May 18, 2009
You might recall my discussion of a debate that took place in the spring and summer issues of the Anglican Theological Review in 2004. That conversation has now been joined by the Rev’d Dr. Stephen Edmondson, rector of St. Thomas’, McLean, Virginia and formerly Associate Professor of Church history at VTS in ATR (Spring 2009, Vol. 91, no. 2). He is furthering Kathryn Tanner’s argument that admission to communion should be extended to all and not limited to the already baptized through a work of liturgical theology (after the model of the late Aidan Kavanaugh). He brought together groups of parishioners from four parishes to reflect on the ways in which they value their practice of explicitly inviting all people to the Table of the Lord. Their conversations centered around radical grace with special attention to the practice of Jesus’ dining with tax collectors and sinners. Baptism was also seen as a desirable or essential response to such radical grace and the model for this tension was seen in the various characters in the parable of the prodigal. Further and following from that understanding was the idea that we are all children of God without exception. They further reflected on what Edmondson calls the relationality of grace and more than that on the particular relation of being part of the body of Christ and members of centered communities. They saw the open table as ‘catechizing adults’ toward baptism for mission. They were aware of the dangers of sentimentalizing the mission of the church to grow in grace and to suggest openness to the table without really offering openness to participation in the community of faith. All in all this is a useful and real reflection on liturgy by parish participants making the existential case for an open table.
I am under the impression (but cannot prove) that if we put together all the rubrics, resolutions and canons of the Church on the matter of who is invited to the table we would end up saying something like “all baptized Christians who share with us an understanding of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and who regularly receive communion in their own church are invited and welcome to participate with us.” (This would go in the ‘unhelpful’ column.)
My own view is that baptism is still and ought to remain normative for admission to the table. That said, when there are increasing numbers of people coming to the church who have not been baptized as infants or around age twelve who are no less overtly ‘unchurched’ than many who were baptized that making the distinction seems rather unnecessary, especially in light of the fact that this usually arises when adults are enquiring seriously enough about the faith to be moving towards baptism and confirmation. What Dr. Edmondson’s groups thought about baptism being in some sense a commissioning, we teach in confirmation as ‘ordination to the laity’ and the particular empowering of the Holy Spirit for the ministry of the confirmand. Whatever ought to be the case, I end up discouraging adults from seeking baptism by the bishop (deemed confirmation), instead preferring that they be baptized, preferably at the Easter Vigil early on Easter Day and then be confirmed thereafter. In the current climate of almost but not quite post-Christendom this seems to make the most emotional sense to the most people, even if some still choose a different option. I have yet to meet anyone who knowingly continues to partake of communion without seeking baptism and so for now see no problem and great advantage to the open table without fear of diminishing the importance of baptism.