Which Sacrament Comes First?

I was interested last week to see a little storm blowing up on the Facebook horizon. As I looked at my Facebook feed it was obvious that friends in the Episcopal Church in the USA were getting themselves into a bit of a fankle about something which is apparently going to be raised at their General Convention in the summer.

It seems that the Diocese of Eastern Oregon is putting forward a motion which would change the Constitution and Canons and the [USA] Prayer Book to ” invite all to Holy Communion, ‘regardless of age, denomination or baptism.’

Now their canons are different to ours in that they explicitly say, “No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this church.” Our canon law in Scotland doesn’t say quite that although there are those who believe that it does. Instead, ours says something along the lines that baptism offers full sacramental initiation in our church. (I’m quoting from memory, but perhaps someone could post the exact text in the comments).

It was obvious from what I saw on facebook that this was very controversial in the USA. I’m not sure whether this is because they have emphasised something they call the Baptismal Covenant in a strong way, something that most of our folk here would be entirely unaware of.

I’m thus aware of the horror that people feel towards the idea that communion might come before baptism.

Here I have to declare an interest. Communion came before baptism for me, though neither came for me initially in any of the Anglican Churches. I grew up without access to either sacrament (there’s no baptism or eucharist in the Salvation Army) and consequently, when I did discover them the idea that one sacrament was a gateway to another did not really occur to me and doesn’t make much sense now.

Furthermore, I think that I’ve found in my ministry that God is capable of using any of the sacraments (and the liturgies associated with them) as means of initiation into divine grace and love. Not merely eucharist and baptism but also penance, confirmation, marriage, ordination, unction and yes, all the rest.

I’ve preached about this in the past. You can read what I said here.

All of which makes me very interested in the post that Anne Tomlinson has put up on her ministry development blog this morning. And in particular the extract that she quotes from Rick Fabian.

The time will come when Christians stop obsessing about which sacrament comes first and let God roam free and the Holy Spirit blow where God wills.


  1. Thanks for this – it’s a discussion we should be having more frequently! When we were negotiating the Reuilly Agreement with the French Reformed and Lutheran churches, there was great consternation in the C of E that the ERF had just passed a decision at synod to allow admission to communion before baptism in recognition of the fact that this was the way most adults without a Christian background came to be part of a eucharistic community. There was the assumption that this would in time lead to baptism and a recognition of the need for ongoing teaching, but I welcomed the generous spirit of the decision. Needless to say, the SEC was rather more relaxed than the C of E in this part of the negotiation!

  2. kennedy fraser says


    1. The Sacrament of Baptism is the full rite of initiation into the Church, and no further sacramental rite shall be required of any person seeking admission to Holy Communion.  Subject to any Regulations issued by the College of Bishops concerning the preparation of candidates, the admission of any baptised person to Holy Communion shall be at the discretion of the cleric having charge of the congregation of which that person is a member, always providing that a person who has been admitted to Holy Communion in one congregation shall be accepted as a communicant in any other congregation of this Church.

    2. The Scottish Episcopal Church recognises as eligible to receive Holy Communion any baptized person who is a communicant of any Trinitarian Church.

    3. Any person baptised and duly admitted as a communicant in another Trinitarian Church wishing to become a member of the Scottish Episcopal Church shall be accepted upon receipt of evidence of that baptism and admission in the said Church as a communicant-member of this Church.

    June 1995.  Revised June 2005

    • Interesting – certainly wide open to other roads to communion than baptism.

      Where I was dunked, it was held that the *normal* route was baptism then communion, but that exceptions were understandable. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not something I’d get my knickers in a twist over. 🙂

      • fr dougal says

        Fail to see how canon 25 can be interpreted as allowing anything other than baptism before communion Tim. All 3 clauses refer explicitly to baptism. It’s hardly “wide open”.

      • It is, however, one thing to say that those who are baptised are welcome to communion and quite another to say that the unbaptized may not receive communion.

        The real issue that was under debate when this was discussed at the General Synod which was held in Glasgow *shivers at the memory* was whether confirmation was required in order to receive communion. I think that the current wording was compromise which lacked any elegance or finesse but which allowed the synod to agree something in the face of both the people who wanted an open table and the other people who wanted to say something about confirmation being part of the deal.

