The Anglican news is full of the General Synod of the Church of England and its commitment to the creation of an Anglican covenant, of who is or is not invited to, or going to, or boycotting, the Lambeth Conference next year, et cetera. Yet the elves at Titusonenine have pointed out something interesting that has been, not exactly below radar, but slipping by largely unnoticed, a movement in the Episcopal Church that probably most had thought (if they thought about it all) was a fringe phenomenon, but which statistics show is in fact by now quite widespread and increasingly common. This is the practice of giving communion to those who have not yet been baptized—not as a kind of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, but as a deliberate invitation to the literally uninitiated to partake of the Church’s most sacred mystery, no questions asked. By their reading of the numbers, at least as a third, and perhaps as many as two thirds, of dioceses in TEC permit parishes to give communion to those who have not made the commitment of baptism. Apparently, when it comes to disobeying the new directives of the Episcopal Church’s sexual agenda, the authorities are canonical fundamentalists, but when you disobey the canons on the central and most sacred rite of Christian living, it’s no biggie.
Mind you, it is not as though the Episcopal Church asked a lot of questions in the past. However, somewhere, some decades ago, I recall reading a booklet (I think it was by Fr. J. Robert Wright, but can’t swear to it) outlining what the actual requirements in the Episcopal Church were, at least technically, for receiving communion, and I was surprised to discover that it was not quite the “anything goes” attitude that I was used to observing. Nor is this an issue limited to the Episcopal Church, or even the Anglican Communion. I recently visited one of the oldest churches in Florence, San Miniato, a very beautiful basilica which is set on a bluff across the Arno, high above the city and with a spectacular view of Florence below. The church is under the administration of the Benedictines, and my wife and I were lucky enough to arrive in the early evening just as the monks were chanting vespers (in an interesting, if somewhat confusing, combination of Latin and Italian), which was immediately followed by mass. Over the course of the liturgy, a small group of visitors gathered, and I was surprised to see that a substantial number went forward to take communion, including undoubtedly a considerable number who not only had not confessed or prepared in any way, but many who were almost certainly not Roman Catholics at all. I have no doubt that had I gotten in line, I could have received communion as well.
But at least in this case, it was a question of trusting the conscience of the believer as to whether he or she was prepared to partake of the body and blood of Christ. An argument can be made that, when in doubt, give communion and perhaps inquire later. (Whether that is a good argument or not I set aside for now.) But apparently there are a growing number of parishes and dioceses in the Episcopal Church that are not simply allowing communion without inquiring, but encouraging communion without even baptism.
Now at this stage in my life’s journey, I care less and less what TEC does, officially or unofficially. But I do still care about the Anglican Communion, and perhaps +++Rowan Williams, or ++Peter Akinola, or Ruth Gledhill, in considering the question of who should be invited to Lambeth, are focusing a bit too much on all of the kerfuffle over Gene Robinson. Perhaps, in their arguments over whether or not such-and-such a church is Anglican, they should consider whether a church the deliberately flouts its own canons and passes out sacraments to non-Christians is in fact any sort of church at all.
Why is this matter so crucial? I will leave aside Tradition for now. I am still away from home and my library, so I am not in a position to lard this post with patristic quotations. No, I will only point out the illogic, amounting to a kind of suicidal insanity, of CWOB, or ‘communion without baptism.’
In my experience, this minimalist, personal approach to Christian knowledge—“What must I know to be saved?”—is what usually lies at the bottom of discussions about requirements for acceptance into the Christian community, and for some time it has struck me as exactly the wrong question to ask, that the question itself is based on a false premise and a (dare I say it?) very protestant approach to Christian faith. For as people keep asking what the minimum is, (often accompanied with scornful references to ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’, a question the Scholastics never actually asked), then it is hardly surprising that, over time, that minimum will shrink. Indeed, it will eventually shrink to nothing at all, particularly under the pressure of the modern gospel of inclusion.
But instead of “What must I know,” surely the proper question for any society to function practically should be “What must we know?” In a modern society, it is not necessary that I, a historian, know how to do open-heart surgery—but I should know that smoking and overeating are bad for my heart, and if I have a heart attack, my thoracic surgeon sure better know what to do, or I’m in trouble. I have no very clear idea exactly how my television or personal computer or cell phone work—but I do know that it has something to do with electricity and wave transmissions, and when they go on the fritz, there had bloody well better be somebody I can call to fix them.
