December 12, 2011

Cb4B was CwoB

Over at the Episcopal Café a discussion has appparently drawn to an inconclusive close on what is variously known as "communion before baptism," "communion without baptism," and (more confusingly for those who remember or still use the term in its older sense) "open communion." The discussion was launched from an unlikely port: the story of a Japanese UCC minister disciplined for this practice.

I have many concerns about this practice, by whatever name, and with the arguments used to support it, about most of which I have written in the past on this blog. This includes the irony of emphasis on the Baptismal Covenant while diminishing actual baptism to what seems an optional or at best secondary place in sacramental life; the loss of Morning Prayer as an alternative form of worship in many places, precisely at a time when a larger number of the unbaptized might be present; and a general interest in being hospitable and inclusive. But ultimately it seems to me that Cb4B is the wrong answer to a very real problem, or set of problems.

My greatest concern is not that the odd unbaptized individual might receive communion, or even the disciplinary lapse by which clergy in this church think it within their competence to issue a general invitation for those not baptized to receive communion.

Rather — and this comes through in some of the comments following the story cited above — it is that we risk a great devaluation of baptism, or a confusion about what baptism means in relation to being a member of the Body of Christ, at least from our perspective as part of a sacramental and catholick church.

Part of the problem, as I tried to address it at the Café, is the emphasis on sin in the Western tradition, thanks largely to Augustine of Hippo and those who emphasized this element in his work at the Reformation, including Cranmer. Thus sin becomes a lens to see both baptism and the eucharist, in ways not quite so highlighted in the Gospels and Epistles that give us what little we have to go on about either rite — both of which, if truth be told, evolve and develop in the Apostolic and Patristic era into something like their present forms.

This much can be said, however: baptism is primarily a rite of initiation into a new life, through death to self and sin, in union with Christ. The reason it rids of sin is not just by means of a "washing" or purification as in the baptism of John, but rather a union with Christ in his death. As Paul draws out this theology in Romans 6-7, it is about our being no longer subject to the law because we have died, or been liberated from its slavery. (Paul, as usual, tries to balance two analogies simultaneously, not always successfully!) It is through baptism that we come to be "united with him in his death" and come "to share in his resurrection."

And the Holy Eucharist is the celebration of that resurrection, which is not just a future event but is made real in our own bodies as we join at the Eucharistic table and are re-em-bodied and re-membered into Christ's living Body on Earth, the Church. Cranmer, and the Protestant Reformers generally, tended to fix the Eucharist to Calvary, and focus on the Paschal and Last Supper aspects of the celebration, and concerns of individual salvation: but these need not be the only emphases in our approach to this Sacrament. The rich material of the post-Apostolic era (the Didache, for example) show that early on the emphasis shifts from the personal to the corporate, and to celebration of the unified body of the Church, Christ's Body on Earth, typified in the grain gathered together and made one bread, which is only broken so that we can consume it and thereby be made One.

So, in brief, this is my argument for maintaining the traditional pattern: initiation followed by celebration. You become a member of the Body before you celebrate you membership in it. The practical concerns of a larger number of unbaptized seekers, the urge to be hospitable and inclusive, and so on, can — and must — be addressed: but there are more effective and theologically coherent ways to do so than through inverting this sequence, which tends to rob baptism of its fundamental character as a liminal rite by which one passes from this life into the risen life of God, as a member of the Body of Christ.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

15 comments:

Paul (A.) said...

You note that we risk devaluing baptism. But by (consciously) effectively eliminating Morning Prayer, have we not also devalued the Eucharist?

David said...

So I'm wondering how your position squares with the classic "native tribe deep in the uncharted Amazon who never encounter the church" situation ? Can these people pass from this life into the risen life of God, as members of the Body of Christ ?

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Yes, Paul. I think that is part of the dynamic. If you look at the broader history of Anglican liturgical development, particularly on these shores, there is a clear movement from treating the Holy Eucharist as something very special to the "normative." I have nothing against the proclamation of the Holy Eucharist as the ancient weekly worship of the Church -- that is quite true. But the unintended consequences of moving it within our context is what creates the problem. The ancient church was quite a bit more strict about who could even attend the weekly celebration: the catechumens were dismissed prior to the prayers, for instance. In one of my comments at the Café I cite Annie Dillard's notion that the Eucharist is not "safe" -- we should be wearing crash helmets! Yet it has become almost casual -- as in what I see in these invitations, particularly with the merging of "table fellowship stories" with the "eucharist" -- which I think are two different sorts of things.