        I think that the fact that we have confirmations is the only thing that we can say with much certainty about confirmation.

    • Curiously, I wasn’t asked for evidence of my status as a communicant member of a Trinitarian Church (the one in the Vatican, seeing as you asked) when I started attending the SEC or the CoE before that. I knew that a law of that sort existed, but I’ve never known it to be applied in practice. I wonder if it has been.

  3. fr dougal says

    Well, I did the same as you from an unbaptised presbyterian direction. But “The time will come when Christians stop obsessing about which sacrament comes first and let God roam free and the Holy Spirit blow where God wills.”??? When? The parousia? We are an obsessive people woth a need for shibboleths!

  4. william says

    This latest post has explained a lot for me.
    I was always fascinated by how often you assumed that I would know that you were well informed about rather fundamental evangelical beliefs re substitution etc.
    It also surprised me how often you assumed I would understand and indeed share such views.
    Your ‘outing’ [for me at least!] of your Salvation Army background gives me the explanation.
    Every blessing on you Kelvin, in your new world with ‘another gospel’.

  5. And, whilst we are on the topic, the whole business of how the Scottish Episcopal Church defines or decides who are members of the Scottish Episcopal Church is A Vale of Tears And No Mistake.

  6. Kennedy says

    It does seem a bit incongruous that “Baptism is the full rite of initiation into the Church” but we need to be confirmed to be a member of General Synod. (Canon 52 refers).

    • That definitely doesn’t make any sense to me. Anyone know why it’s like that?

    • You still need to be confirmed if you want to test a vocation for the priesthood, even if you’ve been chrismated when being baptised. And that doesn’t make a huge amount of sense either.

  7. Melissa Holloway says

    I’ll keep waiting for that other time coming. Though I thought about quitting church when I came back to the United States because of this. (Tennessee is a long way from San Francisco.)

    In quite a few of the service leaflets we find the statement – “All baptized Christians are welcome to receive.” I always took that to mean the unbaptized were not welcome, but it will help me to think that maybe it doesn’t mean that.

    A young friend sings in the choir for a large Episcopal Church. They have a several months long educational program called the ‘catechumenate’ especially designed to turn people into Episcopalians in time to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. I hear tell of a student, having gone through the catechumenate and having come to be Episcopalian, feeling now qualified to voice her indignation about an Asian student who takes communion without having been baptized.

    I think there is poison there.

    The baptismal covenant does have something to do with it. Funny thing is one of the best parts(bits) of the baptismal covenant is the promise to ‘respect the dignity of every human being’, but the ‘only the baptized welcome to the Eucharist’ would seem at odds with the covenant that qualifies you for the Eucharist in the first place.

    The priests/seminarians I have heard talk about this say communion for the unbaptized makes baptism unimportant. I have wondered if the fear is more that it will make the priest less important as gate-keepers since they are the ones that do the baptizing. I tell them the priests we knew in Scotland were plenty important despite the Eucharistic table being thrown wide open.

    Of course in practice, however, it mostly seems to me a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ sort of thing.

  8. I do note that the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church of England put Elizabeth Fry on the church calendar though as a Quaker I doubt she was baptized with water; so is she in or out of the church according to those who stick most closely to the formulas?

  9. That’s a good point, ERP. It would be rather odd to have a saint with whom we were not in communion.

    The Church of England also commemorates William and Catherine Booth, if memory serves me correctly. They probably were baptised, but as founders of a denomination that doesn’t, there are some issues there, I think.

    And thanks Melissa – I think those statements that appear on service sheets have a lot of theology packed into them. Not all good theology either.

  10. Rosemary Hannah says

    I’m a step more radical – I do not really believe in ordination as the-only-gateway either. I believe in good order. I believe that in any church community the privilege of celebrating belongs with the leaders. I believe it can be better to have no leader than the wrong leader. I believe in the highest standard of education and behaviour for the leaders. I believe that doing that job will change you radically – but I don’t believe in ordination as anything else.

