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Communion and Consent

Editor’s Note: This essay has been lightly revised by its author, who has also provided an Addendum at the end, in response to some questions. As ever, we welcome further conversation and debate–in the comments below, and in guest submissions. We thank those who have raised concerns, as an integral component of the sort of dialogue we hope to foster.


Trigger Warning: This post discusses the sorts of issues surfaced by the MeToo movement. 

By Clint Wilson

One surefire way to cause anxiety among Episcopalians is to propose prayer book revision, which will certainly surface again at the next General Convention in 2021 (as it did at the last). Part of this conversation has been the discussion of communion without baptism (CWOB), the idea that Jesus, who was (and is) committed to radical hospitality, would never fence off his sacred meal to anyone, especially those who are curious, injured, and in need of being included precisely as non-believing outsiders. However, I believe that even when we insist upon baptism, there is an open door to communion, and General Convention deputies would do well to recall this open door as they take up debate in the future.

What is the basis behind the call for CWOB? Indeed, there is no single narrative that is offered or argued for. But by way of one excerpt, consider this well-intentioned story that ran several years ago on The Episcopal Cafe, which was written by Jennifer Philips (a former member of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music), and ends with the following quote:

All sorts and conditions of people are drawn to the rail for all sorts of reasons conscious and unconscious, in a great variety of states of preparedness and unpreparedness. There’s always lots of teaching going on to help form people in our sacramental life, but the plain truth is that the power of God in the liturgy touches, moves, transforms, and attracts people right then, and at the rail doesn’t seem a good place to question beyond “do you desire to receive the Body of Christ?”

To be sure, there are more robust arguments to consider from CWOB apologists, but this argument is instructive, both for what it assumes and how it stands at odds with another cultural force, namely, the #MeToo movement and the notion of consent.

An Open Door?

The philosopher Peter Kreeft (summarizing Thomas Howard’s book, Hallowed Be This House) imagines the sacraments as different rooms of a house:

[T]he front door is like baptism, the hallway like confirmation, the dining room like the Eucharist, the kitchen like ordination to the priesthood (where the Eucharist is confected), the bathroom like confession, and the bedroom like both matrimony and extreme unction, the bed hosting both birth and death. That leaves the dining room, which is for living this life, this exchange, this conversation.

Setting aside the debate regarding the number of sacraments, consider the significance of this vision for CWOB. When is it ever appropriate to bypass the door (in this case, baptism) of anyone’s home and to insist upon a place at the table, especially if that table fellowship involves the intimate self-giving of the host to the guest? In day-to-day life, we would call this forced entry. While God invites all to his table, where Christ gives himself freely, this invitation is not offered as though there will be no commitment on our part. Hospitality does not mean bypassing the door of baptism. If our invitation does not also involve challenge and commitment, how can it be possibly be faithfully rooted in the cross?

It seems to me that recent conversations of the #MeToo movement around consent run parallel to ecclesial conversations around who should be communed. There is a sacrament of great hospitality, called baptism, which we open to anyone who is seeking the presence of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Potential Christians do not need unfettered access to communion any more than potential suiters need unfettered access to the body of their potential dates; this is baked into the very nature of consent.

Hospitality does not mean inviting people into the most sacramentally intimate spaces of the Christian life, it means being honest about intentions, healthy boundaries, the shape and form such commitments will take, and yes, eventually, the intimate sharing of one body with another. If consent is important in our debates about sexual boundaries, how is it also not important for sacramental boundaries?

If CWOB is predicated on a notion of pragmatism (e.g. It just works in leading to adult conversions), then I would insist that pragmatic reasoning very often doesn’t work in the end (pastoral ethics should be principle based, not based primarily in utility).  And besides, a sacramental blessing can be given in such moments when a seeker approaches the altar rail, and this can be a very intimate and beautiful exchange between the recipient and the priest, whom we must remember stands in persona Christi. Of course, such interactions presume a prior pastoral relationship or that some degree of knowledge about the person is possessed by the clergy or eucharistic minister; I am not suggesting every priest play Dick Tracy at the altar rail!  No, pastoral compassion must be our animating posture, but this is not contrary to a call for consensual communion.  In fact, real compassion just might demand a more informed consent.

In the Christian narrative, consent looks like sacramental commitment via baptism, by which, according to the church fathers, one gains the “wedding garment” that qualifies one to share in the wedding feast, leading to the intimacy of sharing one body, on flesh. No one has the right to the body of another, and that includes the body of Christ. Simply being interested and desirous of the body of another does not sanction such an intimate self-giving and exchange.

My point is there is an open door to communion, but it is in the nature of doors, as it is the nature of sacraments, to require people to knock, or to at least open the door when our Lord is knocking—and I’m talking about baptism. The door is opened, consent is given to come into the house…to be confirmed in the hallway and yes, to stay for dinner if an invitation is both given and received.

But, in passing through a door, guests must also give their consent. The Eucharist is a meal of Christian commitment, a commitment first enacted in baptism, and we must be honest with our guests about this. They, too should give their consent to what this meal entails. Baptism precisely is their consent to the Lord. The door must be opened and the guest must pass a threshold over which the Passover blood of Christ has been smeared. Jesus calls, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me (Rev. 3:20).”  He desires nothing other than consensual communion; the heart of the guest should be willing and truly open and ready to receive the wine of his sacred heart.

