Theologians Welcome the Conversation

By Jeannie Babb, T’12 and T’13

Should people who are not baptized be invited to receive Communion? Canon I.17.7 says, “No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church,” but in some places this rule is ignored in practice, and occasional attempts are made to remove the canon. This issue dominated the Episcopal news cycle going into the 80th General Convention. After 22 Episcopal theologians sent an open statement to the Convention arguing against the practice of Communion without baptism, proposed Resolution C028 to eliminate the canon died in committee. Two Sewanee theologians say the conversation should not end there.

The Rev. Dr. Robert MacSwain, primary organizer of the statement, says, “The debate is not just about which comes first, baptism or Eucharist. It’s not about sequence; it’s about what they mean.”

MacSwain is associate professor of theology at the School of Theology. He also serves as priest associate at Thankful Memorial Episcopal Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “As a priest and theologian, I’m concerned when a resolution expresses a view of Eucharist that is not an Episcopal view,” he says. “That broader doctrinal context is what motivated the statement, not just the resolution itself.”

MacSwain wants to restore the Church’s understanding of the relationship between baptism and Eucharist. “Baptism is not a barrier to participation in Church; rather it is the foundational sacrament through which we become members of the Body of Christ and share in the life of grace. Eucharist is the repeatable element of the baptismal rite of initiation.”

“There is always a gap between theory and practice,” MacSwain acknowledges. “This is not about turning people away at the altar rail or making ad hoc pastoral exceptions. There are all kinds of reasons why somebody might end up getting communion who’s not baptized. That’s very different than making a positive decision that all unbaptized people should be invited, and trying to change the teachings and canons of the Church to reflect that.”

The Rev. Dr. Juan Oliver, another priest and theologian who signed the statement, says, “This is a teachable moment for the Church.” Oliver is a professor in the Advanced Degrees Program at the School of Theology. He was the ninth custodian of the Prayer Book, and has written widely on Latinx ministry.

In Chapter IV of his book A House of Meanings: Christian Worship in Plain Language (Church Publishing, 2020), Oliver addresses the growing conflict regarding communion without baptism. He suggests the disagreement lies in a misunderstanding of the word “norm.” He says a norm is closer to an ideal. “We do not mean ‘what most people do’ (statistical norm) but what the sacrament would be like in its fullness, without abbreviations or exceptions.”

Describing all the ways we fall short of the norm in the practice of both baptism and Eucharist, Oliver writes, “All norms admit exceptions, and certainly we must make exceptions in the name of love and radical hospitality, welcoming all to the Table without questioning their ecclesiastical membership, while making sure that we preach and teach about baptism often, strongly and with conviction.” Still, he warns that a priest must only allow—not invite—such exceptions, for “although all norms admit exceptions, to turn exceptions into norms has repeatedly been one of the most dangerous and long-lasting disasters in the littered history of worship over twenty centuries.”

Oliver opposed the resolution because “it would sever at the canonical level the connection between baptism and Eucharist.” Like MacSwain, he is defending the theology, not the canon. In fact, Oliver would like to see the canon rewritten. “It’s too short,” he says. He would like to see it recrafted so that it names Eucharist as the gathering of the Church and the communion of the baptized

“The Church is not only the clergy,” Oliver says. “The Church is the community of the baptized. We are incorporated into that body in baptism. Eucharist is the epiphany of the Church; it is how the Church manifests. We say you are what you eat, but in this case, we eat what we are.”

While some perceived the theologians’ statement as an attempt to shut down conversation, MacSwain and Oliver express excitement that so many people are talking about baptism and Eucharist. Indeed, the open statement sent to the Convention and later published by the Episcopal News Service, sparked press coverage and considerable attention on social media.

“Our intention was to make a strong, clear statement to articulate what we thought was right—but also to get this conversation going,” MacSwain says. "The Episcopal Church has been avoiding this discussion. It comes up every other General Convention and the resolutions keep getting rejected, but the actual theology does not get addressed.”

Oliver worries many Episcopalians are taking baptism too lightly and without preparation. He calls for a minimum of six weeks preparation for parents, though he would prefer three months. “It’s no problem in Latino ministry,” he says. “These families remain committed, because they have made friends.”

He also blames the wording of the invitation in Rite II. The phrase “The gifts of God for the people of God” was drawn from the Orthodox invitation, “Holy things for the Holy.” Oliver says “the people of God” is a technical term that refers specifically to Israel and to the Church. In his view, the phrasing is unfortunate, as “liturgy should be in the vernacular.”

MacSwain says, “In some sense all people are God’s people, of course. But the phrase ‘the people of God’ in the Book of Common Prayer characteristically refers to baptized Christians. Ecclesia is a gathering of a particular people, with certain commitments, in a covenant relationship with God.”

He goes on to describe how we become the people of God. “We are adopted as God’s children through baptism, in a way that is different from those who are not baptized. Does anything really happen in baptism? Are you cleansed, born again into the body of Christ? Or is it a ritual that doesn’t really do anything?”

He says one of the big questions raised by the controversy is whether The Episcopal Church is still committed to an objectivist view of the sacraments. “These aren’t just rituals; they are actually moments of divine action.”