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Saturday, February 16, 2008

To give or not to give? That is the question.


Over on HOB/D (House of Bishops/Deputies Listserv), there's been a fairly lively discussion of a few days running about Baptism and Holy Eucharist.

There are those who are telling wonderful stories about personal conversion of those who, unbaptized, have been unconditionally welcomed to the Altar who have experienced spiritual transformation and became Christian.

There are also those who call us into compliance with the canons and rubrics of The Church.

The question seems to be framed in terms of baptism-as-rite/right - of membership vs. evangelism and pastoral care.

Here's my response:


I think the outcome of this discussion depends upon the way it is framed. This is not a "Jesus" issue. It's an institutional one. On this and so many issues, we are inextricably caught in the tension between "the law" and "the prophets." By that I mean that as followers of The Christ, we are simultaneously bound by law and freed by grace. It's a very messy place to be.

True to the Body of Christ that we are, we, like him, know what "the law" of the church directs us to do. Of this, there is no doubt. As clergy, we are duty bound by canon and rubric, to follow them. I'm glad to say that, even among my sharpest adversaries, no one I know on this list would ask for the baptismal certificate of anyone at the altar rail as a condition for receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus.

Just for the record, I do believe that once a clergy person is aware that an 'un-baptized' person has been presenting herself to receive Eucharist, s/he is required to have a conversation with that person. I will concede that this is as much about obedience to the doctrine and discipline of The Church as much as it is an opportunity for pastoral care and evangelism.

But, this is not just a question of canons or baptism-as-a-right-of membership, or evangelism or pastoral care. That's one way to frame the question which will lead us down a path where the final destination is certain.

This is about the two Great Sacraments of the church. And, sacraments, our Catechism teaches us, are always about "an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace."

So, some of the questions I'm asking myself are these:

What about 'inward and spiritual grace'? We know that grace can not be earned and it is certainly not deserved, but can grace be contained? Jesus says in this Sunday's gospel, "the Spirit blows where it will." If we believe that Gospel Truth, who has the right to contain the Spirit of God and direct it him/her)?

If we rely on the Spirit, are we 'casting our seed on stony ground' or do we believe that 'God can raise up from these stones' sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah who can claim their inheritance promised by Jesus?

Do we first feed those who are spiritually hungry and then worry about membership, or do we ask that they get washed up and wear proper clothing before they are allowed a place at The Table of the Lord?

If we 'allow' communion once or twice before explaining the 'house rules' when and how will we know that someone is now 'ready' to receive the Lord? (Highly recommended before answering this question: Read or watch 'Cider House Rules')

What are the criteria? Do they have the same application across the board for everyone or just new members?

Okay, so we have "The Exhortation" as found on page 316 of the Book of Common Prayer. If we're going to insist on baptism before Eucharist, should not The Exhortation be read instead of or before the Offertory Sentence?

Should there be a list of criteria that all have to follow - every time, before anyone comes to the altar rail - if Eucharist is going to be . . . 'authentic' or 'valid' or 'institutionally correct' . . . so that everyone will 'feel at home'? (Am I beginning to sound like one of the Five Petulant Primates?)

Ultimately, isn't it a matter of a personal call of the priest? Should it be?

Do we have it as Jesus would have it: first the font and then the altar, or do we have the order in reverse? If we use scripture as our guide which will lead us to the truth, how do you read? What did Jesus do or teach regarding the institutional requirements of his day for, say, healing on the Sabbath? What does Jesus have to teach us about 'selecting' those who come to him? What does 'suffer not the little children to come to me' mean to us today?

We are all called to continual personal transformation, Is not the institutional church called to that same transformation or is she to remain a safe little Museum of Doctrine, Canon and Liturgical Arts? Is the psalmist correct and God is doing a new thing, or are we locked tightly and securely away behind the red doors The Church?

Framing the discussion with these questions will most certainly not lead to predictable behavior. Some may fear it will lead to anarchy. I am reminded that whenever an angel appeared before anyone who was being asked to do something unconventional and take a risk for God, the first words spoken were, "Fear not."

Personally? I think the current practice is exactly what Jesus did - would do. It's both/and, not either/or. The institutional church will do what she has always done. Her first impulse is always to preserve and conserve. That's fairly predictable behavior for any institution, but especially so in the Church.

Jesus, on the other hand, always calls us beyond predictable behavior - especially the behavior of religious institutions. Had we not taken the risk and followed his call and the movement of the Spirit, we would still not allow ordination as a church of 'unsuitable matter' of women and people of color.

