Tangled Up in Blue: Holy Communion and liturgical miscellany

This is the twenty-ninth post in a series on resolutions for General Convention 2015. See also the index of resolutions and the list of resources related to #GC78.

Book of Common Prayer 1979Several dioceses have submitted resolutions on liturgical matters. This is in addition to the resolutions on marriage or saints, which I blogged here and here. The Blue Book resolutions on things liturgical I covered here, here, and here.

With that short introduction, let’s look at resolutions, which could be divided into “Holy Eucharist” and “miscellaneous.”

C010: Invite All to Holy Communion. Full text. Likely vote: NO.

This resolution calls for a task force to study the practice of offering Holy Communion to all people without regard to baptism. It seems to me that the effort to practice Holy Communion without regard to baptism is well intentioned but misplaced. If you’ve been living under a prayer book and Bible, you may not have heard that it’s become common in our church to intentionally invite all people, including and especially the unbaptized, to receive Holy Communion. The idea is that restricting Holy Communion to the baptized is not “inclusive” and that Jesus himself practiced table fellowship with all people. Let’s look at a few issues here.

Table fellowship. There is a good deal of confusion between Eucharistic hospitality and meal practices. Jesus blessed loaves and fish for the crowds, but that was not Eucharist. Jesus ate meals with sinners (though perhaps not with Gentiles) but that was not Eucharist. When Jesus instituted the Eucharist, he shared that meal with his disciples, not with the crowds. The earliest followers of Jesus, as we read in the New Testament, clearly practiced a Eucharistic meal that reinforced their existing identity as Christ’s body, the church. So the scriptural witness would suggest that Holy Communion is for disciples and coffee hour and brunch should be for all people. And yet, in my admittedly limited experience, what I notice is that some parishes reverse this, practicing a club-like atmosphere for coffee hour and brunch and inviting anyone to Holy Communion.

Hospitality. The primary function of liturgy is not hospitality, it is worship of God. We as individuals can be hospitable, but the liturgy itself need not carry this function. Sometimes I think we want the liturgy to carry this freight because we ourselves do not want to have to do the hard work of hospitality. It’s easier to thrown a printed announcement into the bulletin than it is to welcome strangers. We Episcopalians say, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” but we often do the opposite. If our primary concern is hospitality, then by all means, let’s get that right. To do so, we need not muck around with the liturgy.  (Sure you can tell me your communion-without-baptism congregation is welcoming, and it may be. I’d encourage you to do a “mystery worshiper” test with total strangers before resting on laurels.)

Warm invitation. It is possible to be quite gracious without inviting the unbaptized to communion. Back in my parish priest days, I usually would say something like, “All are welcome at the Holy Table. All the baptized, of any age or church affiliation are welcome to receive communion. If you do not wish to receive, please do come forward for a blessing.” At least in that context, I never heard anything but gratitude for a warm welcome, even from our seeker guests.

No one checks baptismal certificates. In some ways, this is a fight about nothing. I have knowingly given communion to unbaptized persons, and I would do it again. When someone presents themselves to receive, I do not make inquiries or demand a baptism certificate. No one does this, at least not that I’ve heard. If someone appeared repeatedly, it’s easy enough to have a conversation and to encourage that person to be baptized.

Theological coherence. Bishop Matt Gunter has written a couple of blog posts on communion without baptism. I encourage you to read them (here, here, and here). In the last one, he quotes former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams:

It must be said, of course, that this complete sharing of baptismal and Eucharistic life does not happen rapidly or easily, and the problem remains of how the church is to show its openness without simply abandoning its explicit commitment to the one focal interpretive story of Jesus. To share Eucharistic communion with someone unbaptized, or committed to another story or system, is odd-not because the sacrament is ‘profaned’, or because grace cannot he be given to those outside the household, but because the symbolic integrity of the Eucharist depends upon its being celebrated by those who both commit themselves to the paradigm of Jesus’ death and resurrection and acknowledge that their violence is violence offered to Jesus. All their betrayals are to be understood as betrayals of him; and through that understanding comes forgiveness and hope. Those who do not so understand themselves and their sin or their loss will not make the same identification of their victims with Jesus, nor will they necessarily understand their hope for their vocation in relation to him and his community. Their participation is thus anomalous: it is hard to see the meaning of what is being done.

–  Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, p. 61

I think that captures it. We love to talk about the baptismal covenant, but what meaning do either Eucharist or baptism have if we attach nothing to either? Personally, I do not even think we should form a study group on this matter. We’d need a study period to even contemplate this, I think. From my perspective, the answer is clear. There is no compelling reason to practice communion without baptism, and there are many compelling reasons not to adopt this practice formally. We must not let our desire for the instant gratification of something that feels good on the surface keep us from the hard work of genuine and deep hospitality, or of the invitation to enter the costly life of discipleship and community in Jesus Christ.

C015: Addition to Baptismal Covenant Language. Full text. Likely vote: NO.