One of the few parishes in NYC that engage in CWOB was at one time one of the last MP parishes. For me this typifies the problem.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

David, that's an interesting question, but I don't see that it relates to the real issue here -- which is about people in a cosmopolitan setting well supplied with churches, and with every opportunity to become members of the church in the traditional way, and to participate in the life of that church.

Far be it from me to say that a person who has never heard of Christ is not saved by him, and made part of his risen life -- in fact I think she is. Salvation is the work of Christ, not us. But the point of the sacraments is that they are objective means of grace: a person who is baptized is definitely incorporate in the mystical body of Christ. Grace is not limited to the sacraments, but the sacraments "certify" as well as impart grace. The impetus of evangelism is to spread that word, and enable people to become conscious of their salvation and to give thanks for it: precisely what baptism and eucharist are about.

David said...

Well, you actually answered my question ;) I agree that "Salvation is the work of Christ, not us." So the question becomes, "Why worry about baptism in a church if that's so ?" You responded to that quite handily, in a way that doesn't leave anyone out in the cold as it were.

Bryan Owen said...

Thank you, Tobias, for continuing to defend the traditional pattern of baptism (initiation) before communion (celebration).

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Yr welcome, David. And thanks, Bryan.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Tobias, I lean with you toward having a Sunday Morning Prayer service where everyone present is free to participate as fully as each person desires.

Perhaps, I'm taking the thread off topic by my musing about what makes a Christian. Is it Baptism that makes a Christian? What about those who were baptized at quite a young age but claim no faith at all as adults?

And then, what about the folks who believe in Jesus and try their best to live the way of the Gospel, but who seldom attend formal church services? Which is initiated into a new life in Christ? Why the first welcomed to communion and not the other? I realize that both examples are speculative only, but I'm back at my question of what makes a Christian.

And there is the old teaching of the 'baptism of desire', which, as I learned it, was mostly associated with the deathbed and whether the person would go to heaven, but the concept still has a certain appeal to me.

Forgive me if I don't honor your request to stay on topic with my comment.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Mimi, you are not off topic at all, as these questions form part of the larger discussion that needs to take place. There's a lot going on here, and I will only highlight what I see as the main issue.

What does "Christian" mean? I tried to make a subtle distinction between "Christian" and "member of the body of Christ" to reflect current usage. There was a time when the two were synonymous, but "Christian" has come more and more to be used to characterize personal belief or attitude, quite apart from any connection with a church, sacramental or otherwise.

So in present discussions I can affirm that the baptized infant is a member of the body of Christ, while the unbaptized adult who does her best to frame her life in keeping with the Gospel may well be "Christian." I take heart in the example of Martin of Tours. (But I'll be he didn't receive communion until he was baptized!)

So I recognize the work of grace (including baptism of desire). But the question remains, as the Ethipian said to Philip, "What is to prevent my being baptized?"

The reality that forms part of the problem is the increased demands placed on those who wish and who perform baptism: limiting it to the primary Sunday eucharist, four special days, involving the whole congregation, etc. I can see the point of that for an adult convert, but it seems to me this is forcing everything into one particular model that is really not all that applicable. Personally, my practice is to baptize whenever the individual or family wish to do so, and I've baptized adults and children in essentially private services, as well as at the primary eucharist on one of the four principal days. But the "specialization" of baptism is no doubt part of its optionalization.

Ultimately, as HL Mencken said, "There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong." We are faced with the problem of changes to our context which have made the eucharist "easy" and frequent and baptism "hard" and rare. The "solution" of optional or delayed baptism is neat, plausible (barely), and in my opinion, wrong. There are better answers out there.

Thanks for your questions. They are not at all off-topic!

Lionel Deimel said...

The first argument against open Communion is that it is contrary to the canons, though I suppose this discussion is ultimately about whether the canons should be changed. I think they should not be, and I think you have made a good case for that point of view. What do we think the unbaptized are doing when they take communion (or what do they think they’re doing)?

