General Convention is over!

And now comes the commentary, picking up the pieces, and jockeying around various decisions. The fun won’t stop; it just won’t be quite as intense.

One of the last decisions made was on the controversial proposal for “communion without baptism.” The House of Bishops amended the resolution and passed it as follows:

Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, that The Episcopal Church reaffirms that baptism is the ancient and normative entry point to receiving Holy Communion and that our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to go into the world and baptize all peoples. We also acknowledge that in various local contexts there is the exercise of pastoral sensitivity with those who are not yet baptized.

The italicized sentence was struck. After some debate (it was coming down to the final minutes of the final legislative session), the House of Deputies concurred with the Bishops, so that the resolution as passed reaffirms traditional teaching and practice. I doubt it will change anything in those parishes that already practice “communion regardless of baptism.” And no doubt this debate will return in three years.

I’ll have more of my reflections on General Convention at a future date, when I’ve had at least a few hours to ponder all that occurred.

Why would people want to attend church? continued

A follow-up to the previous post. We tend to assume if we just got things right, whether “things” be the liturgy, or coffee hour, or theology, or even the building, then things would be OK and people would want to join us. But there are deeper issues.

Brian McLaren writes (h/t Steve Knight)

“‎Christian mission begins with friendship — not utilitarian friendship, the religious version of network marketing — but genuine friendship, friendship that translates love for neighbors in general into knowing, appreciating, liking and enjoying … This knowing-in-particular then motivates us to protect our neighbor when he or she is under threat, as a little Rwandan girl understood: just before she was brutally murdered during the genocide, she said to her slayer, ‘If you knew me, you would not kill me.’”

Also this: “They don’t believe because your God isn’t desirable.” This is a reflection on debates between Christians and atheists, with the underlying assumption that one can prove the existence of God, or the superiority of the Christian faith, by rational argument.

But I think the same dynamic is in play in other areas, in the common deployment of terms like “inclusivity.” Not that I’m against inclusion, mind you, but sometimes I think we are so focused on the outward symbols of inclusion that we forget the importance of God’s love and our love of our neighbor.

Radical Welcome: Why would people want to attend church?

I took a break last night from reading tweets about General Convention and went to a dinner party with neighbors. None of them are churchgoers. There was a young couple, a gay couple, a divorced woman. Some were “recovering” Roman Catholics. I asked at one point if any of them wanted to participate in church. Only one said yes, and he was primarily interested in the community created by a church. That got me thinking about evangelism, hospitality and the like. Of course, my mind turned back to what’s taking place at General Convention. Is any of it relevant, even potentially relevant, to the neighbors with whom I dined last night?

There’s a lively and passionate debate taking place about communion without baptism. I’ve blogged about it before and made my position quite clear. Supporters often put the practice in terms of hospitality and welcome. There’s an important theological conversation that is taking place. But radical hospitality and welcome is not just about what we do in our liturgy. It begins with our buildings and with our attitudes. What messages do we convey with our physical space?

What visitors see first (ranked in order of priority). #1 is women’s restrooms.

The Episcopal Church welcomes you, if you can find your way in. This is an excellent discussion about how our architecture deceives and misleads. What looks like the main entrance into the church is often unused or blocked.

Of course, there are other questions we should be asking about welcoming and hospitality. Often, the question is, “Why don’t people come to church?” And we ask it, not of those who don’t attend, but of those in our congregations. A better question might be, Why would you attend church?

The same is likely true for the unchurched. If you want to attract groups in your community, don’t immediately wave a survey in front of your congregation about what you believe will draw the unchurched into your community.  And don’t begin by investing in a program that tells you what people want and how to get them.  Instead, start by asking your neighbors, “Why don’t you attend?” Or, positively expressed, “Why would you attend church?”

By shifting from how to why, you will garner a more-honest assessment of what prevents people from attending. The answers may surprise you. They may not. But in either case, you will be able to design your outreach on solid information about the people you are trying to reach.


Rachel Held Evans tells us why she didn’t go to church last Sunday:

What I feel these days is not guilt, but something far more nefarious:  dull resignation. There are nearly 200 churches near my small, Southern town, and hundreds more if we make the long drive to Chattanooga, so the fact that I can’t seem to make it through a single service without questioning the existence of God says a lot more about me than it does about church, now doesn’t it?

Do I want a church that fits me, or a me that fits the church?

God makes sense to me under the trees, and God makes sense to me in poetry and prayer, and God makes sense to me in Eucharist and Baptism and community and even creeds…but not in the offering plate, not in the building campaign, not in the pastor-who-shall-not-be-questioned, not in the politics, not in the assumptions about what a good Christian girl ought to be.

What can we do to reach out to her, and to all those others who have given up in “dull resignation”?

More on the debate over communion without (before?) (instead of?) baptism

A great deal was made several days ago over a post at the Cafe by Andee Zetterbaum:

The question we need to be asking isn’t what SHOULD the theology of baptism and communion be, it’s what is the PERCEIVED theology by the outsider who is present at our worship. And the people who need to be involved in that discussion are:

The 8-year-old who comes to church with her best friend after a sleepoverThe grandchildren who are only here twice a year when they are visiting their grandparents

The 11-year-old who often comes with his grandmother and has been leaving love notes to Jesus on the altar since he was first old enough to write, but whose parents won’t allow him to be baptized until he turns 18

The teen who is clearly uncomfortable being here, but wants to be with her boyfriend

The anti-church spouse

The Muslim grandmother from another country who is here for her grandson’s baptism

The Jewish son-in-law who comes with the family on Christmas

The ‘spiritual but not religious’ 20-something who has moved back in with his parents after college, and only comes to church on Easter to keep the family peace

The homeless person who wanders in off the street

Those who come to share with and honor their loved ones at weddings and funerals

What do our communion practices say to them about the nature of the God we worship? What does God say to them, through the way we share communion?

