This post begins a series of reflections on the Eucharist. Last week, an argument regarding eucharistic discipline.
By Brandt L. Montgomery
In Up With Authority, Victor Austin asserts that rules and authority are needed for us to be our best selves ([T&T Clark, 2010], p. 1). His argument’s foundation comes from Thomas Aquinas, who says that rules, “properly speaking, regard first and foremost the order of the common good” and should reflect God’s nature and purposes (Summa Theologiae, Part I-II, Q. 90, A. 3). “Authority does not come upon us because of some tragic flaw in human beings,” Austin writes. “Rather … authority is [the] manifestation of the glory of being human” (p. 1).
I cite Austin and Aquinas because of the debate occurring throughout the Episcopal Church regarding Communion without baptism, allowing or actively inviting unbaptized persons to receive the Eucharist. This practice has become known by many throughout the Church as Open Communion, which is the wrong terminology. (Open Communion involves allowing baptized Christians from all Christian churches, baptized in the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to receive the Eucharist in the Episcopal Church.)
Supporters argue that it is an extension of Christ’s hospitality at the table and that it is not our place to say who cannot receive the Church’s principal sacrament. Those opposed believe, as Ruth Meyers puts it, that “Baptism and [the] Eucharist encode and enact different aspects of Christian faith and life—God’s gift of grace, conversion, and transformation, the building up of community, a call to radical discipleship” (“Who May Be Invited to the Table?” Anglican Theological Review, 94:2, p. 242).
Baptism is “the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God,” its inward and spiritual grace being “union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit” (1979 Book of Common Prayer, pp. 857-58).
In his Commentary on the American Prayer Book, Marion Hatchett writes that initiation “is the central liturgy of the community” and such rites, which are “spoken of as new birth and as death and resurrection, are designed to make an indelible impression on the initiate and to reinforce the impressions of earlier initiations on those who share the ritual.” The 1979 baptismal rite was meant to “restore the centrality of initiation to the ritual pattern … and admission to the Eucharist as the climax” ([Seabury Press, 1980], pp. 251, 267).
Therefore, in its Constitution and Canons, the Episcopal Church declares that
all persons who have received the Sacrament of Holy Baptism with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, whether in this Church or in another Christian Church, and whose baptisms have been duly recorded in this Church, are members thereof …. (Canon I.17.1(a))
It also declares that “no unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church” (Canon I.17.7).
A further argument from Communion without baptism supporters is that the baptismal requirement has become a legalistic barrier to hospitality. This objection raises the question of whether baptism before Communion still necessary. You have likely guessed my answer: Yes! I believe baptism is still necessary because of its function throughout the Church’s history as one’s official, public profession of belief in Jesus Christ, because it brings each believer into the body of Christ, and because the Eucharist, the Church’s principal sacrament, is the source for the weekly renewal of that original public profession and of our incorporation into Christ’s body.
We may grant that nowhere in the New Testament do we find the direct command for baptism before Communion. But we see various typical patterns through which we may infer the proper practice, and we have the steadfast tradition of the Church down the ages to direct us.
For example, in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus comes to John to be baptized, he tells John why it is necessary: “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). It was crucial that Jesus submit himself to John’s baptism, showing us the importance and function of baptism as the sign of identification with God’s kingdom. Furthermore, in his Great Commission, Jesus says to us all, “Go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).
St. Peter says that baptism “now saves you … through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21), and he urged those who heard him preach on the day of Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Not only is baptism the sign of God’s forgiveness and renewal of us, but it is the sacrament of regeneration. Salvation by Christ is received through faith and conferred in baptism: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever” (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 308).
We may also consider the typical patterns laid out by St. Paul, which our baptismal liturgy draws upon. When the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt through the Passover, “our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank from the same spiritual drink” (1 Cor. 10:1-4). First came deliverance from Egypt and the passing through the sea, then came the manna in the wilderness and the water from the rock.