    I think this apparently minuscule difference is important not because it has led to ordination of some but because it has let others off the hook; ‘I am not ordained, so I can …’

    I believe that much much as I love friends and respect leaders, having somebody to call mother and father always tends to infantalise the person doing the looking-up.

    I believe we are all called to Christian adulthood.

  11. The Last Episcopalian of All says

    Baptism first.
    Confirmation second.
    Communion third.

    Question. What is Confirmation?
    Answer. Confirmation is an apostolic and sacramental rite by which the Holy Spirit is given to complete our Baptism, so that we may be strengthened in our Christian life.
    Question. How did the Apostles administer Confirmation?
    Answer. The Apostles administered Confirmation by praying that the Holy Spirit might come down upon those who had been baptized, and by laying their hands upon them.

    (Scottish Prayer Book 1929, which is “all we know on earth and all we need to know”.)

    • Yes. If the Scottish Prayer Book catechism is all we need to know, then the question is very clear.

      However, this is a good example (and one that I will store away for further use) that the synod has sometimes believed it could trump the prayer book with a canon.

      Strictly speaking, I’m not sure that Keats had the Scottish Prayer Book in mind.

  12. Bro. David says

    Some folks in TEC have confused two different things in regard to baptism. Both TEC and my church, TEC’s daughter (SEC’s granddaughter), as we are former TEC dioceses, now an independent Anglican province, practices “open communion,” meaning that we invite “all of the baptized” to communion. But canonically we do not invite the unbaptized to communion. I believe that this is as it should be. We are an inclusive church and baptism is the means by which people are included. Communion is then the celebration of that inclusion. In Matthew it reports that Jesus sent his followers into the world to make disciples of all people and to baptize them. Part of being a disciple is being disciplined and I feel a part of the discipline is the order in which we are to receive the sacraments; baptism followed by communion.

  13. I’m not really getting why somebody would want to receive Communion if they didn’t really know anything about Jesus, or adhere to the faith itself.

    I mean, what would be the point? Would anybody here want to participate in – say – Hindu religious rituals without believing in Hinduism? Don’t you think this might, perhaps, compromise your own faith – especially if you didn’t know anything about what was going on in the rite? I mean, when people participate in a religious rite, the priest says things and the people say things back; isn’t it more than a little paternalistic to encourage other people to do and say things they may not, in fact, agree with? And if you’re not encouraging people to respond to what’s said – then they aren’t really “participating fully” anyway.

    And if you did know and believe in Christ – then why wouldn’t you get baptized? To me, the whole thing makes no sense whatsoever. In my personal experience I’ve seen it used as a no-cost, feel-good way to imagine that we’re fantastic, generous, daring, edgy people (even as we ignore newcomers at coffee hour – as I was ignored, week after week, at a parish that proudly announced that “You’re welcome to Communion no matter what!” ).

    Full disclosure: I’ve actually thought this was a good idea in the past, but have seen things that have made me change my mind. People coming to the altar rail without the faintest idea of what do with the host and the chalice, for instance – and people encouraged to give assent during the rite even when they may not know anything about what’s being said.

    • I think that generally I’ve learned more about the Eucharist by receiving it than by talking about it. I’d be interested to know whether that was the same for others.

      As we know, some Christians never baptise or get baptised. (I’m thinking of the Salvation Army but it applies just as much to Quakers who consider themselves to be Christian) You might not understand them but the fact of their reality can’t really be argued with.

      I’ve a feeling that the correct word for a religion that you can’t participate in until you’ve received The Knowledge is not in fact Christianity but Gnosticism.

      • Yes: Quakers and SA folks are Christians; they know a little something about the faith already, because somebody taught them about it (just as Phillip spent lots of time with the Ethiopian, explaining things and answering questions).

        But of course you didn’t answer the question: would you yourself participate in the central religious rite of Hinduism without knowing what you were assenting to? Would anybody here?

        But of course, Quakers don’t actually do Sacraments in the first place, because they believe them to be unnecessary. So why take Communion? (I don’t know what the situation is with SA folks; do they think Sacraments are superfluous, too?)

