A resolution has been offered by the deputies of a small Western Episcopal Diocese asking the General Convention to reconsider a former decision not to overthrow a canonical ban on giving communion to unbaptized visitors to worship. More and more parishes are already violating church law in this matter. I’m not going to address the scriptural and doctrinal basis for only communicating baptized people. Others are already doing a good job in demonstrating just how radical a proposal this is, after all its crystal clear that the Church has always required that baptism precede admission to holy communion. Nor has there been, until now, any moment when baptism has preceded reception.


I would merely add that I see no evidence that those proposing this novelty have objectively considered the doctrinal, disciplinary and liturgical factors undergirding that which the church has always done, everywhere and by all. Rather the matter is advanced for reasons of ‘radical hospitality’. What I want to suggest is that quite apart from formidable theological, let alone ecumenical reasons not to overthrow what I would describe as core doctrine, the proposal stems from a throughly antiquated concept of what the church is at parish level and thus at every level. What is ignored is just where we are as Christians in the US at this moment in history.


We are the surviving heirs of Christendom, and a fragmented, denominational form of Christendom. Sixty years ago we all felt comfortable with our niche,  as we offered our wares in competition with other Christian bodies, relying on brand loyalty and some success in sheep stealing from our ecclesial rivals in the religious free market. Certainly there were occasional atheists, but even most of them were baptized atheists. Of course there were families which seldom darkened a church door. But they were usually baptized too. On Sundays, the faithful went to their church, the less faithful stayed at home, and some entered those doors only when they were ‘hatched, matched and dispatched.’  Of course all were fair game to evangelical groups who were sure that only those who subscribed to their version of the Gospel were saved, and made it their duty to convert other Christians. Anglicans tended to hope that other Christians had better taste, and benefited from those who discovered in our stately worship the taste they had previously lacked.


A number of factors undermined these factors as we staggered into the sixties, and decline in ‘membership’ began to set in. Social mobility cut ties between families and friends and their churches. People moved to new areas where neither social pressure nor brand loyalty obtained. Perhaps they failed to find parishes that were just like things at home. With all the changes going on, perhaps they found new forms of worship and rearranged furniture unfamiliar. Another factor became evident. With people marrying out of their faith-group, or re-marrying outside their faith-group, it was easier to join another church, or to settle for staying at home. Children no longer followed the lead or example of parents. And anyway, everything seemed up for grabs, even in church. Just as what it had meant to be a Republican or a Democrat was transformed, so what it meant to belong to a ‘brand church’ changed. The like-minded people who attended St X’s were perhaps no longer ‘my’ mind.


By the time the 20th Century was over, a growing group of Americans had no attachment to what became known as ‘organized religion’. The internet and its off-springs helped to discourage any need people had for group activity. Service clubs declined in membership. Dash it all even families no longer ate together.Those of us who remained ‘members’ of Christian groups became thought of as practitioners of arcane rites with no meaning to the actual business of living. So what did we do?  We Christians, unwilling or unable to grasp these societal changes, re-doubled out efforts to ‘attract’ new members. We tried more approachable songs, modes language rites, or we concentrated on drawing in fellow liberals or conservatives, and in the process we made our churches less relevant to those who didn’t agree with our political stance. And we fought among ourselves, in public, and our fights became descriptive of Christianity in a Media which fed and feeds on a diet of stories about conflict and naughty clergy.


So we become more desperate in our attempts to live in a long-lost Christendom, US variety, and more and more keen to find new ways to get people to join us. All the while a new generation has grown up, often unbaptized, unfamiliar with even the most basic Christian teachings, and cynical about churches and churchy people ‘who were no better than anyone else and probably a bunch of moralistic hypocrites’. How long, O Lord, will it take us to absorb this new culture?  And so we make another desperate attempt to show just how nice we are by contemplating obscuring what Christian initiation and sacramental worship means.


Our two desperate tasks are as follows. We have to come to some understanding about what Christian Faith means. Given our unhappy divisions that in itself seems a near impossible task. Is Christianity unique? If so in what manner? Who is God? Who is Jesus? What is the identity and mission of the Church? All these questions are themselves potentially divisive. May we fudge? Well we’ve done a good job at that already. ‘It doesn’t matter what we believe or what the church is, come and join us’ doesn’t seem life-changing or life-sustaining. Why bother?  If its political action one wants, well join a party. At least one doesn’t have to go to meetings unless one likes that sort of thing, rather like being religious without going to church.


And if, just if, we can decide what we want to say to culture as Christians, the notion we will just have to do a better job at advertising, of telling who we are, of being radically hospitable seems simplistic. How do we get people into a setting where together we do and say things which are utterly incomprehensible unless we’ve been taught what they mean. Saying, ‘Gracious me, you are actually here, participate with us in doing something you don’t understand’ is rather like inviting a muggle to a Hogswart reunion.


Of course while we think that church is a place we go to to get something we want, we’ll not be able to get ourselves out of this predicament. But if, just if, ‘church’ is the gathering of those who have been called, set apart, commissioned to receive the strength and the equipment to be communally the church in the market place, it doesn’t even figure that someone will turn up who needs ‘radical hospitality’ unless they are lapsed baptized people, ready and willing to re-learn how to join the community which is commissioned to show Jesus ‘for the life of the world.’

2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Dover Beach and commented:
    This is a very good article on a subject upon which I have spoken before.

  2. When the church was counter-cultural, a long time ago, preparation for baptism was very long and those being prepared never saw communion take place. That is a much better model than being an ecclesiastical fast food dispensary.

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