Two important resolutions are being discussed today by Committee 12, on Evangelism, at the 77th General Convention of The Episcopal Church. This morning I sat in on two hours of hearings where the conversation was respectful, passionate, and insightful. Perhaps most interesting to me was that it was extremely difficult to know when a person stepped up to the microphone which side they were going to speak to. The usual "categories" don't fit very well: there were young and old, gay and straight, people from "liberal" dioceses and "conservative" dioceses on both sides of the conversation. For the most part, polarization (and its uglier cousin, demonization) were avoided as more than one speaker said things like, "I agree with almost everything the previous speaker (on the other side) just said..." The tenor of the conversation really did represent the best of The Episcopal Church.
C040 comes to the committee and then to the Convention from the Diocese of Eastern Oregon. Essentially it asks the General Convention to amend the rubrics of The Book of Common Prayer to invite all persons (including those not Baptized) to the Table for Holy Eucharist, and to delete Canon 1.17.1 which states that "no unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion..."
It became clear to me that this practice of so-called "open communion" has been going on for so long in some places that some are surprised to even learn that there is a canon that prohibits this practice. On this side there were impassioned pleas for radical hospitality and an inclusive vision for the Church. The Bishop of Eastern Oregon began by referencing how many times Jesus breaks down the walls that separate people in the Gospels.
On the other hand were those who said that welcoming people into their homes and sharing a meal is true and radical hospitality, but the Holy Eucharist is the meal of the Baptized, not coffee hour, Chucky Cheese, or a Thanksgiving Day meal. One person spoke eloquently about the yearning for God and the yearning that comes from waiting, and honoring the historic witness of the Church for 2000 years and the ecumenical understanding of Eucharist as the "meal of the Baptized."
And then again, on the other side were several speakers who noted that Eucharist can lead and has led to Baptism, inverting the paradigm from believe and belong, to belong and believe.That the relationship between Baptism and Eucharist can move in both directions in terms of primacy.
It should be noted that those against this proposal almost all noted that there are pastoral exceptions that one must make, and no one has been, or should be, checking Baptismal "papers" at the Table. But these persons felt that these are just that: exceptions to an ancient and ecumenically accepted practice. Even so, those who support this resolution feel that the invitation to "all (only?) the baptized" does exclude seekers who for a variety of reasons have never been baptized, and may not come back if their first experience of the Church is "you are not welcome." More recently, others are beginning to suggest we come at it from the
other side and practice "open baptism" - using the example of the
Ethiopian eunuch in Acts who said, "here is some water, what is to
prevent me from being baptized?"
I confess that I am agnostic on this issue, although my (slight) leaning remains on the tradition we have inherited, before we go off on our own from the one "holy, catholic, and apostolic faith." While I have personally, and knowingly, on more than one occasion
given Holy Communion to unbaptized persons I am not yet persuaded that
this should become our practice and I am certainly not yet persuaded
that we are ready to change the canons at this General Convention.
That said, it struck me today that in so many parts of our church, this has already been the practice for so long that you can't put that toothpaste back into the tube. Nor should we start bringing up priests and bishops on charges of heresy for violating the canon that is currently in place. Some Dioceses have been practicing "open communion" for a long time now and within many Dioceses, some parishes have. The policy we've had seems to me to be something like "don't ask, don't tell." And like that policy, it is at best a temporary solution...
More appealing to me, therefore, is an alternative resolution that comes from the Diocese of North Carolina: C029. It asks us to do some more intentional study, prayer, and reflection about the relationship between Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist and to report back to the 78th General Convention. It asks us to listen to one another with the same respect I witnessed today from people on both sides and those in the middle, as we also listen for the Spirit's guidance.
Usually I am not a person who wants to kick the can down the road on things: I generally like to decide and move on. But I think in this case, we really need to pass this second resolution. I yearn for everyone to have the opportunity I had today to hear rational, passionate people share their reading of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition on this question, and their stories. To both speak and listen, and to be willing to be changed in the process of hearing one another. This truly seems to me to be a kind of teachable moment, an opportunity to engage in deep and serious theological reflection. I hope the opportunity is not missed.
Canons sometimes do need to be changed and we may, as a denomination, decide to go ahead and do just that in 2015. Perhaps by then we will be of one heart and mind on C040, or at least close enough. But if we do move that way, it should be done reverently and deliberately, having carefully weighed all sides.
For now, I think the second resolution makes the most sense. If it is the one that passes, my prayer is that we will not wait until the next General Convention to do this work, but take as our guide the good and faithful work that has been done on the liturgies and resources developed at the request of the last General Convention for the blessing of same-gender couples. If we plunge in with the same level of commitment and serious theological engagement that has happened there, we will figure it out together, with God's help.