So I wasn’t going to say anything more on the topic. I’ve made my position clear, and I think at this point there is more heat than light in the conversation. There are those who think open table is crucial to our mission, our proclamation of Jesus Christ, and our self-understanding as inclusive and welcoming communities. There are others who see the practice as an affront to scripture, to two thousand years of Christian practice, and an offense to the sacraments.

Then I read this by Jesse Zink, who visited an “official” Protestant church in China last year:

One Sunday I visited one of the major, sanctioned Protestant churches in Beijing. The congregation stood while the pastor prayed over the communion elements. Then, just before the distribution, the pastor made an announcement. “If you are not baptized, please sit down.” About a third of the congregation did so. They watched while the rest of us received communion that was passed through the pews. None who sat down seemed offended. No one stormed out in a huff. This was how things were. They were not baptized yet but looked forward to the day when they were.

So what’s the difference between this church in Beijing and your average Episcopal congregation, where I can never imagine something like this happening?

One difference—and there are many—is that folks are beating down the door of this church in Beijing. I had to wait in line twenty minutes to get into that service. The sanctuary could probably hold 1000 people and it was standing room only that morning. In the Episcopal Church, perhaps, we’re so desperate for folks to come in, we don’t want to do anything that will turn people away.

I know it won’t change any minds, but still.

Communion without Baptism–more thoughts and additional links

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.

More on this issue here and here.

Communion without (or before) Baptism–Oh, No! Not Again!

News came out this week that the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon will present the following resolution to General Convention:

The Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon is forwarding an Open Table resolution to General Convention that would change the rubrics and practice of The Book of Common Prayer to invite all to Holy Communion, “regardless of age, denomination or baptism.”

The Lead has a story, and 208 comments (as of today).

Obviously it’s something that arouses passion on all sides.

For newcomers to the issue, some parishes (including Grace in past years) practiced some form of “open communion,” allowing anyone to partake in communion, whether or not they were baptized. The arguments in favor of such practice usually focus on concepts like “radical hospitality,” and the example of Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners.

It’s an issue that’s been around the church for some time. I remember eight or ten years ago when  student in one of my classes of people preparing for the diaconate asked me about it. She was conservative theologically and outspoken in her disapproval of the ordination of LGBT persons or same-sex blessings. She posed the question as if implying that “see what happens when you admit progressive theology?” Just as the sexuality debate had pushed all of her buttons, so too did this issue.

I was taken aback by the question at the time. I am a historian after all, and I know well the historical practice. In the early church, unbaptized people were not allowed to witness the Eucharist, let alone partake in it, and it’s obvious from I Corinthians 11 and other NT passages that early Christian practice of the Eucharist was exclusive.

But it wasn’t just the Early Church. Throughout the history of Christianity, there has been a practice of excluding people from the Eucharist–notorious sinners, for example. The exhortation to communion in the BCP reads:

Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed. And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven. And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food.

The concern here is not just about sins we have committed against God, but ways in which we have harmed our neighbors, and also, whether or not we have been reconciled to them. And the advice is, don’t take communion if you haven’t been reconciled.

Communion is not a right. It’s not even a privilege. It’s a gift we are given and in which we are invited to share. Many of us like to say something like “It is not our table; it is the Lord’s, when inviting visitors to share in our Eucharistic fellowship. And so it is. But if it’s the Lord’s table we should approach it in humility and awe and recognize that the body that shares the bread and wine is a body made up of people who have died with Christ in baptism and have been raised to newness of life.

Tobias Haller has this to say:

The church is radically inclusive and baptism is the means by which people are included. Communion is the celebration of that inclusion, not its means.

Crusty Old Dean also weighs in:

One is that while something may be lawful, does it build up? Yeah, theoretically, we could change the canons and permit this. But will it really build up the church? Without broader commitment to formation, mission, and ministry, I don’t see how it would. If we give someone communion and then never talk to them at coffee hour and don’t empower them in their baptismal ministry, we will have accomplished nothing.

I’d like to make two observations, both of them made by others more eloquently. First, this is an example of “we haven’t done the theology yet.” That has been the cry of those opposed to full inclusion of LGBTs and same-sex blessings, and whether or not it’s true in that case, it’s certainly true in this one. The desire for offering communion to the unbaptized comes from a desire to be open and welcoming and hospitable, but at what cost? What is the underlying theology of the Eucharist or ecclesiology that would admit such a practice, especially when it contradicts 2000 years of doctrine and practice? There have to be sound and convincing arguments in order to make the case, not just to the Episcopal Church, but to the wider Anglican Communion and to our ecumenical partners.

Second, it always seems to me when something like this comes up that it reflects certain underlying attitudes in those proposing it. Is there something like progressive “oneupmanship” at work–an attempt to demonstrate one’s progressive theological bona fides to other Episcopalians and to other religious groups? And coming as it does in the midst of conflict within the Anglican Communion, and a promised debate over liturgies for same sex blessings, I’m tempted to think that the sponsors and supporters of the resolution are looking for one more battle to separate the sheep from the goats, the “real” progressives from the rest of us.