I’ve just finished reading Stephen Edmondson’s article on opening the Eucharistic table to the unbaptized, in the Spring 2009 issue of The Anglican Theological Review. I found this to be the most persuasive contribution to the discussion to date, though I remain unpersuaded that the church should move beyond discussion at the present time. However, rather than argue the merits of making such a change, I would rather briefly flag a few of the issues that, in my opinion, make this such a difficult topic to bring to conclusion either way.
Much as physicists have to try to think of light in terms of both particles and waves, theologians and liturgists have to acknowledge that baptism is an entanglement of double purposes: purification and initiation. Both elements figure in the traditional sequence of font to altar: one should wash before eating , and be part of the body before participating in the feast that celebrates the body. This has to be set side-by-side with Jesus’ downplay of contemporary purification rituals (though he by no means completely ignored them), and the openness of his table fellowship (though this has to be distinguished to some extent from the Eucharist as Paul understood it.)
A Closed Assembly
It is also important not to ignore the extent to which a strict requirement for baptism prior to admission to the body of the church may have been occasioned or emphasized by the persecutions to which the early church was subject. Peter shows no such reluctance about baptizing the family of the centurion upon whom the Holy Spirit descends while he is still talking, and baptism in general — in the apostolic church — appears to be wholesale rather than retail. But with the beginnings of persecution, in the pre-Constantinian era, there was every reason for the church to be circumspect about admitting people to the assembly before they had been scrutinized and initiated. However, we are in a post-Constantinian era: marked by the increasing number of the unbaptized, but also without the persecution (in most places) that necessitates heightened scrutiny.
A perfect storm
Ironically, in recent years we appear to have made much more of baptism and preparation for it. While not eliminating infant baptism, we have clearly moved to emphasize the adult rite, and a period of preparation and formation worthy of the second century. We have also emphasized the communal nature of the rite, by placing it in the context of Sunday worship.
At the same time, the Episcopal Church in just the last half-century has transitioned from an era in which many congregations celebrated the Eucharist only twice a month. We have effectively eliminated (in most places) a public liturgy to which unbaptized persons were fully welcome (Morning Prayer), to one in which their full participation is restricted or proscribed — though not, I hasten to add, to the extent it was in the days of the persecuted and conciliar church: when the unbaptized either were not allowed into the assembly at all, or were dismissed before the prayers.
Where from here?
So it appears to me that the waters remain very muddy on this question. Although the tradition clearly urges against it, it is a tradition that is by no means without its peculiar twists and turns. I look forward to further exploration and disentanglement as we continue to do our best to discern what Christ would have us do.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG