Note: I am honored to be part of this wee bookee, "Water, Bread and Wine" which considers the question of whether or not The Episcopal Church ought to offer Holy Eucharist to those who have not been baptized.
It should be noted that The Episcopal Church already practices "Open Communion" in that we believe what we say that "There is one faith, one hope, one baptism". If you have been baptized in any Christian tradition - Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox - you are welcome at The Lord's Table in The Episcopal Church.
That's what our canons - the laws of the church - presently dictate. That's being challenged by the practice in a growing number of churches who actively welcome those who have not been baptized. And, it's being challenged by a resolution pending before General Convention that seeks to change the canonical requirement of baptism before Eucharist.
Linda L. Grenz of Leader Resources asked a group of bishops, clergy and laity to present their perspectives on this issue as a way to invite the whole church into the conversation.
They include L. Zoe Cole, an attorney and deputy to General Convention from Colorado, Joe Morris Doss, former bishop of NJ, Richard Fabian and Donald Schell, former rectors of St. Gregory of Nissa in San Francisco which has practiced communion before baptism for more than twenty years, Tobias Stanislas Haller, a parish priest in Brooklyn and deputy from New York, Daniel Martins, bishop of Springfield (IL), Linda Grenz and moi.
Each essay has a list of questions which are designed to invite conversation.
I hope you will order this book for yourself and, perhaps, for a group discussion at your church. It may not change anyone's mind, but I suspect you'll learn more about Eucharist and Baptism than you thought you knew.
And, if you don't know about Leader Resources, you are in for a real treat!
Here's my essay. Enjoy!
Breakfast with Jesus
I’m not sure Jesus baptized anyone.
John offers two conflicting reports: 3:22 reports that he
did, but 4:2 reports: “Though Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples
did”. Although we may assume that the disciples were baptized by Jesus,
Scripture is interestingly silent on the matter. The disciples did, however,
baptize, under – but not necessarily at – His direction. Indeed, the religious leaders of
His time noted that “more were baptized and made disciples” under the direction
of Jesus than under John the Baptist. (John 4:1-3).
Although it appears that Jesus never told anyone in any of
the Gospel accounts to be baptized, all of them report many discussions with
numerous people about how to have a relationship with God. We may assume that
the disciples were, in fact, baptized and that they did so at the direction of
Jesus, but the truth is that these facts were not recorded in Scripture.
seems a shaky argument, indeed, to argue from the letter of Scripture and then,
when something is not there, to assume that a fact was so obvious that no one
bothered to record it.
So, is baptism of primary importance to Jesus, or is how to
have a relationship with God which is the passion at the center of the heart of
Jesus did say to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you,
unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of
God.” (John 3:5), but does that mean ‘baptism”? The Greek word used is “hUDWR” or water, not “baptisma” for
If Jesus wanted to command baptism, why wasn’t the specific
word for baptism recorded? Was Jesus telling something to Nicodemus – and, by
extension, to us – about the Spirit (Pneuma) of baptism as opposed to the
pragmatic ecclesiology of baptism?
It’s not entirely clear to me.
What is clear is that Jesus ate with everyone, without
exception. Indeed, He got into trouble with the religious leaders of His day
because He and His disciples were pretty indiscriminate about eating with
anyone who would break bread with them – even (gasp!) tax collectors and
‘harlots’ and other sinners.
Two of the post-Resurrection accounts – John and Luke –
report Jesus eating with His disciples. Apparently, He liked fish. Broiled,
I’m not a biblical literalist. Far from it. I didn’t fall in
love with and commit my life to Jesus ‘the Word’. Rather, I found irresistible
the scriptural words that tell sacred stories about Jesus and paint a picture
of a man fully alive and full divine.
Clearly, this man is the Son of God who loves us
unconditionally and invites us into a deep, intimate relationships with Godself
and Jesus, as well as with our own selves and each other, who nourish and
sustain us, by the power of the Spirit, in our earthly pilgrimage.
So, what’s the big deal about “open Communion” – the
practice of giving Eucharist to any and all who appear at the altar rail,
regardless of their state of baptism?
On the one hand, this is an institutional problem. As a
priest, I understand the institutional impulse to conserve and preserve. The
church’s tradition and history are filled with examples of this intention about
many aspects of our religious life.
Episcopalians also like order and that
which is “meet, right and proper so to do,” so we baptize first and then open
Eucharist and all the other sacraments and sacramental rites to all the
Well, mostly we do.
