‘Baptismal Ecclesiology Without Baptism?’ What is the Episcopal Church Doing?

Recognizing that the majority of Pray Tell Blog readers are Roman Catholic and the internal arguments of the Anglican Church in the United States (known as the Episcopal Church) are only slightly relevant to the general conversation, I want to present an issue that is alarming in its lack of theological foundation (particularly ecclesiological and sacramental theology) as well as a line in the sand for many Episcopalians.

For many years I’ve heard the quip that “when Anglican theology is good, it is very good,” referencing the via media not as a wishy-washy compromise or postmodern shrug of “whatever” but as a comprehension of holding together inevitable and life-giving tensions. Here’s a case of “when it’s bad, it’s really bad theology…” The first part of the title above, Baptismal Ecclesiology without Baptism? I’ve borrowed from myself – a book chapter included in a festschrift on baptismal ecclesiology dedicated to the late Revd Dr. Louis Weil (Drenched in Grace, Wipf & Stock, 2013). Louis Weil was a strong advocate of baptismal ecclesiology – first and foremost as the antidote to clericalism – not just in practice but as a theological definition of the church. He argued that the essence of being grafted onto the vine which is Jesus the Christ is not ordination but baptism, disputing a hierarchical ecclesiology in which “every aspect of the church’s life was understood through the prism of holy orders,” (“Baptismal Ecclesiology,” in Equipping the Saints, 18-34). This all sounds so obvious in 2022, but it was not always so (and yes, Anglicanism has excelled at clericalism in many places and times in its history).

Building on this rediscovery of baptismal ecclesiology has been a renewed emphasis on baptism as a new birth, restoring a bit of the imitation of Jesus’ own baptism in the texts of the liturgy, retaining the theology of Romans 6, and putting less emphasis on baptism as solely the forgiveness of sins. In the US 1979 BCP these multiple theologies are presented, and even the structure of the “new” prayer book became a theological statement: holy baptism followed immediately by holy eucharist.

But then things started to go wrong, and baptismal ecclesiology became a rallying point for some voices advocating that equality and hospitality were the primary virtues of Christianity. Now, equality and hospitality are difficult to argue against – they are important and central. But what happened was a confluence of several issues. First – the 1979 BCP bizarrely (the word used by Paul Avis, a leading English Anglican ecclesiologist) stated that “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s body the church.” (BCP 298) This sets aside any theology for chrismation or even confirmation as initiatory, but more importantly, denies the culmination of initiation in the Eucharist – a fairly amazing stance considering the growing chorus of ecclesiologists advocating to remember that Anglicanism is rooted in the early church, not just in the sixteenth century. This 1979 statement is undoubtedly a factor in the poor reception that the re-introduction of the catechumenate had in the Episcopal Church, despite its careful adaptation and crafting from the RCIA by a number of liturgical scholars, particularly Michael Merriman at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in the 1980s.

But another conversation was also underway, driven by a perceived urgency of parish communities losing people. How do we make the church more hospitable, more appealing to “young families”, the goldmine of new members? At a conference presented at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale in 2012, I was one of several presenters speaking to the intimate relationship between baptism and eucharist. At the end, a very angry audience member stood and yelled about how horrible it is to demand that people be baptized before welcoming them to communion. First, it’s not hospitable, and second, it fences off what “we do” – receive communion. It was her next statement that astounded me: “baptism demands something, eucharist does not, so we should make it easier for people.” Therein is revealed a generation (or more) of really poor catechesis on sacraments, sacramental theology, the church, and oh so many other things…

Where is all of this whining going? It’s going to resolution CO28 “All Are Welcome at the Table” to be presented to the General Convention of The Episcopal Church this summer (July 2022), written by the Diocese of Northern California. It aims to undo canon law (canon I.17.7) which states “no unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.”

Why? Because baptism is a “barrier…to receive a Holy Meal.” There are eight points, including

  • We should be known as a welcoming church
  • There is no gospel mention of being baptized before reception at the last supper
  • It is uncomfortable to think of Jesus turning away anyone
  • The catechism (1979) is not explicit in the prerequisite
  • A repeat of the lack of the baptismal prerequisite in the gospels
  • A repeat of the Episcopal church removing barriers
  • One doesn’t want to card-check at communion
  • And, the clincher, “this could help grow congregations by reducing the number of visitors who do not return because they felt excluded during communion”

There is not enough room in a single blog to address these points (8 which are actually 6). Just to mention one argument I have made elsewhere at the intersection of ecclesiology and eucharistic theology, it is the church, with its head Jesus the Christ, which makes eucharist. The church is formed of Christ and the baptized – the non-baptized do not “celebrate” the eucharist. They may be present in the room, but there is not a participatory reality there. So, what is it to receive communion (or better, to “do” communion – not an object-subject encounter, but a subject-subject encounter) in this context? A second point – why is the cultural preference for democracy (applied to the liturgy) assumed to be preferable (where everyone does everything all together all the time) as opposed to the body of Christ imagery in which diversity of being and roles is an organic necessity? Or, a third point, why are churches which actually make demands growing faster than those who welcome all to everything and adapt themselves to whatever people want? You can imagine there are many other points which could be made…

