Baptism and Communion – more

I’m grateful to those who have commented on the post I put up on Monday regarding the order in which it might be thought proper to receive the sacraments. Particular thanks to Akma for the thoughtful post that he put up on his own blog about it.

Comments come in all over the place these days – it might be worth just noting a couple and my own response to them here.

Erp made the interesting comment that various Anglican churches honour Elizabeth Fry in their calendars and it seems to be the case that she being a Quaker would not have been baptised. That’s an interesting point and one that I’d not thought about. Can you have an unbaptised hero of the faith?

In a similar way, someone commented on twitter that Jesus said to the repentant thief that today he would be with him in paradise and that baptism did not seem to be an issue there. I’m guessing that Akma might well respond to that with the view that this was an utterly exceptional case from which it is pretty hard to make a general case. If he did, I’d have to say I’d agree with him.

However, I’m a bit troubled by something which Akma did seem to suggest which was that we could somehow note with rejoicing the unpredictable activity of the Holy Spirit blowing where the Spirit wills but at the same time apparently base our thinking about the church on Other Matters. I’m not sure I feel comfortable with that. It seems to me that if we believe that Pentecost matters, ecclesiology is inherently bound up with our pneumatology.

Much of Akma’s argument seems to be that specific instances of different practice in this area should not be used as a case for making a change to what has hitherto been the norm. I can understand that up to a point. However, I’d have to ask whether it is appropriate for the norm to be used to construct a prohibition on other possibilities.

Those who come to different conclusions about this question almost seem to pass as ships in the night, never really engaging with the issues which the other point of view raises. I suspect this may be because the argument is being played out in quite different playgrounds – the ethical and the more strictly theological.

Those who would favour a more open table are coming at this with ethical arguments. For example: Would Jesus have refused anyone communion who happened to be at the last supper on the basis of their baptismal status? (And yes, this is the point where that argument notes that he shared bread with Judas). [This is a ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ argument and they don’t always make for straightforward thinking, but it is an ethical argument all the same]. There seems to be more evidence of disciples baptising than descriptions of them being baptised.

There is a reason why it matters whether or not this is an ethical argument. Modern times seem to be making people less easy with deriving ethics from norms. Increasingly, modern people will assess each individual circumstance and make ethical judgements in the moment on the best evidence that they have that something is right. (Those who have recently been at my ‘Everything You Need to Know about Christian Ethics in 6 Cartoons’ seminar can see pictures in their minds right now). I see situation ethics being used to trump normative ethics left, right and centre and I only forsee that increasing.

Those on the other side seem to have more of a theological system that they want to defend and I’ve seen some folk who seem to think that lots of other things will come crashing down around their ears if this point is conceded. I find myself wondering whether the same things would have been thought to be at risk 30 years ago regarding Confirmation before Eucharist. Or indeed in some traditions Confession before Eucharist. Or Baptism before Marriage. Or Confirmation before Bellringing. (This is not a hypothetical issue – I was involved in looking at our bellringers’ guild constitution at the weekend which asserts that members of the Guild need to be confirmed, a point which is as honoured in the breach as in the observation).

Please don’t send me postcards and billets-doux telling me that Bellringing is not one of the sacraments of the church. I know. I know.

I don’t think, incidentally, that I can be found to argue in favour of the unbaptized receiving communion as an idea that carries any theological virtue. However, I do tend to want to say that we should welcome everyone to communion. That does seem to carry theological virtue. In any case, the idea that baptism should precede eucharist and the idea that everyone is welcome at God’s table are not polar opposites and it would trouble me to think that they might be seen to be.

I remember a quite heavy discussion once with someone about this during which I proclaimed that if anyone presented their open hands at the altar I would be unlikely to refuse them the host. The person who had just moments before declared that baptism must always precede communion looked me in the eye and said, “Well, neither would I. Of course I wouldn’t.”

I tend to take the view that Christians should do what they say and be truthful about what they do. And that gets me back to ethics. Melissa suggested that this issue is a “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell” kind of thing and I have a feeling she might be right. I’m not sure that I feel good about “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell” policies very often.

Do people who have different theological views about this issue actually have very similar pastoral ethics when the find themselves at Table?

If they do, then Akma’s raising of the issue of whether this is an adiaphoron is right on the button.


  1. Heya, Kelvin —

    It looks as though our divergent perspectives boil down mostly (or maybe ‘muchly’) to two main points. I don’t teach or practise ‘situation ethics’; indeed, I find that approach to ethics very troubling. ‘Modern times’ and ‘modern people’ can do what they like, but I shan’t be bulldozed into altering the basis of my ethical deliberation on the basis that modernity won’t like me. (I don’t know what you mean by ‘normative ethics’ — the label sounds like a muddle to me, but you presumably have a lucid explanation of it — but it doesn’t sound like something I endorse, either, FWIW.)

    It is very wise to ask ‘What other controversy from the past does this resemble?’ I’d be inclined to differentiate Communion without Baptism from Communion without Confirmation on a variety of bases, but the kind of historical perspective you invoke should always play an important role in thinking through church life and behaviour.