        • There are plenty of religious rites in the world that would encourage a seeker to join in.

          I’ve only been to a Hindu place of worship once, fairly recently and enjoyed it tremendously. I presume that if I was wanting to explore being a Hindu I would want to join in as much as possible.

          Again, the fact of unbaptised Quakers and Salvation Army people wanting sometimes to receive communion in other churches is simply a fact. Some don’t want to join in either. That’s a fact too.

          I find it as inexplicable that anyone claiming to follow Christ would want to explicitly ban them from the table as strange as you appear to find the idea that they might want to join in.

      • So now I’m only “claiming” to follow Christ. I see. You’ve now twice said that I’m not really a Christian in your eyes. So, I guess there’s no place to go from there; won’t ever bother you again.

        (BTW, nobody’s “banned” from anything; Baptism is available to Quakers and Salvation Army folks, literally anytime they ask for it. Just as it’s available to, literally, anybody else. Just to clear that up.)

      • You are welcome to take offence if it makes you feel better, bls, but no-one has said you are not really a Christian.

        I claim that I follow Christ, I claim that you follow Christ. I presume that you do.

        The complaint that I’ve said that you are not a Christian is absurd. Such things are not said around here.

  14. (BTW, other Episcopalians (USA, that is) have reported that “hospitality” is being forced on people who don’t want it. One story is of a priest badgering somebody to take communion who had already said, numerous times, that he didn’t want it; another asked the Jewish spouse of an Episcopalian after the service each week why she wasn’t coming to the altar to accept the parish’s “hospitality.”

    It’s a total mess out there, in fact….)

  15. Bro. David says

    I find it as inexplicable that anyone claiming to follow Christ would want to explicitly ban them from the table as strange as you appear to find the idea that they might want to join in.

    That seems a strange statement, because you know that the primary tradition of the church for two millennia has been just that, no communion prior to baptism.

    • Yes, Bro David.

      But I grew up in the Salvation Army, not in the primary tradition of the church and inevitably, I can see things from a different perspective.

      • Bro. David says

        OK, but you have also moved on from that out-of-the-mainstream tradition, for which there must be reasons. If you felt that what you had in the Salvation Army was sufficient, then I imagine that your would be there still.

        There are “Christian” churches that baptize, but for different reasons than we baptize. The one coming to mind is baptist. Not all, but many baptists are known to not believe baptism essential to salvation. Those baptists believe that baptism is essential to church membership. So in those churches is communion limited to church members? Or are all who have received Jesus as personal Lord & Savior invited to the table as well?

        • >…..believe that baptism is essential to church membership.
          >So in those churches is communion limited to church members?
          >Or are all who have received Jesus as personal Lord & Savior invited to the table as well?

          In my experience, it varies.

  16. Zebadee says

    I have known Quakers who take communion with the SEC from time to time and others who do not. As far as the Salvation Army I think you will find that in certain areas of the world communion is practiced today on a regular basis. In others not so. The Salvation Army had regular communion services for the first thiry years or so after William and Catherine Booth founded this Church. One can find confirmation of this in the official history of the SA. Regarding baptism the SA believes in the baptism of the Holy Spirit. To see the results and changes in the lives of those who have experienced this is transforming in it’self. A wonderful RC priest who had a great influence on myself used to say ” I do not ask. If it is a problem it is God’s problem. My job is to bring people into a knowledge and communion with that God I believe in and love” In this he was very successful and for myself that is sufficient.

  17. Robert McLean says

    I think radical inclusivity is to be practised at the font, not the altar. To me it seems that this fits the biblical model: Anyone could rock up and be baptized by John at the Jordan, whereas the Gospels and St Paul talk about Jesus sharing the Last Supper with his disciples -not every Tom, Dick or Harry.

    • Forgive me, but I read the gospels differently. If I remember rightly, Jesus had a reputation for eating with precisely every Tom, Dick and Harlot in town. We know that because it caused scandal at the time. As for John the Baptist, didn’t he have a thing or two to say about repentance going with baptism, didn’t he?

      “You brood of vipers…” is not how I address people when I’m trying to emphasise inclusivity.