We none of us have to know everything about everything; but all of us have to know something about a lot of things, a lot of us have to know quite a bit about a few things, and each of us has to a know lot about one or two things, in order for a complex society to survive and prosper. This really isn’t rocket science, yet it seems to be an obvious paradigm that some are strangely reluctant to apply to the church.
In fact, such a model is even more appropriate for the church than it is for secular society, since the church claims to be organic—the body of Christ—in a way that modern society does not, and in our individualist culture often seems to avoid or even scorn. No, a Christian, considered thus individually, does not need to be able to read the Nicene creed in Greek—but he should know it in some form, and someone needs to be able to explain it based on its original language, or that portion of Christian experience is in danger of being lost. No, an individual Christian will not lose his soul if he doesn’t know that the fourth ecumenical council was held in 451—but when the question of how Christ can be both divine and human is considered, he ought to be able to find someone who does.
The creeds thus do not exist as a minimum requirement the individual must know in order to be saved; rather, they are the corporate commitments made upon entry into a divine community whose collective knowledge far exceeds that of the creeds. In baptism, the new believer, in dying and rising with Christ and joining His Body, puts on the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16) and submits himself to it, not as an individual, but as a member of a community, a collective mind, the Church, the body of Christ. If this sounds a little scary—say, a bit like the Borg of Star Trek—well, too bad. Individualism is all very well and good, and we can all have our own unique relationship to God, but go too far in that direction and pretty soon you wind up with a thousand sects, or even with no Church at all, but a church of one, “the flight of the alone to the alone.” This is why the soon-to-be-Christian always recites the Apostle’s Creed before baptism, when he is about to be incorporated into the Body of Christ. This is why we (usually, anyway) recite the Nicene Creed in the eucharist, when we are sustained by the very flesh and blood of the Body of Christ, the Church. These are not individual intellectual commitments, but corporate acts, and it is their very coporate-ness that gives them their meaning. Take that away, and you dissolve the very cellular structure of the Body of Christ.
I wrote above that we recite the creeds in baptism and the eucharist as part of a coporate experience, a collective life. This is why the soon-to-be-Christian always recites the Apostle’s Creed before baptism, when he is about to be incorporated into the Body of Christ. This is why we (usually, anyway) recite the Nicene Creed in the eucharist, when we are sustained by the very flesh and blood of the Body of Christ, the Church. And this is why, when one part of that Body no longer commits itself to that corporate enterprise, either through active denial or passive neglect, it simply ceases to be.
Given the organic nature of church, the usual approach has been to declare that such a portion, whether individual or group, must be cut off, like a diseased limb, or else its necrosis will spread. But while such language might be appropriate for condemning, say, those in favor of same-sex “unions,” I do not think it needs to, or even can, be applied in the case of CWOB. For how can you be declared a heretic when there is, in fact, nothing left for you to believe? How can you condemn someone or something that simply isn’t there? For to give communion without baptism is not simply to declare that so-and-so need not make the necessary minimum personal intellectual or spiritual commitment to a set of metaphysical propositions. Minimum requirements in order to pass a test can, and in fact are, always open to negotiation (as anyone who works in education will tell you). Rather, it is to declare that there is, in effect, no Body to which to commit. It is to declare that the Church itself does not exist, whether that Church is visible, invisible, or somewhere in the Twilight Zone. It is to commit spiritual hara-kiri, or (to put it more kindly) to go snark hunting and find a Boojum.
Or if “corpse” is too extreme, how about “imaginary friend”? Anyone who has seen Harvey knows how normal people react when someone insists on introducing you to an invisible six-foot rabbit. In which case, inviting TEC to Lambeth is not an act of poor taste, but of delusion—unless +++Rowan Williams believes that TEC is some sort of Anglican pooka. If it is, then Williams is an even greater mystic (whether of the druid or Christian variety) than any of us suspected; but if not (any bets?), then efforts to get TEC to participate in the ‘covenant process’ will be pointless, for how can you have a covenant with a church that simply isn’t there? If failure to require baptism for communion does not make this clear, then I fear that nothing ever will.