We’re gearing up for another big, emotional fight about “open communion” and like some other recent conflicts in the church, we haven’t dealt with the core theological issues in any detail. Proponents of the change shout “Inclusivity!” and appeal to Jesus’ table fellowship with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. Opponents appeal to ancient Christian practice, beginning already in the New Testament, where it’s obvious the Eucharist was shared only by baptized members of the community (and even then, only those who were deemed “worthy”).
Is there a way to avoid the train wreck? Probably not, but before we make such a radical innovation in our practice, a change that would have implications for our relationship in the Anglican Communion, and with our ecumenical partners, it’s important to get the theology right. Open Communion has profound implications for our eucharistic theology, our ecclesiology, and our theology of baptism, to name only three areas.
Perhaps it’s best to start with the latter, our theology of baptism. One of the great changes in the Episcopal Church over the last generation has been a recovery of a robust baptismal theology, and with it, a recovery of the notion that all baptized Christians share in the church’s ministry. There’s a sense in the 1979 BCP that the norm should be adult baptism, with those being baptized able to affirm for themselves their faith and their commitment to the baptismal vows. The 1979 rite seems to presuppose the sort of catechetical process that was practiced in the early church, with a lengthy period of education and preparation before receiving the sacrament. I wonder how typical this sort of program is in our church today.
Something the Presiding Bishop said that was reported by the Episcopal Cafe today has got me thinking.
“We baptize infants in the expectation that they will grow in community to be faithful members of the Body of Christ and we invite those babes in arms to receive communion… We haven’t everywhere discovered an attitude that can welcome older people in the same way. I would much rather see us have ‘on-call’ baptisms in the expectation that a person will be nurtured by the community in his or her faith…”
Now, I had never pondered whether the baptismal practice outlined in the 1979 BCP was appropriate, adequately inclusive, or reflected the life of the contemporary church. I accepted it as the norm, largely because I came from a background in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition that assumed adult baptism was the norm, that it was preceded by a period of intense formation, and that it meant participation in a separated community. While the latter is not explicitly referenced in the BCP, it seems to be the assumption of many Episcopal theologians and leaders.
There are alternatives to this baptismal practice and KJS alludes to one possibility, what she calls “on call” baptism. In fact, there is a fairly common model in other churches. Among Southern Baptists, for example, it’s often the case that baptism follows almost immediately upon one’s confession of faith.
But what would an Episcopal baptismal theology look like that invited people at the beginning of their exploration of faith to undergo the rite? What would it mean to have the baptismal font featured as a central element in our liturgical spaces. In some churches it is, but in many, its location at the entry of the nave is obscured by its small size and by the minimal amount of baptismal water that remains in the font week to week.
I’ve had as a theme this Easter season the Ethiopian eunuch’s question of Philip: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip’s answer should be ours–Nothing! And an immediate invitation to join us at the font. If we want to practice radical inclusion, that’s where we should begin. That’s where the early church began. Baptism is a beginning, not an end point, and a theology of baptism that embraces an infant as well as an infant in Christ is radically inclusive and affirms the spiritual journeys of those who find their way to our church.