In a piece supporting communion without baptism at the Episcopal Cafe, after providing a litany of people who might wander into our churches, (including “the 8-year-old who comes to church with her best friend after a sleepover, the grandchildren who are only here twice a year when they are visiting their grandparents, the 11-year-old who often comes with his grandmother and has been leaving love notes to Jesus on the altar since he was first old enough to write, but whose parents won’t allow him to be baptized until he turns 18, the teen who is clearly uncomfortable being here, but wants to be with her boyfriend, the anti-church spouse, the Muslim grandmother from another country who is here for her grandson’s baptism, the Jewish son-in-law who comes with the family on Christmas, the ‘spiritual but not religious’ 20-something who has moved back in with his parents after college, and only comes to church on Easter to keep the family peace, the homeless person who wanders in off the street, those who come to share with and honor their loved ones at weddings and funerals”) the author says,
I think God has cherished and adored all these persons since before they were born. Has been in relationship with them, all along. And is longing to be closer to them, speaking to them through our worship, even if they only once step through our doors.
The point the author is making is that because she believes God loves these people, we should offer them the Eucharist. This is a hot topic in the Episcopal Church lately, and will be coming up for a vote at this summer’s General Convention
I absolutely believe this [that God loves them]; she’s spot on.
However—what does this have to do with the Eucharist? The author never makes the connection but seems to assume that there is a clear and easy one to be made.
The Eucharist is the food of the covenant community who confess Jesus as Lord. We enter the covenant community by making our own covenant with Christ in the midst of the community: it’s Baptism. The Eucharist assists us in keeping our Baptismal Covenant and helps us to continue to grow into a life of discipleship through it’s nourishment.
This basic Eucharistic theology is found nowhere here. Instead, there seems to be a simple assumption that the Eucharist means that God loves you and wants to be in a relationship with you and that if anyone can’t have the Eucharist at any time it’s the church’s way of saying that God doesn’t love them. That’s not what is going on at all.
Granted—some people may perceive it like that, but this perception does not constitute the church’s theology. We do need to do a better job about teaching the basics of Eucharistic theology—so that both our visitors and our members can grasp what it is that the church both intends and does.
This raises the interesting point of how doctrine, dogma, and theology might not cause problems, but actually solve them! Many of the struggles we face right now are not caused by too much doctrine, but not enough. I have heard Dr. Stanley Hauerwas frame the problem roughly this way: If someone studying to be a doctor told their professors that they weren’t interested in anatomy and physiology, but would rather spend their time studying psychology and human development the professors would tell them, “Tough. To be a good doctor you need to know anatomy and physiology.” However, we often have people studying to be priests who say things like, “I don’t think doctrine, theology, and Biblical studies are very important. I’d rather study spiritual direction and centering prayer.” Those types of aspirants are very likely hear, “That is fine. Follow your heart and do what you think God is calling you to do.” Why is this? It is because, Hauerwas says, we think doctors can harm people if they aren’t properly trained, but we don’t think a priest can really do much for a person for good or for ill, otherwise we would demand they be properly trained.
The root of many of the difficulties the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion are facing go right to this issue: theological literacy among clergy. If indeed we depend on priests, and most importantly bishops, to fulfill their ordination vows to be pastors and teachers and to ” to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church,” and to (in the words of St. Paul in Ephesians) “equip the saints for the work of ministry,” what will become of a church whose priests and bishops don’t know, don’t agree with, or don’t teach the Catholic, Biblical, and Apostolic Faith?
John Milbank, commenting on many of the problems in the Church of England says:
Perhaps most decisive is the collapse of theological literacy among the clergy – again, this is partly a legacy of the 1960s and 70s (made all the worst by the illusion that this was a time of enlightening by sophisticated German Protestant influence), but it has now been compounded by the ever-easier admission of people to the priesthood with but minimal theological education, and often one in which doctrine is regarded almost as an optional extra.
Milbank’s offers, in turn, a solution:
The Anglican Church needs to increase the effectiveness of its teaching office, since this is an essential aspect of priesthood and episcopacy. While the operation of the [Roman] Catholic magisterium is still (whether fairly or unfairly) regarded as too draconian by many Anglicans, there is little doubt that Anglicanism has gone way too far in the other direction, and offers its members pitifully little guidance and only partial and sporadic leads on doctrine and practice.
Dr. Derek Olsen concludes his piece at Haligworc by saying, “I think it’s time for a back-to-basics primer on what the prayer book teaches on the Eucharist to provide a real starting point for any discussions going forward.” I couldn’t agree more… and perhaps that should start in our seminaries.
For one of the more robust but short accounts of Baptism and Eucharist floating around recently, you can’t do much better than The Curate’s Desk’s recent article Responding…to Communion Regardless of Baptism
The Eucharist has been the central act of worship for large parts of Christianity since Christ said “Take, eat, this is my Body.” Somehow, over 2000 years, this has not been a source of tension. This was the pattern in lean times of persecution and in the bloated years of full-blown Christendom and in every era in between. Wax or wane Christianity has held, at its core, Baptism as entry into the life of Christ…
Do you believe the Holy Spirit descends upon a person and transforms their very being in Baptism so that they are united with Christ? Do you believe that Christ is truly present in the Body and Blood we receive at the Altar? Are the Sacraments God’s action or ours? I have heard far too many talking of Baptism as an entry rite rather than as transformation just as I have heard too many speak of Communion as a “meal” alone rather than the very Presence of Christ among us…
The Sacraments exist for the sanctification of humanity because we are not just fine on our own. We need the life-giving encounter with Christ to be fully alive as creatures of God.
This is the crux of the dilemma, in many ways. Why baptize? If people are fine as they are and not to be challenged to the life of transformed living in Christ, then the Sacraments are, indeed, irrelevant and can be toyed with to suit the perceived needs of the day. The Catechism reads, “From the beginning, human beings have misused their freedom and made wrong choices” and we are rescued from that misused freedom (which includes walking apart from Christ) in Baptism.
We must, indeed, understand our relationship to God. It is a relationship that is defined in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we do not see Christ as decisive in the salvation of the human family then our Sacraments do not really matter. They are an indifferent thing if redemption is an indifferent matter…
A Church that wants to transform society cannot be shy about asking its members to be transformed. A Church that wants to impart the strength to challenge the systems of oppression and violence better offer more than enlightened self-interest to feed its people. Sacraments that don’t matter enough to wait, to ponder, to make a loving commitment to receive are not Sacraments that can fuel the Body…
Amen. Now let’s teach this to our aspiring clergy, and hold them accountable to their ordination vows. If you don’t like anatomy, you should not be a doctor. If you do not find theology & Holy Scripture to be nourishing and life-giving, you should not be ordained.