Who gets to receive communion in the Episcopal Church?
After hearing testimony on Friday about what it means to be able to receive communion regardless of baptism, the Evangelism Committee found itself leaning toward a more pastoral response, rather than making a canonical change.
A substitute resolution, which is still in process, would reaffirm baptism as the “ancient and normative entry point to receiving the Holy Communion,” without changing the current canon requiring baptism before communion.
In writing a substitute resolution that is still in process, the committee also focused on the fact that while the canon exists, common practice often allows unbaptized people to receive communion.
The Rt. Rev. Scott Hayashi, bishop of Utah, pointed out that “we find and practice in this middle position. So we tend to be people who have a tolerance for a certain level of ambiguity in our lives and find the Spirit still moving [among us]. That’s the way we are.”
As a result, the proposed language continues: “We also acknowledge that in various local contexts there is the exercise of pastoral sensitivity with those who are not baptized.”
The substitute resolution, which Evangelism will take up again on Monday, depended greatly on Friday’s testimony.
“Some of the experiences that we heard yesterday, having heard people being denied the opportunity to come forward, is very hurtful,” Deputy Ora Houston of Texas said. “We’ve had people leave churches for just that reason.”
“The hearings showed us we are not of one mind in any way,” said the Very Rev. John Scott of Albany, vice chair of the Deputies committee.
The committee began by trying to amend C040, which called for eliminating Canon 1.17.7, which reads: “No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion.”
But debate over trying to amend the resolution soon led to a general discussion of what happens when unbaptized people come to the table to receive communion, and the importance of baptism to Episcopalians.
“I think it’s instructive to keep two words in mind: ‘normative’ and ‘normal’,” said the Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton, vice chair of the Bishops committee. “’Normative’ is the perfect world. The ‘normative’ Eucharist in the Episcopal Church has the bishop present. We’re not able to do that all the time. So we have other practices and you allow for some things when the bishop isn’t present.”
He added, “It is important to have norms, and yet we know that the law of pastoral care supersedes the law of the liturgy. Every priest knows there are times when … you’re allowed exceptions.
“The normative place in Christianity is that baptism leads to the table. Let’s allow for some generosity. … Let’s allow for some experimentation. It is a mistake to change something in the midst of an argument.”
The Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray of Mississippi, chair of the Bishops committee, had “concerns that we are sending a signal no matter what we do. I really think this undermines our whole baptismal theology of the 1979 prayer book. We say this is foundational. If we say it is an option … if our identity suddenly becomes optional,” it will cause problems.
Houston agreed. “This raises up the question about the baptismal covenant. How do we live that out if we don’t have baptism?”
Other committee members, both lay and ordained, agreed that amending or deleting canons was not the best response to the very nuanced question of open communion.
The Rev. John Leach of West Tennessee pointed out that “it is a mistake to suggest that the canons live in a vacuum. The canon is not just a law. It represents an inherited theology. It’s not just a few words in a book saying, ‘Don’t litter.’ … The other thing is that we have to be a little more humble and trust that yes, the Holy Spirit can work … with or without our canons. I think that is the wrong place to start.”
Deputy Nancy Appleby of Utah said that from the lay perspective, “I’m really nervous about changing a canon, and I am confident in the ability of the clergy to determine in the moment when pastoral needs trump canonical obligation.”
“There is great wisdom in not doing anything in a time of great debate,” Sutton said. “I think there is wisdom in just upholding the canon while this is a time of debate and fermentation. Sometimes things take time.”
But the committee found itself tripped up by the title of C040, “Open Table,” which it cannot change even if it substitutes the canon.
“Remember that you can’t change the title of this resolution,” said the Rev. Chad Jones of Louisiana. “It still does make a statement about open communion.”
Appleby added: “We’re stuck with the title. On the one hand, we uphold the canon, while on the other hand we acknowledge … that everyone breaks it.”
Deputy Leach pointed out that “we may be the only denomination in Christendom that it is not trying to figure out how to baptize people. … Statistically, this affects one person in 66 on Sunday mornings.”
“It is troubling,” he said, that nowhere have we said that what we really need to be doing is baptizing people, accept Jesus and transforming their lives.”
The committee agreed to discharge C040 so that it could work on a substitute for C029, “Access to Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.”
–Lauren R. Stanley