    On the other point of difference, you dissent from my principle that individual cases don’t provide a reliable basis for ecclesiastical deliberation: ‘Akma did seem to suggest which was that we could somehow note with rejoicing the unpredictable activity of the Holy Spirit blowing where the Spirit wills but at the same time apparently base our thinking about the church on Other Matters.’ I’m not sure how to respond to this, since it seems self-evident. (A) The Spirit will do what it wants, regardless of rules we make. Surely we all agree on that, don’t we? (B) If the Spirit is not predictable (and maybe this is the point where we disagree, maybe I’m the only one who thinks we can’t directly suss out the mind of the Spirit/Christ/God so as to align our policy with divine intentions for us; but ‘the Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes‘), then the only basis for us to cobble together what we rely on for guidance is something other than the Spirit’s unpredictable manifestations. And that’s leaving out the inevitable arguments about who discerns something to be a manifestation of the Spirit’s prompting, and what’s just a very bad idea or a caprice of the human will.

    IF the churches faced an upwelling of people who told us, ‘We understand the theology of baptism and communion, and we demand communion first, and then we’ll be baptised’, I would think that a strange, but significant datum. Apart from that, I’d just say that we need to go back to understanding why anyone (pretty much ‘everyone’) thought baptis pnormatively precedes communion in the first place, and do a better job of teaching and displaying the coherence of that position.

    • Well, by normative ethics I was meaning the derivation of ethical rules from the norms in a society.

      Just wondering – if we both think that baptism normatively precedes communion, would you have any objection to canon law saying so?

      • I’m not much on the fine points of canon law, but at the ‘gross anatomy’ level of thinking, I don’t suppose I would. I’d rather we had some sort of Book of Common Prayer for which the normative priority of baptism is rubrical, though.

        Oh, and I don’t have much use for ‘normative ethics’ in that sense, either.

        • That’s interesting.

          I’d be quite happy with the notion that baptism normatively precedes communion being in either canon law or the rubrics of a prayer book.

          I struggle with the idea of canon law expressly prohibiting (as it does in the US but not in Scotland) any other circumstance.

          We have several “normative” rubrics in the Scottish liturgies, particularly surrounding who normally baptis or confirm. They’ve caused quite a lot of debate when we’ve introduced them.

  2. Bro. David says

    What is wrong with prayerbook rubrics which reenforce/remind/reemphasize the statement of canon law? We should certainly never wish to entertain rubrics which contradict canon law.

    • No-one is suggesting rubrics which contradict canon law. I’d be happy with a rubric saying that baptism normatively precedes communion if we could then shift the whole business out of canon law.

      By and large, the Scottish liturgists have tended to have fewer rubrics rather than more in recent years.

  3. fr dougal says

    I think that the “normally preceeds” approach makes sense. The unbaptised seeker who catches a glimpse of God through Eucharistic worship (the aim surely of worship as evangelistic theatre?) and who is moved drawn to ask to receive the sacrament because of that grace laden moment (as I was) I have no problem with. But the next step is surely inclusion by involvement and chatechesis leading to the radical inclusion by baptism/chrismation (and confirmation if appropriate). “Normally preceeds” covers this neatly, p[roviding enough of a fence to prevent casual reception but allowing the Spirit freedom to work.

  4. It seems that it might be best (most desirable?) if someone where to be baptised before they receive communion. But should someone be refused communion because they haven’t had the opportunity to be baptised? I don’t think so. But should someone be refused communion because they *refuse* to be baptised? I think that answer will depend on someone’s theological background/beliefs.

    As far as the whole “Don’t ask, don’t tell” that sometimes occurs…I’d like to recount a story that happened recently. My wife’s aunt passed away a few weeks ago. My wife’s family is Roman Catholic. My wife is atheist/agnostic now, but she was raised RC. My wife wanted to take communion at her aunt’s funeral mass, but we were concerned b/c a priest recently denied communion to a lesbian at her own mother’s funeral. My mother-in-law brought up the issue with the priest who was going to perform the funeral mass, and he told her that it would be fine. He said that he never even asks people if they’re Catholic when they come up to receive communion.

  5. Bro. David says

    My wife is atheist/agnostic now… My wife wanted to take communion at her aunt’s funeral mass

    Sounds more agnostic than atheist. What value does communion offer an atheist, a tiny piece of cardboard bread and some cheap wine?

  6. Andrew Swift says

    I wonder if there is a historical & missional take on the issue. In the early church (e.g. in the Apos Trad of Hippolytus) there is a distinction between eucharistic elements for the baptised, and ‘exorcised bread’ for unbaptised catechumens. All very orthodox, even before confirmation had been invented and dropped (up here). And as for Didache – ‘no bread for the dogs’ – please!

    But presumably one acquired catechumens by some means other than just holding eucharistic liturgies. They were acquired by missional activity of all sorts, and drawn into membership through three years of teaching (AT again).

    As a development into ‘universal Christendom’ (where everybody is baptised) churches got excited about which baptised people wereis sinful or not instead – excommunication. (Canon 26 is still extant in Scotland!) Worship was generally and logically eucharistic as all were potentially members. Mission was extending the eucharistic boundaries of the empire!

    Out the other side of all that, reformation, toleration, liturgical revival etc. etc. – WE (still) are focused on eucharistic liturgy as our main act of worship. Fine for the gathered remnant – but new people will hopefully come to see what is going on. The missionary work is now taking place in the context of the eucharistic service!

    Strongly missionary denominations tend to non-eucharistic stuff: praise services, Alpha, seeker services etc. – then draw folk in to baptism & membership & occasional communion.

    If, as most of SEC churches do, we face the world as missionaries armed with a copy of the 1982 – it has be able to used as an open, welcoming, missionary tool. Even if that is slightly illogical and non-canonical.

    Or we come up with another way of meeting the world and drawing them towards God’s grace…

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