As a church in the Anglican Communion, we continue to be inexplicably
knee-deep in discussions about ordination and marriage for certain people,
based on gender and sexual orientation.
As Episcopalians, we are very rational people. We value
intellect as a gift from God. We want people to know and understand that Holy
Baptism and Holy Eucharist are two primary sacraments of the church and not merely
This raises an interesting question about infant baptism and
Eucharist, about which the church in some locations continues to be strangely
One still can find churches and priests and parents who insist that
Communion ought not be given until after a child undergoes careful preparation
and receives the Sacramental Rite of Confirmation.
Those who hold this view do not do so while standing on
shaky theological or ecclesiological ground.
The Exhortation (BCP 316) calls
upon us to “consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves
carefully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup”.
warns, “For as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith
we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it
improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body,” adding, “Judge yourselves,
therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord.”
Still, hundreds and thousands of baptized infants and
children come to the altar rail, Sunday after Sunday throughout the Anglican
Communion, and receive the body and blood of our Lord, perhaps still harboring
in their little hearts and minds a burning but unspoken desire that Mummy
and/or Daddy would drop dead on the spot because, just last night, they were
forced to eat their broccoli; or, just moments before to walking to the altar
rail, told to stop kicking the back of the pew and disturbing Mrs. Smith and,
not heeding that parental directive, told they were to miss an hour of
Jews In Church
I recently met a woman who identifies herself as a
“practicing Jew” and therefore is restricted from receiving communion. She
regularly attends church with her friends. She had been told by her friends that she would not
be allowed to receive Communion, but comes anyway, she says, because she loves
the community, enjoys the music and is challenged by the sermons.
When I first met her, I did not know that she was a
“practicing Jew”. I sought her out at coffee hour because I had noted that she
did not come to the Communion rail. “I can’t,” she said, more as an apology
than an explanation, “I’m Jewish.”
“Oh,” said I, a bit startled. There was no mistaking the
spiritual hunger in her eyes, so I risked it saying, “But, I’m thinking you
want to receive Communion. Is that right?” It was her turn to be startled.
“Well, I’m Jewish, so I can’t and that’s that.”
I don’t know what lines she or others drew around her to
prevent her from receiving Eucharist. I just know that looking at her was like
seeing an image of spiritual anorexia, watching someone presented with
spiritual nourishment and sustenance but refusing, or being denied, the
opportunity to partake of the banquet.
I’m quite certain that no one has explored the issues with
her. What does her self-identification as Jewish mean? Does that have cultural
or religious implications for her – or both? What does it mean to be a “practicing” Jew as opposed to an
“observant” one? Does coming to church make her a better Jew? What is it about
the Eucharist that compels – or repels – her? What are the costs involved for
her to learn more about – and embrace – the teachings of Christ?
Apparently, she visits quite regularly and has made several
friends in the community. I’m wondering why no one in this congregation
(particularly the clergy) has not engaged her in this conversation. I don’t
think there has to be any pressure; just some gentle questioning that lets her
know that her questions – and hunger and longings – are welcome in this place.
Are we afraid of her response? Do we fear that we
inadvertently might offend? What if we asked her some gentle questions, and she
responded as best she could? Would it be such a terrible thing if she heard
what we had to say and still said, “No thank you”?
What if she said, “I am a Jew. I’ll always be a Jew. But I
know something amazing happens at Eucharist and I’m spiritually hungry. Will
you still feed me with your spiritual food, even though I am a Jew?” What would
we do? How would we respond?
Is she right? Is “that” really “that”? Meanwhile, there she
is, week after week, getting half a loaf of bread – Word, but no sacrament.
What are we to make of that?
I want to be clear that I am not talking about “inclusion”
simply for the sake of inclusion or political correctness or Christian
hospitality. Although, I have had
the experience of being excluded from Eucharist and I must say, I was surprised
by the pain of it.
An Experience of Exclusion
I recently attended a Greek Orthodox celebration of the
Great Vigil of Easter at the invitation of a dear friend. I thought the liturgy
was magnificent and dramatic even though the congregation did not have many
opportunities to participate in the liturgical event, save for a few ‘Amen’s’
here and there.
It delighted me that the service was in Greek and English as it
heightened my understanding of and appreciation for the liturgy.
At the highlight of the Vigil, the priest carried a large
cluster of flaming candles which broke the darkness, causing gasps all around
the sanctuary as the flame “wooshed” when he carried it. He came down the aisle
of the church and, row by row, lit our tapers and we followed him in solemn
procession to the front door of the church.