Through Christ we see baptism’s graces. Jesus “committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips” (1 Pet. 2:21). Nevertheless, by submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus shows how water signifies the soul’s cleansing, the Holy Spirit imparts God’s grace, and God takes us on as his children in his eternal kingdom. What God said to Jesus he says to all who are baptized: “You are my beloved. In you I am well pleased.” Baptism joins us to Christ and makes us worthy to stand before God in faith. Thus, we see in the Church’s requirement of baptism before Communion what Paul says to the Corinthians:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. (1 Cor. 11:27-29)
So, in answering why requiring baptism to receive Communion is still important, the first point is that Jesus himself was baptized. When John baptized Jesus, Jesus instantly became identified with God’s kingdom. Jesus also identified himself with us, becoming one with us in God’s plan of salvation, which he accomplished in due time. Just as Jesus identified himself with God the Father and committed himself to us for the purpose of our salvation, we who profess to believe in Christ are called to commit ourselves to him who is the light of the world and of life. Baptism is the most radical commitment one can make to Jesus. And just as Jesus’ baptism was the manifestation of a new stage in his earthy life, baptism marks the beginning of our new life in Christ, for Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).
The second point is that not only was Jesus baptized, but baptism is a command from him. Jesus’ commission to baptize and teach is our call to proclaim that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ makes all who believe in him one with him. “There is one body and one Spirit,” Paul says, “just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all” (Eph. 4:4). Leonel Mitchell says that Jesus’ invitation to relationship with him through baptism brings us into
The hope of the resurrection. The promise of our burial with Christ is in the water of our baptism. Christian initiation is not really an act, it is a process—the process of conversion by which we are brought out of error, darkness and death into light and life with Christ, passing over with him from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God. (The Way We Pray: An Introduction to the Book of Common Prayer [Forward Movement, 1984], p. 21)
Thus, even the baptismal rite’s placement in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer communicates an important message. The Church states that baptism, placed immediately before the two eucharistic rites, is the beginning of our spiritual lives and thus is the gateway to the Eucharist and to other sacramental rites. Through baptism we become that which we eat: the body of Christ partaking in the body of Christ. Requiring baptism before Communion is not a legalistic measure, but Christ’s profound invitation into his everlasting kingdom. In this is true hospitality.
Therefore, going back to Aquinas, we can see that Canon I.17.7 of the Episcopal Church’s Constitution and Canons, a human law, reflects God’s divine law revealed to us by Jesus in his Great Commission. Though human laws can change, and on certain occasions should change, “the mere change of law is of itself prejudicial to the common good: because … seeing … what is done contrary to general custom, even in slight matters, is looked upon as grave” (Part I-II, Q. 97, A. 2). The Episcopal Church’s custom of baptism before Communion should not be changed because it reflects Christ’s teaching and the Church’s tradition that “direct[s] human acts according to the order of righteousness: wherein … it directs our internal acts” (Part I-II, Q. 91, A. 5). In this custom we find, Aquinas says,
the proper effect of law [that] makes those to whom it is given good. … For if the intention of the lawgiver is fixed on true good, which is the common good regulated according to Divine justice, it follows that the effect of the law is to make men good simply. (Part I-II, Q. 92, A. 1)
And the effect we experience from this canonical law is grace upon grace given by Jesus.
None of this means that God loves those who are unbaptized any less than he does those who are baptized. “God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). It is my hope that those who are unbaptized and find solace in Jesus Christ will seriously think about baptism as Christ’s invitation into a more deeply rooted, grace-filled, indissoluble relationship with him. In line with Aquinas on the nature of rules and authority, the baptismal command of Jesus, the king and ruler of all, is rooted in his concern for our common and greater good, commissioning us to do that which he did for all of our sake. And to do what Jesus says, again quoting Victor Austin, “is [the] manifestation of the glory of being human.”
Jesus is radically committed to us and has given us his word that he will never leave or forsake us. He became incarnate for us; he was baptized by John for us; he died on a cross for us; and he rose from the grave on the third day to make available to us the gift of everlasting life. I encourage all who are unbaptized to think about making that leap of faith and becoming baptized, fully identified with Christ in the assurances of the Good News and marked as his own forever. Because partaking of Christ’s body and blood as ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, and baptized children of God is to really be our best selves.