This resolution proposes adding a new question to the baptismal promises in our prayer book: “Will you cherish the wondrous works of God, and protect the beauty and integrity of all creation? I will, with God’s help.” First of all, an important note. This resolution asks for “the trial addition to the Baptismal Covenant of a sixth question.” I do wish people who go on about the baptismal covenant would take a look at it now and again. You can find it beginning at page 304 of your nearest prayer book. You’ll see that the first three questions are “Do you believe in God the Father?”; “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?”; and “Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?” There are, in fact, eight questions in our baptismal covenant. The answers to the first three lead us into reciting the Apostles’ Creed. We must remember that, in addition to whatever else we promise, our baptismal covenant is rooted in apostolic faith.

I have slightly digressed. The addition of this new (ninth) question is not necessary. We already answer this question, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” Clearly destroying the beauty and integrity of creation is a sin. We do not need questions on each and every sin, since they are covered by the general question. If one wants to name sins from which one should repent, the Great Litany would make a lovely introduction to a baptismal service.

Mostly my concern here is that I do not think it’s a great idea to start tinkering with the prayer book for every whim (though I do think there’s a strong case for the need to amend our prayer book to provide for same-sex marriage). Bottom line: this ninth question is not necessary nor is it a good idea to tweak the prayer book for every idea we have, even when they’re good ideas.

C016: Amend Article X. Full text. Likely vote: NO, but I am open to persuasion.

This resolution is nearly identical to A066 from the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. It offers an amendment to the section of our constitution on prayer book revision, saying that General Convention may “Provide for use of other forms for the renewal and enrichment of the common worship of this Church for such periods of time and upon such terms and conditions as General Convention may provide.”

I wrote about this already. Because of the gravity of changing our constitution, I want to quote the entirety of what I said about this change.

The constitution of our church makes it hard to revise the Book of Common Prayer. That’s because it is so important in our common life that we shouldn’t change it on a whim. In the constitution there are clear ways in which the BCP can be modified, including some provision for “trial use” while we try on new texts. That’s what we did for a dozen years or more leading up to the approval of our current prayer book for the first time in 1976 (and then a second time to go into effect in 1979).

This constitutional change would a sentence to “Provide for use of other forms for the renewal and enrichment of the common worship of this Church for such periods of time and upon such terms and conditions as the General Convention may provide.”

First of all, our constitution is general spare on words, because less is more when it comes to a constitution. If we were going to approve this, I don’t think we need to specify the “why” and we could say simply, “Provide for use of other forms for such periods of time and upon such terms and conditions as the General Convention may provide.”

Second, I don’t think this provision is necessary. The concern seems to be that we have been developing  liturgical materials which are never intended for inclusion in or replacement of the Book of Common Prayer. However, our prayer book itself makes provision for worship from sources outside the prayer book. On page 13 of the BCP, there is this sentence: “In addition to these services and the other rites contained in this Book, other forms set forth by authority within this Church may be used.”

So General Convention — which is clearly an authority, if not the authority, in our church competent to set forth forms — already has this power. I do not see the need to add this to our constitution. There is nothing elsewhere in the rubrics of the prayer book or our constitution which limits the authority of General Convention to provide liturgies under the terms it so chooses. That is, I believe General Convention can

  • fully authorize material for use in congregations. Examples include the Book of Occasional Services, which can be used by congregations without further consultation with a bishop or anyone else.
  • authorize material for provisional or temporary use, subject to the approval of a bishop and possibly subject to a time limit. Examples of this would include some of the Enriching Our Worship series, some of which will not ever be candidates for prayer book revision material.

There are probably other scenarios, but so long as what General Convention provides does not conflict with the constitution or the rubrics of the prayer book, it should be good to go. It should also not conflict with canons, but those can be easily changed in a single meeting, as needed.

So if there’s a scenario in which we need this constitutional change, I’m all ears. Until someone makes the case, I’d rather not mess around with the constitution.

C023: Amend Canon I.17.7. Full text. Likely vote: NO.

This resolution is also on the topic of Holy Communion without baptism. See my remarks on C010, above. I am even more concerned about this one, because it proposes an immediate canon change — no task force or study. This attempts to identify reasons for offering communion to certain unbaptized persons who are on the way to being baptized. Here I think we are better off relying on the ancient practice of the church as we honor and bless catechumens. There is no need for this provision, which is not theologically coherent. Again, see above remarks.



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6 Responses

  1. My only challenge (and the reason I wrote C023) is that we seem to be very good, as a church, at ignoring canons we wish to ignore while not modifying those canons to reflect current practice. Either we need to actually stop inviting the unbaptized to receive communion (and bishops need to enforce that) or we need to change the canon.

  2. Doug Desper says:

    Canons should be canons until revoked or replaced. Blaming the Holy Spirit for abusing Church order is arrogant if not a sin. Start the scrutiny not only with bishops but also the National Cathedral and their loose invitation for “all” to have the Eucharistic elements.

  3. Ginny Rodriguez says:

    What is the scriptural basis for changing a canon?
    It is a bit odd to cobble together a canon and a liturgy contraindicated by scripture. Of course, we do have free will and can do whatever the hell we want.
    Perhaps we don’t even need canons.

  4. Michael Edwards says:

    As to C015, one might consider that we live in the most dangerous time for creation since the last extinction-level event. I think the words need to actually be said.

  5. Dear God, I am so weary of all the discussions of what will happen or not at Gen Con. Why can we not do away with it and do all that stuff on the internet?

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