I’m less sympathetic to your attitude toward baptism. I believe that baptism should not be a private affair—one should not be undergoing an initiation into an organization in secret. Further, I feel that a non-standard Sunday has been hijacked when there is baptism, particularly when I know it is for the convenience of the family. The church should explain when baptisms are done and negotiate if that presents real hardships (not simple inconveniences).

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks for the input, Lionel. The canonical point is, of course, strong -- but those who want to see it change are pushing the envelope. Not the best way to proceed, in my mind.

As to baptism, the very fact that you feel the Sunday has been "hijacked" is part of this new problem that TEC created for itself with the idea that Baptism had to take place within the context of the regular worship of the parish. I can certainly see cases where that is fully appropriate -- say, an adult who has been attending worship for a time. "Private" does not mean "secret" -- by the way; simply that the baptism most immediately concerns the baptizand and sponsors. Like marriage, it is an inherently "private" rite performed in public. (Note the language on the parochial report form concerning marriage.)

The problem I have is with the confected notion of "when baptisms are done." In short, I believe in "open baptism"! ("here is water, what is to prevent my being baptized" -- is for me the model for allowing the Spirit to move in fulfillment of the command to baptize all nations -- and not just on four special days!

In all this I take some refuge in the fact that the BCP only calls the administration of Baptism as part of the Sunday Eucharist (298) or the four special days (312) is "appropriate" -- and I'm not breaking any rules by practicing open baptism -- available whenever the individual or family wish it to take place. That, I think, is not only in keeping with the witness of the scripture and the church, but is a real example of hospitality...

Fr. J said...

"The reason it rids of sin is not just by means of a "washing" or purification as in the baptism of John, but rather a union with Christ in his death."

Amen to that! Baptism unites with Christ, which leads to everything else it does, including membership in the Church and the washing away of sin. Sometimes we forget that this is the center when we talk about Baptism. But you're right, Paul makes it clear that this is what Baptism is all about.

Erika Baker said...

Tobias,
I confess to being completely unable to understand this conversation.

"So in present discussions I can affirm that the baptized infant is a member of the body of Christ, while the unbaptized adult who does her best to frame her life in keeping with the Gospel may well be "Christian."

In terms of a person's relationship with God and with how God influences their lives and possibly judges them afterwards - do you see a meaningful distinction between a "Christian" and a "member of the Body of Christ"?

haligweorc said...

I'm working up a larger version of this for a non-blog venue, but one of our big problems in this debate is that the scope is wrong. This discussion focuses on one liturgy as the scope of the discussion--and that's where the problem *starts*. The phrase I'll argue we need to start using instead of CWOB is "the sacramental path to discipleship"...

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, Fr. J. You echo my feeling that we lack a really robust and lively theology of Baptism in our day. And I'm not sure the Eucharist fares much better. *{]:-(

Erika, I should have phrased that better. What I mean is that I understand what people mean when they say an unbaptized person who seeks to follow Christ is "a Christian." My sense is they may well be -- who am I to limit grace -- but that the baptized person is objectively a Christian. I think the difference is between the subjective and objective use of the word "Christian." I prefer the objective use, which acknowledges that there are virtuous non-Christians and vicious Christians. To use "Christian" as a term of approbataion ("That's a very Christian thing to do...") seems to me to diminish its usefulness. In the present discussion the issue is about whether even the most well-meaning non-member of the church should participate in the sacramental life of that church. My argument is: if you really mean well and wish to be a disciple of Christ, be baptized -- there is no obstacle to baptism and it will make you what you say you want to be without a doubt, objectively.

Thanks, Derek. I look forward to your reflection on this "ex post blogo" -- some "deep thought" is needed, and you are one to handle it. I think it relates in part to your post on HWHM -- it is all about Christology. How we are incorporate, how we are disciples, how we celebrate that fact and do the work committed to our hands and hearts. Sadly, liturgical theology (and liturgical theologians) often get caught up in the mechanics ("four Sundays" indeed!) and misses the stupendous breakthrough of God into our lives. Baptism and Eucharist are more transutative than a nuclear reactor, yet we treat them as playthings for liturgical hobbyism. There are reasons for humeral veils, and the humble approach to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Keep us posted in this "Holy-Work."