West tends to set a more liberal law/rule/command and enforce it strictly, the East tends to apply a strict law but with the principle of oikonomia to allow for pastoral exceptions.

Personally, re: CWOB, I go with the latter. While I firmly hold to baptism prior to communion, I would not, if I were a priest, refuse to give it to someone whom I knew was not baptized. However, if that person continued to come forward over several Sundays, I'd take him/her aside afterwards and talk about the apparent desire to be part of Christ and try to get that person to move towards getting baptized.


At 11:15 AM, Blogger bls said...

Personally, re: CWOB, I go with the latter. While I firmly hold to baptism prior to communion, I would not, if I were a priest, refuse to give it to someone whom I knew was not baptized. However, if that person continued to come forward over several Sundays, I'd take him/her aside afterwards and talk about the apparent desire to be part of Christ and try to get that person to move towards getting baptized.

I think this is where a lot of us stand on this issue.

I can see good arguments on both sides, and have always, like RFSJ, been of two minds on the issue. I worry a lot about CBB making Baptism optional - and that is its major drawback. So I think we should teach Communion After Baptism as the "Imitation of Christ," but make pastoral exceptions, as you suggest - and never police the altar rail.

At 11:20 AM, Blogger bls said...

(Also, I do think it's more ethical to make sure people understand what they assent to when they receive Communion. For somebody who's lived totally outside the faith for their whole lives, I don't think this is possible.

Even though the intention is good, it's really important that we be seen as completely open and transparent about what's going on.)

At 1:24 PM, Blogger Jon said...

Bob, forgive me if I gave the impression that I favored a sola scriptura path to coming to know Jesus, while scripture is important it can't replace the community.

I think baptism is better because it is more explicit about uniting the baptized to Christ. It may also be a more total identification since it explicitly unites us to Christ's death and resurrection.


At 2:06 PM, Blogger Closed said...

For all of our disagreement on this matter, I would neither dare to call you a heretic, nor attempt to disown you from embrace as a Christian brother.

At 11:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From an earlier Christian tradition, one that both precedes and underlies Anglican theology on these matters, the issue here would not be whether the non-baptized can receive Holy Communion, but rather whether they can be reasonably part of the assembly that offers the Eucharistic Prayer. That prayer is a prayer of the whole assembly led by its priest/bishop in which the whole assembly praises, confesses, prays and declares hope in things that those who are not baptized (which also implies a level of formation we often forego) cannot reasonably be expected to confess, pray or hope. In that tradition, as seen in early documents such as The Apostolic Tradition (whose form as a Eucharistic Prayer underlies the form of many of the prayer of Rite II) and from what we know of catechumenal practice through the fourth century at least, persons who were not baptized would never even have SEEN the Eucharist, much less be expected to be part of an assembly which can offer it with integrity.

I suppose one of my deep concerns in these conversations is whether in our approach to this we are not in a sense ending up being consumeristic, and reducing the sacraments to mere means to achieve some sort of a connection with God in Christ rather than the substantially fuller and more specific understanding of what these means both signify and effect. Baptism unites us with Christ in his death and resurrection and "rebirths" us in our Triune God. The Eucharist is the offering and thanksgiving meal of those so united and reborn.

We have many other opportunities to be "hospitable" and to share other meals. And we should avail ourselves of these more widely and intentionally than perhaps we usually do. It may be at THOSE meals that persons not yet connected to Jesus Christ may begin to become aware of a desire to be so, as we are. And in early Christianity, as well as the practices of those in the emerging church today, that was (and is again) exactly what we see happening.

The deal here is we have to get our heads around the notion that not EVERY aspect of the church's mission is expected to happen in worship, nor that we should even try to make it so. Most of it, if we're about that mission with seriousness, does not, and does not need to. We get perhaps 90 minutes per week in the assembly of Word and Table. We have the whole rest of the week to extend the blessing and power we receive as those baptized and fed from the Lord's Table to every other table in which we encounter others-- some who are part of the household of faith, and some of whom are not. Let's have more such tables-- that's where the seeking can really begin.


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