Each Sunday, I give this little introduction to Holy Communion: “Anyone baptized in any Christian tradition can receive the bread by putting your hands together like this… And if you have not yet been baptized you are welcome to cross your arms like this and receive a blessing. All are welcome at God’s table.” At the Episcopal Church General Convention in a few weeks, they may discuss what is commonly called “open communion;” which means any one can receive, baptized or not. From what I understand, if the Church moves to open communion I will simply drop the phrase, “If you have not yet been baptized.” Not much is guaranteed except the national media may distort the discussion into something like, “the-Episcopal-Church-doesn’t-believe-in-baptism,” or maybe something even worse.
Questions about whether one must be baptized before receiving communion stem from the early church era. Did everyone at the Last Supper receive the bread and wine? Were they all baptized? Were those gathered at the table with the disciples who met Jesus on their way to Emmaus – were they baptized? How about the Eucharist celebrations before the Day of Pentecost – had they all been baptized prior to receiving? What about Jesus’ insistence that “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” (John 6:44) The Book of Acts indicates that Paul encountered people who had been baptized in the name of Jesus but had not received the Holy Spirit. Did they partake in Holy Eucharist prior to Paul’s arrival?
On the flip side, a document attributed to the first Apostles, the Didache, contains the oldest catechism on record. It says, in effect, that no one can partake in the Eucharist except those who have been baptized. One of the earliest non-Biblical writers, Justin Martyr, wrote that anyone is allowed to receive who believes the teachings, has been washed (baptized), and is living as Christ instructed. (First Apology 66)
A small group of seminary students gathered to discuss open communion. Of the ten present, seven were for it. The three against were a priest from Kenya, another from Nigeria, and me. The African priests asked, “Then why did your people teach us that it is baptism first?”
My own feelings on this take a back seat to the canons of the church and also the direction of my bishop. As it stands, we accept a teaching from the late first century that holds baptism before communion. I am adamant that individual churches and priests cannot make their own rules – like, you cannot receive if you are not a member of the church, or have been divorced, or not been to confession, or are living a lifestyle that upsets church leaders, etc. I believe that is all hogwash. Yet, I also believe that baptism is the entrance into full life with Christ including Eucharist. Nevertheless, if the Church changes, I change with it.
Like most big decisions in the Church, none of this is easy or clear-cut or tailor made for a sound bite on nationally televised news. Nonetheless, I hope this discussion will make our assembled Church body consider the essence of what pulls us to Christ, what draws people to want to receive communion in the first place and why are they compelled to be baptized? If we can focus on that, which I believe is the work of the Holy Spirit, we will become an even stronger Christ-centered community.
May the Holy Spirit continue to guide the Church.