Guests, then Stewards

But hospitality is not the only argument proffered, as evidenced by this sampling of a 2012 resolution in Indianapolis that channels what might be called the “stewardship argument”:

Grace as mediated in the Sacrament of Eucharist, is nourishment for our redemptive work in and with human systems, most especially the very one we have been charged with stewarding. This redemptive work cannot be done only by those within the system but must involve people outside the system. Therefore, when people feel called to our Table we, as stewards of our Table, are called to welcome them so that we might work together towards redemption. This is not to proclaim that all people are “anonymous Christians,” but it is to say that as Christians, we more than anyone should know that the mystery of our Sacraments is beyond our ability to comprehend and, by implication, beyond our ability to contain. Our location as Christians enables us to identify the Holy Spirit at work, not to own it. Nonetheless, we are wholly responsible for stewarding this Table, not to create boundaries as if we could protect the Sacrament, but to point to it and translate to all who come among us that God is incarnate in the flesh of the Son. And we must not be wary, but faithful that the Holy Spirit is present and guiding those who come, while we bring our ministry of service and hospitality to our most sacred place.

Again, the argument of stewardship must be reconsidered in an age of #MeToo. Stewarding the body (the sacrament) presupposes the recognition that we exercise agency of our own bodies, but not ownership over the bodies of others, including Jesus. This is not because Jesus needs to be protected; quite the opposite (cf. 1 Cor 11:27-32)! And so, once more, our guests’ consent matters. Are they truly ready for this?

No person has any “right” to dine with Jesus any more than any man or woman has a right to sit down at the table of whichever person strikes their fancy. Our rights are relativized at the table, where we come with nothing but empty hands. The only rights we can claim are as heirs with Christ, which is accomplished by baptism (Titus 3:4, 5b-7)!  Thus, asking for consent goes both ways — before we take Jesus into our body, he has a right to ask for our consent too, to walk willingly through the only doorway that leads to his supper and to an inheritance of eternal life.

There is an open door to communion, but it will require of us and those we lead to show up at the door as willing guests, and to take the consensual step of faith through it, not insisting upon our rights to have any claim to Jesus other than the right to die in him in order that we may find life again.

Addendum: When I set out to write this article, I thought it would ruffle some feathers among advocates of CWOB. If there are errors that need to be repented of, I take full responsibility (and any blame towards TLC editors should be avoided). I welcome anyone who would like to dialogue to contact me directly.

Let me clarify a few points that may have been lost in the initial post:

  1. I believe the #MeToo movement is an unequivocally positive cultural moment that rightly elevates the way in which many people—especially women—are violated in various ways, but especially sexually.
  2. While I am not at liberty to divulge more, I have people in my life who are very close to me who are among those who cried #MeToo, and I take very seriously any charge that I am being insensitive to the horrific difficulties some have endured. I will reflect on this more, and confess and repent if I discern this to be true. My employment of this metaphor was inspired precisely by how seriously I think bodies (and the abuse of them) should be taken, not the opposite (as some seem to assume).
  3. I presuppose the eucharistic elements to be vehicles of the very real presence of Christ (to be supersubstantial bread and wine). For those who do not share this presupposition, I can see how the analogy doesn’t work or make sense.
  4. I did not say people should be interviewed at the altar…in fact, I said the opposite.
  5. This article does touch on very intimate matters, which some will find distasteful. Nevertheless, to enter into the discussion of Communion is to enter into a central narrative thread of the Bible, the Church, and human history that is unavoidably intimate and, yes, even sexual. The Song of Songs points us in this direction, and the image of Jesus Christ as the bridegroom and the Church as the bride of Christ does indeed trade upon this connection. The Bible ends with the consummation(!) of Heaven and Earth. I am not suggesting we have some weird sexual tryst with the Almighty, but rather that all (proper) sex is only a shadow of the love we will know in the mystical embrace of God (read Evelyn Underhill), and Eucharist is the closest we get this side of death. The Eucharist is the most intimate self-giving donation of God’s own body to us, fueled and funded by the doctrine of the Incarnation. We diminish the violence and the objectification of our bodies when we fail to honor God’s body.
  6. I am not equating CWOB with violence or assault (sexual or otherwise), but rather trying to apply the lessons we have learned about consent from #MeToo, lessons which I believe apply more broadly than just abuse, to the question of our relationship with Christ’s body in the Eucharist.
  7. My argument presupposes that the #MeToo movement properly and prophetically calls us to a respectful, holy and loving relationship towards the body of others. I insist this holds true for the Body of Christ, and believe the comparison not only holds, but is an implication for anyone who holds a sacramental worldview. The Body of Christ is not a metaphor, and neither is the abuse of so many victims. It is the Body of Christ that ultimately bears those wounds to God, and is their very source of hope and healing.

Fr. Clint Wilson is associate rector for Christian Faith and formation at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, and serves as the ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.



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