I suspect one day we'll look back on this discussion, like the discussions about institutional racism and sexism,as well as heterosexism and homophobia, and be ashamed of ourselves in front of our grandchildren.

What, then? Are we to change the canon of the church regarding Baptism and Eucharist? I'm not as concerned, in this particular matter, about changing canon as I am changing hearts and opening minds.

And that is exactly where sacramental grace and the Spirit reign supreme.

5 comments:

TeaBag said...

No comments yet? I'm astonished!

I've actually done a lot of thinking and some research on this topic, though I haven't seen what I'm sure is a mighty interesting discussion on the HoB/Deputies list so I'm not sure what's been said and what not. But one phrase that leapt out at me from your posting was "Do we have it as Jesus would have it: first the font and then the altar, or do we have the order in reverse?"

Because as I read it, Jesus had it the reverse, and slightly different from the reverse. He had table fellowship with EVERYONE, and only after the resurrection did he give the command to baptize. I'm not sure "altar" comes into play at all.

It's very hard for me, at least, to read the gospels and think that baptism must come first. Jesus ate with everybody; that was one of the Pharisees big objections about him.

This is not a new topic. John Wesley (I think it was John) was a big believer in communion as an evangelistic tool. I don't think of it in terms of evangelism so much as this is God's table, not mine.

I started thinking about this with the expectation that the canons had some good theological or pastoral reasoning behind them, but I am not sure there is.

Incidentally, this is not all that new-fangled. One of the Wesleys considered communion as an evangelistic tool. I'm not sure about the evangelism part, but I suspect that part of what concerned Wesley was that the sacraments were expected to belong to people who look like the right kind of people to be receiving them.

I'm now all for giving communion to anyone; many churches I have known have the line, "All who believe in God and seek Christ are welcome at God's table." Something along those lines. That seems most reasonable to me.

Rev Dr Mom said...

Jesus had table fellowship with everyone, but he celebrated the eucharist with his disciples...and then commanded them to go out and baptize.

And along with stories about conversion of unbaptized persons after receiving Eucharist, I've also heard stories about how powerful receiving the Eucharist was the first time for catachumens who waited until after baptism.

That said, I have mixed feelings about this. My biggest concern after all is said and done is what we teach about baptism if we open the table to everyone.

You raise excellent questions, and I'm glad to see that you don't frame the issue JUST as a matter of hospitality. Hospitality is of course important, but communion w/o baptism is more complicated than that I think.

It's strange to find myself taking a conservative position on this issue, because I am not a conservative person in other ways. And it's not about just obeying canons either. It's about trying to plumb our understanding of the relationship between Eucharist and baptism and think through our implicit and explicit theology.

David said...

Right on Elizabeth+
This is one of the most clear-sighted, spirit-filled pieces you've posted- and that's saying a lot!
Is it not possible that the discussion on this issue goes to the quick of so much going on in the Church right now?
And I quote...

'What about 'inward and spiritual grace'? We know that grace can not be earned and it is certainly not deserved, but can grace be contained? Jesus says in this Sunday's gospel, "the Spirit blows where it will." If we believe that Gospel Truth, who has the right to contain the Spirit of God and direct it him/her)?

If we rely on the Spirit, are we 'casting our seed on stony ground' or do we believe that 'God can raise up from these stones' sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah who can claim their inheritance promised by Jesus?'

'The institutional church will do what she has always done. Her first impulse is always to preserve and conserve. That's fairly predictable behavior for any institution, but especially so in the Church. '

'We are all called to continual personal transformation, Is not the institutional church called to that same transformation or is she to remain a safe little Museum of Doctrine, Canon and Liturgical Arts? Is the psalmist correct and God is doing a new thing, or are we locked tightly and securely away behind the red doors The Church?'

I rest my case

David@Montreal
'Framing the discussion with these questions will most certainly not lead to predictable behavior. Some may fear it will lead to anarchy. I am reminded that whenever an angel appeared before anyone who was being asked to do something unconventional and take a risk for God, the first words spoken were, "Fear not."'

Barbara said...

This is rather like the question: Will the unbaptised, deceased baby go to heaven? MY God accepts everyone -- no exceptions.

Bill said...

I find great comfort in the belief that if Jesus were preaching and going about his ministry today, he would probably be thrown out of his own church by the bishops because he was flying in the face of tradition and law.