Should people be baptized before taking communion?

'Open table' testimony hotly debated at Episcopal Church General Convention

This resolution represents the continued dumbing down of the church’s ecclesiastical standards for entry in order to appeal to a wider audience who will never darken the doors of an Episcopal Church. Bishops, deputies, visitors, youth observers and committee members wrestled over whether what should come first; baptism or communion.

Two separate hearings on Friday on the highly controversial “open table” Resolution C040 brought forth personal testimonies and theological refutation from liberals, with one seminary professor declaring “the resolution is extremely thin in its theology. There isn’t anything supporting this resolution except the notion that we should be hospitable.”

The Rev. Patrick Malloy, a liturgics professor at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, said “Every other way we understand this very complex mystery of Christ’s presence among us is completely ignored.”

The resolution was proposed by members of the sparsely populated Diocese of Eastern Oregon. The resolution calls for a rubric change in the prayer book to invite all people “regardless of age, denomination, or baptism to the altar for Holy Communion” and would delete Canon 1.17.7, which holds that “no unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this church.”

This resolution represents the continued dumbing down of the church’s ecclesiastical standards for entry in order to appeal to a wider audience who will never darken the doors of an Episcopal Church.

Bishops, deputies, visitors, youth observers and committee members wrestled over whether what should come first; baptism or communion.

Emma Grandhauser, from Minnesota, a member of convention’s official youth presence, testified that she didn’t attend church until she was six. She was later baptized at 13.

“I still remember my first Sunday in church at St. John the Evangelist in St. Paul,” she said. “It’s a church with their own open table policy. I was blown away by how welcoming the community was,” she said. “They didn’t just tell me about God’s love, they showed me that God’s love is for everyone.

“Communion is a really radical statement that we make,” she added. “We proclaim that Jesus died for us, that he loved us so much, so what better way to nurture new believers than by offering them a piece of God’s love which I know is for them? It’s not just for the baptized, it’s for everybody. I don’t think I would have been as comfortable with my baptism at 13, in my doubting, skeptical years, if the church hadn’t shown me the radical hospitality of open table. I don’t want the Episcopal Church to be a place of exclusion.”

However the Rev. Jason Wells, deputy alternate from the Diocese of New Hampshire, said that to the unbaptized he offers a blessing at the altar rail “and prepares them for baptism, to make their first communion immediately after that. I don’t do that because there’s a canon on the books. I do it for the theological and biblical rationale. To remove this one line from our canons does not change what my practice would be in the church.”

He called the resolution’s language “confusing and somewhat self-defeating.”

T.J. Geiger, from the diocese of Central New York and a member of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s young adult presence, said he belongs to the Episcopal Church because of an open table policy.

When he first visited an Episcopal church in April 2010 there was no indication that baptism as a precursor to communion was the practice of the church, he said.
Now he is a vestry member and in the process of being licensed as a lay preacher, none of which, he says, would have happened “had I seen explicitly the statement of exclusion. Had I seen the warning that only baptized persons may receive this sacrament or if I had heard it, like a border warning saying you must present your documents, I would have felt like an undocumented immigrant trying to enter the kingdom of God. We need all the people to be in reconciliation with each other.”

Contra voices like those of the Rev. Carola von Wrangel, deputy from the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, argued that if passed, the resolution would create serious challenges for interfaith and ecumenical relationships.

“I serve a church in Europe that has 35 different countries represented, has people of many denominations and we are part of an ecumenical body and interfaith dialogue with others. Our stepping ahead of our interfaith and ecumenical dialogues by going straight to open communion will greatly harm our relationships with others, both within and outside parish life,” she said. “We are called to move together as a church, as the greater church, not just as the Episcopal Church. Communion, baptism, ministry are bigger than just us.”

Anne Watkins, a lay deputy from the Diocese of Connecticut and a Province 1 representative to Executive Council, said she favored the resolution. “I’m of the age, 59, that I remember the time when confirmation was the ticket to the table,” she told the committee. “Baptism wasn’t, and I remember at age seven or eight asking and never getting a satisfactory answer why when I’m with everybody else in church, am I not fit at the table. We corrected that, in my humble opinion.”

The resolution should be reworded, she told the committee, because “it seems to be dividing us into a false dichotomy, that it has to be either/or. We’re making the assumption that if we invite people to an open table we’re throwing out baptism. You have an opportunity to amend the resolution to make it stronger so it isn’t either/or.”

The Rt. Rev. Scott Hayashi, bishop of Utah and a committee member said he was baptized at age 27 but had taken communion many times prior to that. He testified “in opposition to both resolutions and I also rise in favor of every single person who has spoken about the way to welcome all people to community, regardless of how they were baptized. How can I do this?” he asked. “It’s easy. I’m an Episcopalian.”

He called a companion resolution, C-029, which would establish a special commission to study baptismal and Eucharistic theology, unnecessary. “In regard to setting up a special commission to study this. I do not think we need to spend any more time studying holy baptism or communion. So much work has been done on it, it is redundant.”

He added, “We’ve been doing theology, we’re not of the same mind and the Spirit of God is moving in both directions. It’s a great Episcopal way to be, if you ask me.”
The Rev. Leonel Blanco, also a committee member, said he favored the resolution, because of a personal pastoral experience. During a pastoral visit to a parishioner, a family member asked for communion. “She was suffering with cancer in the head,” he said through a translator. “I did not ask her whether she was baptized or not.”

The community made her happy because she had been refused communion by her Roman Catholic priest, “because I am not legally married,” she told him. “I remembered Jesus Christ’s words; come unto me all of you who are tired and weary. I wonder if we were here with Jesus Christ today, would he say come unto me, all of you who are baptized or confirmed?”

David W. Virtue is a theologically trained journalist and a pioneer in Internet journalism. He studied theology in London, Chicago and Vancouver. He is the editor of Virtue Online where this article first appeared and it is used with permission.