Sunday, July 1, 2012

Communion Conundrum

When I was about eight or nine years old, my family invited our neighbors to attend church with us one Sunday. My mom wanted to share the Episcopal liturgy with our not-particularly-religious,  New England Congregationalist friends. I was just happy to have my buddy with me at the service. I needed someone my own age to commiserate with me later about the experience of the sermon. I remember that when it came time for the Eucharist, I turned to my friend.

"You can't have communion."

She looked at me funny. "Why?"

"Because," I reasoned, "you haven't been baptized."

You see, I had been trained so well by the rector in the "rules" of the church. I knew I wanted to receive Holy Communion as a child, and this was yet-another one of those "things" that I pressed with my rector at the tender age of seven.   He had me do a special study, and cut out pictures from magazines and demonstrate that I knew what "communion" meant and what the bread and water and wine represented, and by doing this I had proven myself worthy to receive the Holy Eucharist. But my friend hadn't done any of that. So, I knew that meant she could not join us at the Eucharist.

My mother, a cradle Episcopalian, shot me a disapproving look.  "Yes, she can!"  And I was given one of my first lessons in the chapter of life called, "Don't Be a Jerk."  My friend joined us and, in fact, she and her brother were later baptized in the Episcopal Church.

I share this story as the Episcopal Church prepares for its General Convention in Indianapolis.  Among the issues that are on the front burner for church wonks, but not as important to the secular media, is the resolution which would open up the Eucharist to the unbaptized.  I know reporters will be waiting to file their stories on the Church's vote on the blessing of same-sex unions; we LGBT people are very fascinating critters that need to be examined, re-examined, and talked "about" a lot.  Helps to divert attention away from the more difficult and--well--less sexy topics that happen at a Church governing convention.   But I imagine the debate about the unbaptized receiving Holy Communion will generate some sparks as people weigh the meaning of these two all-important sacraments of the Episcopal Church: Baptism and Holy Eucharist.

They are important each in their own separate and together way.   Talk to most lay people who are engaged in the Episcopal church, and the majority will tell you that they love the Baptismal service.  It is not only a moment of welcoming a new child (or adult) into their own relationship with God, but it is the community event of pledging our support and love for this person and a commitment to help nourish and encourage them as they grow up in Christ, and reaffirming our own commitment to keep walking with God.

Similarly, the Eucharist is the moment of reconnection with God in Christ and with God in us as we take the body and blood into our being.  The Eucharistic feast is the celebration of the life-affirming event of Jesus' sacrifice on our behalf.  In confirmation class, we were schooled in the phrase that the Eucharist is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace."   To bring that into my body on a weekly basis is a way to remember, and re-member, myself to God and to allow Love to flow through me and out to the world.

How important is it to have the former before the latter?

I have known of many people who have received the Eucharist, but were of other faith traditions.  Nothing bad happened to them.  Nothing bad happened to the church.   And, in some cases, it can lead to a desire to be baptized. 

I also think about how "the Way" spread following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.  In the Book of Acts, people who were considered the outsiders hungered for a chance to be included.  And despite the misgivings of his Jewish disciples, Jesus' followers came to realize that these people have the Spirit within them; and then they baptize them.  So, that makes me wonder if this is a chicken or egg kind of question?  Again, how do we know that by allowing someone to receive Christ's body and blood, this won't whet their appetite further and lead them to become baptized?

And then there is the basic feeling that I have about what we are doing in the ritual of the Eucharist.  We invite people to "The Lord's Table."   We call this meal "The Lord's Supper."  Operative in both of those phrases is "Lord"; not "the Church".   The meal is provided by God, both in the figurative sense of it being the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, and the literal sense that the bread and the wine are products of the earth's bounty which are also part of the creation of God.   The functions of the people at the altar, be it a bishop, priest, deacon, Eucharistic minister, or acolyte, are to be the wait staff for what is really supposed to be God's meal.  It's God's banquet, God's party, and God only knows who will get called to taste and see how good this food and drink is.

Finally, let's steal a phrase from the culture wars: "Think of the children!"   I think of me as a child.  I really, really, really wanted to partake in this ritual.  By my understanding (and that of many others I have found who are in the ordained priesthood) I didn't need to prove my knowledge of what all the symbols meant.  I had been baptized; hence I was already considered ready in the eyes of God to receive.  But there continues to be a practice in many places that children must be "of age" to receive the host and the cup.   When I talked with the former rector of St. John's, he said the one consistent battle he fought at each church he went to was over the Eucharist and when it was appropriate to give it to a child.  I know I was not the first child with a deep desire to join in this uniting to Christ at the Table.  And if children long to be included in this moment of symbolic solidification of faith, how much more so would an adult want that?

No matter what happens at General Convention, a change such as this would not happen overnight.  In the meantime, I commend to those with interest to go visit Elizabeth Kaeton's blog, Telling Secrets, to read more analysis and consider ordering "Water, Bread and Wine" which contains essays examining the question from many perspectives.  If nothing else, I hope this issue will encourage more dialogue about why we believe what we believe about baptism and the Eucharist.       

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