After we gathered on the steps of the church - the place was
PACKED and the crowd spilled out onto the street - holding our lit candles and
proclaiming and singing many, many times, "Christos Anesti!" (Christ
is Risen) and responding "Alithos Anesti" (Truly, He is risen), Fr.
Dimitri said, "I beg you. I implore you. Please don't leave now. Please
come back and celebrate Eucharist. Give thanks for this Great Mystery of our
He paused a moment for effect and then said, "I promise
that you will have no other meal that will satisfy your hunger, no greater
drink that will satisfy your thirst, than to have a foretaste of the heavenly
banquet that awaits us all. So, come. Stay. I'm begging you. I'm imploring you.
Don't leave. It has only just begun! I promise this from the bottom of my
And then, less than half of the congregation followed him
back into the church while the rest slipped quietly away.
A few moments later, as we were preparing to celebrate Holy
Eucharist, Fr. Dimitri stood on the chancel steps and said, "Only those
who have been baptized in the Orthodox tradition - in the name of the Father
and the Son and the Holy Spirit - in an Orthodox Church can receive
This, after Fr. Dimitri had promised, ".... you will
have no other meal that will satisfy your hunger, no greater drink that will
satisfy your thirst, than to have a foretaste of the heavenly banquet that
awaits us all. So, come. Stay".
I did. However, because I was not baptized in the Orthodox
church, I was excluded from a "foretaste of that heavenly banquet that
awaits us all". I wondered, does “all” mean “all,” or not?
I sat in my pew and wept – from the bottom of my heart.
I have previously attended other Greek - and Russian and
Armenian - Orthodox churches. I have always been invited to partake in the
blessed – not consecrated – bread.
Called the antidoron, it is
sometimes described as ‘rejected’ loaves and crumbs; other times it is actually
carved out from the loaf before it is consecrated to the Lamb.
It is a form of
hospitality offered those who cannot partake of the Lamb. The actual
consecrated bread and wine, as I understand it, are reserved for those who have
been baptized in the Orthodox Church.
I confess that I didn't like the practice and I don't
pretend to understand the theology, but I was grateful to be invited to share
in at least part of the sacred meal.
I'm not sure why this young priest decided to make this
exclusion so obvious - especially after his invitation and his begging and
imploring on the church steps. I’m even more befuddled as to why he didn’t let
us know about the antidoron. If there was any antidoron about, I didn’t see it.
I asked my friend and she said, simply, "I don't know. It's just the way
Fr. Dimitri has done it in the three years he's been with us."
She looked pained and I didn't want to ruin the celebration
or festivities by making her more uncomfortable, but I did ask, gently,
"Has no one asked him about this?"
She looked away, "Well....no....he's... well, he's……..
I don't think my experience of exclusion at that Great
Orthodox Vigil of Easter Eucharist would have been quite so painful if I hadn't
been given such a great build up to Eucharist.
I believe what Fr. Dimitri said. I know it to be true. So,
why would I be excluded, just because I hadn't been baptized in the
"right" church? Don't we believe that “there is one Body and one Spirit;
one hope in God's call to us. One Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God who is
(Creator) of all"?
That's not just a clever liturgical innovation that marks
the opening liturgy of our baptism (BCP 299). Those words come right from St.
Paul. I'm assuming Greek Orthodox also read the Epistles of St. Paul.
If Eucharist is truly a 'foretaste of that heavenly banquet
that awaits us all', why was I being excluded from having the foretaste now?
No wonder more than half the church left before Eucharist. I
know I considered leaving. I suspect they all knew what was coming. And, I
suspect many of them came to church that night with relatives or friends -
perhaps even a spouse - who had not been baptized in the Orthodox church.
So, is if it’s not about hospitality – and I don’t think
that’s the central issue here – is it about knowing and understanding the
Gospel before one is able to receive?
Does the answer constellate around the
question Jesus asked his disciples in the Upper Room, “Do you know what I have
done to you”?
Is this about
efficacy of the Eucharist? Do we need to have our eyes opened to the scripture
before we can see Jesus in the bread and wine and understand the transformative
grace being offered to us?
A Little Child Shall Lead Them
If I ever had any question about the efficacy of the
Sacrament of Holy Eucharist, despite our intellect and intention and state of
baptism or mind, it was settled for me early on in my priesthood.