      • Robert McLean says

        Aren’t the Scriptures great? – we all see such different things in them!

        I agree that Jesus had a reputation for eating with precisely every Tom, Dick and Harlot in town. That’s quite clear, so too the scandal that went with it. However, the texts don’t record that the Last Supper was one of those occasions, imho. Jesus doesn’t go, as far as I understand it, to the house of a notorious person, but to the Upper Room which seems to be neutral ground, and takes only his disciples. Were it not so, the scandal would be recorded, I think. In the same way, the post-resurrection breakfast on the beach isn’t a ‘scandalous meal’ but essentially just a breakfast with mates. So that’s why I view the Eucharist as a meal for the disciples, and so a meal for the Church. I’d view it differently if it had been instituted at the house of a tax collector with the odd harlot or two, I suspect.

        John the Baptist did indeed have a thing or two to say about repentance prior to his baptising of people – as the texts record. However, I am not sure that can be used as an example of much as the Scriptures themselves see John’s baptism as partial at best (Acts 19). Our part of the Church views Christian baptism as being available to all, even babies. That is how we understand that people become Christians. Of course it is not the only understanding – the Baptists and the Salvation Army showing other understandings.

        I think it is comparable to, say, understandings of the Sacrament of Orders. As you know, some Christians believe in the notion that the ‘priesthood of all believers’ means we can all be considered priests. Other Christians believe that the ‘priesthood of all believers’ is exercised on behalf of the laity by a selected and ordained priesthood. Most, probably all, Christians believe none of us is worthy to celebrate the Eucharist, but each Church has nonetheless come up with its own ordering to obey Jesus’ command.

        That said, it perhaps is then a question of is the Eucharist for members of the Church or for individual Christians, if there is a difference. And that’s a matter of ecclesiology, I suppose.

        I’m not sure where this leads me to, except that to say that the Anglican Church in each province has defined for itself an understanding of who may be baptised (I imagine that must be everyone who seeks it) and who may receive the Eucharist (most Christians, I imagine, since most would claim baptism as entry into the Church). As a loyal but Anglican, I would say I accept what my province’s view is, imperfect though it may be.

  18. Brother David says

    I think that those who would collapse the narratives of the miraculous feedings or the radical (scandalous) table manners of Jesus with the eucharist make an erroneous assumption. For the early Church, especially when reading the Pauline accounts of the distinction between ordinary table sharing and the significance of the eucharist, they were viewed very differently.

    The thing that I find perplexing is the way folks seem to view baptism as a barrier to eucharist. When in fact, it is the opposite, it is the gateway. It is the radically open invitation by which folks are invited to join in the eucharist, the Church’s Passover feast, where we consume Christ, our Passover lamb.

  19. Robert McLean says

    It occurs to me that the discussion about the place of the Eucharist – first or second – is similar to the push by some parts of the Church to allow the rite of Christian marriage for a non-Christian couple. To me, that proposition seems absurd, yet there are those who see it as some kind of mission opportunity. What do you think about this, Kelvin?

  20. Robert McLean says

    And as a kind of peripheral question, Kelvin, I’d be interested to know what did the founders of the Salvation Army see themselves as founding? A Church? A religious association? I don’t know much about them and would be interested to learn more.

  21. Tom Wilson says

    While I don’t make a “big deal” about admitting the non-baptized to Communion, I confess, it has happened a few times in parishes where I have ministered. My thought is if the Holy Spirit has called the individual forward to God’s table, then who am I to deny them? Certainly, if they were to become regular communicants, we would be having a discussion about baptism and communion and they would encouraged to become baptized. Ultimately, Christ ministered to all who came to him, can I do any less?

    I wish many in the pews could see the faces of children, whose parents have asked me to pass the child over for communion and offer a blessing on the child (with that old idea that being a communicant comes with confirmation). You can see the bewilderment on the child’s face, asking, why can’t I take the wafer (eat at God’s table) as Mom and Dad are?

    So much of the issue, I have found, comes down to education of those in the Pews. That Christianity does not stay static, but moves forward, after much thought, prayer and discussion and that practices from the past are now regarded as discriminatory.

Speak Your Mind