"Gosh, bishop, I never heard that story," I said, "but I just have one question."
Tension rising at the table. Some people had been shooting glances as the English bishop told the story, obviously uncomfortable. Now a good 20 people or so were listening in on the conversation.
A broader smug smile. "Oh, really? What is that?"
"Did they baptize the pets first?"
Loud peals of laughter breaking the tension, the smug smiled turned to a glare and he looked away.
The question of communion of the unbaptized has returned, or perhaps we should say it has never left us. Perhaps it is a good sign the diocese of Eastern Oregon is bringing a resolution to the General Convention asking that the canons be changed to permit communion of unbaptized people: maybe it's a sign that we are ready to fight about other stuff than human sexuality, like going on your first date after a breakup can show you're ready to get back in the game. A previous resolution in 2003 died of "non-concurrence" (that is, the House of Bishops and House of Deputies didn't pass an identical resolution before Convention ended) and a 2006 resolution was referred to the House of Bishops Theology Commission.
At this risk of belaboring things -- many other bloggers have occupied mountains of server space on the topic -- COD will give his bullet points as to why he opposes it.
--We are already radically inclusive. We baptize anyone.
--When Jesus ate with outcasts, tax collectors, and practiced radical hospitality, that wasn't the eucharist.
Instead, COD would like to focus on a couple of other, perhaps oft less discussed, elements of this question. Instead of those talking points above, here is why COD is really opposed to communion of the unbaptized.
1. Anglicanism has a tendency to process things through liturgy. Here's a good example: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church spent most of the decade of the 2000s in a kind of extended debate about the role and place of openly gay and partnered persons as clergy and blessing same sex unions. How did the Episcopal Church handle this? Why, focused around sacramental and liturgical matters: ordination (confirming Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire) and liturgical rites for blessing those unions -- filtered through the meat grinder of polity. OK, how did the Lutherans handle it? By going through a years-long process of theological study coordinated through their churchwide offices, culminating in the release of a statement laying out the theological reasons, which was approved by their Assembly, along with constitutional changes based on that theological statement.
Episcopalians: process through liturgy. Lutherans: process through the theology. Same subject, same arguments (COD was ecumenical officer and had to sit through TWO denominations' worth of hearing the exact same arguments for and against for nearly a decade). An oversimplification to be sure, but one which speaks to some deeper ways in which Anglicanism frames how we have discussions.
Communion of the unbaptized, as we are dealing with it, feeds this tendency to process things through liturgy. All well and good, you might say, but it also means we can short-circuit the larger conversations we have to make. For example, the crisis in the Anglican Communion is more about ecclesiology than human sexuality, which is the presenting issue. Do we want to yoke the deeper issues around how we create community solely to how we give communion?
We have missed numerous opportunities in mission, evangelism, Christian formation, church planting, and so on. Not just in the past decade; for the past 200 years! 12% of Episcopal Church have been founded after 1968, after all; we are overwhelmingly Anglo in an increasingly multicultural country, to give another -- given massive shifts in demographics, we simply are not where the people are. Going to our liturgical place -- we'll bring people in by giving communion to all! -- will just result in half-formed Christians who have taken communion a couple of times unless we are serious about mission, evangelism, and formation.
2. The question of communion of the unbaptized has laid bare a climate of complete disregard for any sense of community or communion beyond our own. Some parishes feel completely free to make this decision on their own, despite the fact it is explicitly forbidden in the canons of the Episcopal Church. Some dioceses apparently feel free to do the same. This speaks to the deeper issue of people believing that so long as they are convinced something is right, then f**k everybody else. This lays us open to hypocrisy and insularity. Hypocrisy because people only choose to obey the canons they want and cry out against those who do not. "How dare Quincy and Forth Worth take these uncanonical actions! Us? But we're right." Or: "How are they ordain openly gay persons! I am justified in ignoring whatever I feel like because of a particular interpretation of a few biblical passages."
This kind of insularity reinforces the tendency to surround ourselves with like-minded people and assume our particular adaptation of Anglicanism -- in our parish, in our diocese, in our province -- is somehow normative. The fact is we belong to a broad, large, diffuse, and diverse religious tradition. Is there anything that holds us together, or so long as you have a majority in any expression of the church -- a committee, a parish, a seminary, a diocese, a province -- should you be able to do whatever you want?
We just need to be careful that the way we discuss this does not just reinforce tendencies which are destructive to the church.
When I was in seminary, we sat around late one night and moved past seminarian snark and sneer and, heaven forbid, actually started to talk about our faith instead of internalizing the vocabulary of faith we were picking up. One of the things we talked about were books that had fundamentally altered and changed how we thought. I happened to have just finished one when that conversation took place: Being as Communion, a collection of essays by John Zizioulas. Completed reoriented how I thought about myself and the church -- how individuals are incorporated into the body of Christ, which, in turn, is linked throughout time and space to other local communities.
Have to say Metropolitan John's title came to mind, along with my encounter with the smug English bishop. John and Paul (the apostle) have some wisdom to offer as we move forward in these discussions.
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.
One part of the body cannot say to the other, "I have no need of you." Paul says this in Corinthians, Metropolitan John laid out in his book the complex interweaving of person, local ecclesial community, broader ecclesial community. Just as we bristle against any increased centralization in the Anglican Communion, can we not see the other side of the coin, that utter and complete localism is just as heinous?