By Kirk Petersen
Twenty-two prominent theologians from the Episcopal Church and beyond have pushed back hard against a proposal to endorse the practice of offering communion to people who have not been baptized.
The theologians, who collectively have academic titles at eight Episcopal seminaries, signed an open letter released June 1 stating that the sacrament of Holy Communion is, and must remain, linked to the sacrament of Holy Baptism. “In liturgical terms, the Eucharist is understood to be the repeatable culmination of the baptismal rite of initiation, in which those who receive the elements publicly reaffirm their baptism, as the post-communion prayers clearly indicate,” says the letter. The signers come from across the theological spectrum, and some of them would disagree on many other topics.
The letter is in reaction to Resolution C028, which the Diocese of Northern California offered for consideration at the upcoming General Convention. The resolution would repeal Canon I.17.7 of the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, which reads in its entirety: “No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.” Compliance with the canon varies in different parts of the church.
The disagreement is between what some see as a theological imperative and what others see as a social imperative. The social argument can be summed up by the title of Resolution C028: “All Are Welcome at the Table.”
In the explanation submitted with C028, the diocese states: “This could help grow congregations by reducing the number of visitors who do not return because they felt excluded during communion.” The proposers note that the Episcopal Church is known for being a welcoming place, and that “during the last supper Jesus made no mention of the requirement for recipients of bread and wine, taken in remembrance of Him, to be baptized.”
The theologians counter that: “Unlike Baptism, Holy Eucharist is therefore not intended for ‘all people’ without exception, but is rather for ‘God’s people’ understood above as a common body united by a common faith. To require such corporate faith as confessed in the Baptismal Covenant is not exclusive or inhospitable but simply what it means to receive Communion in this Church.”
There is little reason to believe that C028 will be adopted by the 80th General Convention, and it may not even come up for a vote.
The length of this year’s General Convention has been cut in half because of renewed pandemic fears, and is now scheduled for July 8-11 in Baltimore. Time for floor debate will be in scarce supply, and convention organizers are looking for reasons to exclude resolutions from consideration. In late May the Presiding Officers’ General Convention Design Group published a series of questions to be used in winnowing the 250 resolutions that already have been proposed, including:
- Would this resolution require significant floor time for debate that might not be available at the 80th General Convention?
- Could this resolution be addressed at the 81st General Convention without significantly impeding the church’s ability to respond to God’s mission in the next two years? Would it benefit from more study?
To take effect, the resolution would have to be adopted by both the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. The Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins, who is the retired Bishop of Springfield and who serves as secretary of the board of directors of The Living Church Foundation, recently wrote in Covenant: “At least as long ago as 2012, there was a similar resolution that came to convention. As I recall, there was not a single audible Aye vote cast in the House of Bishops. Three years later, there was a proposal merely to formally study the question of Communion before baptism. This one did have some support among the bishops, but it still fell short by a fairly wide margin.”
If C028 were to come to a vote in the House of Bishops, the bishop of the diocese that proposed the resolution would vote against it. The Rt. Rev. Megan M. Traquair told TLC that she’s already voted against the idea once, when it was proposed in the Diocese of Northern California’s November 2021 convention. She was narrowly outvoted in the clergy order, and more decisively in the lay order, so the resolution was submitted to General Convention.
“I have a great deal of respect for those who voted for it,” she said. “Hospitality and pastoral welcome are a good instinct.”