It came in the form of a telephone call I received one
Sunday afternoon from a young married father, with two small children. We had
been talking about how Peter, their 4 year-old son, had been wanting to receive
Communion. He and his wife were on the fence. Both parents grew up in the
church when Eucharist was withheld until after confirmation. Would allowing
their very young son to receive defy and deny all they had been taught and
understood about Holy Eucharist?
Finally, one fine Sunday morning, Peter came to the altar
rail and piously cupped his hands to receive the host, as he often did. I looked
into his eager, pleading eyes and then at his parents, as I often did. Fully
excepting them to shake their heads “no,” I was taken aback by their exchanged
glances and uncertain smiles. Finally, they both looked at me and nodded “yes”.
I knelt at the altar rail to be at Peter’s level, looked
into his eyes, and said, simply, “Peter, this is the body of Christ, the bread
of Heaven.” Peter looked at it for a long moment and then reverently took it in
his hands, closed his eyes and popped it into his mouth. He kept his eyes
closed for a long time and then whispered, “Amen.”
In that afternoon’s phone call, Peter’s father related that,
on their way home in the car, their child suddenly called from the car seat,
“Stop the car! Stop the car!” His mother turned to the back seat and asked,
“Peter, what’s wrong?”
“Stop the car,” said Peter, “I have something ‘portant to
Peter’s father dutifully pulled over to the side of the road
and both parents turned to the back seat to listen to what their young son had
to say. He remained silent for a while, seeming to weigh his words very
“What is it, son?” asked the father. “What do you have to
say to us that is so important?”
Peter sat up in his car seat and, at the top of his voice
exclaimed, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven!”
His father, in reporting the experience said, “He “got it,”
Reverend Elizabeth. You were right! He understands!”
Just then, Peter came into the room and insisted on talking
with me. “Reverend ‘Lizbeth,” he said, “guess what?”
“What, Peter?,” I asked, “What is it?”
“This morning? I had breakfast with Jesus!”
“Yes, you did, sweetheart,” I said. “You did indeed.”
I immediately remembered that wonderful passage from Luke’s
Gospel, when Jesus called for the little ones who were being shooed away from
Him by His well-meaning disciples saying, "Permit the children to come to
Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child
shall not enter it at all." (Luke 18:16-17)
I don’t think young Peter “got it” because he was baptized.
I think he “got it” because he experienced the living presence of the Word who
is beyond our human comprehension.
Would that we all received the body and blood of Christ “as
a young child”.
Communion Before Baptism?
Baptized or not – whether rational, intelligent,
well-behaved adults or small, rambunctious children – we all long to have
“breakfast with Jesus” – to share a holy meal with the Divine in the midst of
community that breaks our fast from our sense of unworthiness and gives us that
peace of God that passes all human understanding.
It’s not just about “hospitality” or “radical inclusion” –
although there’s a great deal to be said for that. It’s also about how we
embrace and share the mysteries of our faith, over which we, ultimately, have
no control – a horrifying thought, indeed, for an institution that concerns
itself with the business of controlling and defining and owning Mystery.
This is why I do not check baptismal certificates at the
Oh, if I know that someone has not been baptized, I can
assure you that I will have some conversations with that person about the what
and why and how of Holy Eucharist.
I will not neglect to read them the Exhortation
in the prayer book. We’ll discuss Jesus and what He had to say to Nicodemus
about being born again of water and the Spirit, pointing out that it was
Nicodemus who questioned Jesus about “new life”.
And Joseph of Aramathia, a friend of Nicodemus , the
religious leader of his day was someone was never baptized but nevertheless
took responsibility for the body of the crucified Jesus an had Him buried in one of his own tombs.
Imagine! An un-baptized person being an unknowing but
important participant in the Resurrection! How can that possibly be?
as possible as Mary Magdalene being the first witness to and evangelist of the
Resurrection, even though the church does not count her as one of The Twelve
and many parts of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church have, for
centuries, denied the sacramental rite of ordination to women.
I’ll also note that Peter denied knowing Jesus three times,
and yet he was the one Jesus called “the rock” upon whom the church was to be
After Jesus’ resurrection, two of the evangelists report
that He ate breakfast with his followers, of whose status of baptism we are not
Why shouldn’t we?
The Rev’d Dr. Elizabeth is an Episcopal priest who loves
Jesus unconditionally and struggles with the institutional church continually.
She is currently on the staff of All Saints Church, Rehoboth Beach and St.
George’s, Harbeson, DE and has a private pastoral counseling and consulting