In the end, this is most likely simply an announcement of the trials of one member church in the body of Christ. But it is increasingly a house divided (over this issue and others). Of your charity, pray for the Episcopal Church in the United States…



  1. If one is a therapist, or doing pastoral work, it’s often necessary to meet people where they are.

    There are many people ‘out there’ who consider themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’. They are exploring. Often they have an attitude of wanting God, but on their terms. The notion that they might be required to do what the Church wants of them is off-putting. They’re not ready for that.
    Should they be turned away? Hard to say.
    I don’t think that a policy of open welcome is merely self serving on the part of the Church. Again, one must engage people where they are. The mere fact that someone is in attendance says something about their desire for something more substantial.
    In addition, it’s important to remember that we live in a largely un-Churched society. The whole rationale behind baptism and its relation to acceptance of the Eucharist is unknown to many, even most. For them, looking in from the outside, a Church refusing communion to someone who comes with a willing heart can seem exclusive and ungenerous. And perhaps it is, in some sense.
    Part of the mission of the Church is to educate and help folks grow in faith. That takes time.

  2. I may be a rare case among Roman Catholics, but I received my First Communion (1969) almost a year before I was baptized (1970). As an uncatechized person, I certainly didn’t know, and my classmate who possibly had never experienced am unbaptized person in a Catholic school, responded affirmatively to my whispered query.

    The Church didn’t break because of it, though perhaps a few of my internet foils would have their aha! moment reconsidering that point upon reading that prior paragraph.

    Having a school of about 600 students didn’t mean my “pagan baby” interest in faith went unnoticed. The pastor himself went all Fr Smith-instructs-Jackson on me and my younger sister. I would expect that these days, a parish of any size would need to notice when seekers, allies, curious people, SNRs, etc. are in their midst. If not, growth is undeserved. And likely absent.

    As for the invitation to Communion, that isn’t dependent on clergy, a written notice from prelates, an usher at the end of the row, or anything but personal conscience. It’s not in the Missal, nor do I think it’s in the BCP. Maybe it’s best to stick with the rite. If people feel welcome, they will come. If it inspires baptismal faith, good for them.

    Throwing down the gauntlet, if unbaptized people are receiving the Eucharist regularly, and there’s concern about their membership cards, then the people who lack a baptismal ecclesiology are the clergy and members of the community for not having a grasp of the Ascension mandatum and acting on it.

  3. I take strong exception to the notion that baptism is merely a “membership card.” If that is what it has been reduced to in the popular imagination, that is simply wrong and those wrong ideas needs to be corrected. And no, this is not an “un-pastoral” goal. It’s supremely pastoral. It means actually walking with people in community, not falling into a do-it-yourself individualism and quick fixes that undermine the long-term integrity of the sacraments of initiation as an ensemble. You can’t “plug and play” without doing violence to the whole system.

    Working with the RCIA for many years has really informed my thinking about the relationship between baptism and eucharist, and it’s a robust relationship. It’s deeply traditional, beautiful, and it makes Christian sense. Let’s not sell it short. Obviously, many people do not value their own tradition because they don’t either know or understand it. Let’s not let this set the standard. Exceptions happen, that is normal. We are talking about changing a very profound norm here, not a trivial thing, and I object to that.

    1. “I take strong exception to the notion that baptism is merely a ‘membership card.'”

      I suspect all of our readers here would, as would I. Unfortunately, there is a long history of Christians seeing their religion as a membership issue, rather than an adoption of or a conversion to a new way of life. Too many people see baptism as something that entitles them to further sacraments, rituals, rights, recognition, and such. Leadership language and many practices reinforce this.

      That interview with Archb Roche rather affirms the importance of formation, a cultivation of holiness, and not so much a hyper-focus on rubrics and laws.

  4. There’s a difference between dealing with complex individual cases pastorally and writing church wide policy change radically undermining the apostolic tradition. Maybe this is hyperbolic, but I’m inclined to think this another sign of Christianity losing its fundamental identity.

    1. Thanks Eric (and by extension, to all the comments and commentators above). I have never turned someone away (as an individual coming forward for communion) because I am not the one to decide if this is of God. But I have also never made a public announcement that all are welcome to receive regardless – and then actually made people uncomfortable if they did not want to receive (yes – I’ve seen that many times). I think this is in line with what you are saying Eric. It seems the first step is a radical welcome to the waters of baptism, better catechesis all around, and perhaps some Sunday morning options (here the long Anglican tradition of morning prayer at one of the ‘slots’ and eucharist at another) might also be helpful.

  5. ” Obviously, many people do not value their own tradition because they don’t either know or understand it.”
    My point was that many people don’t have a tradition. They’re exploring or just starting out on their Christian journey. People here are consummate insiders. Sometimes it’s helpful as a thought experiment to imagine how things appear from the outside. What is normal and beautiful to us can look bizarre and incomprehensible–or exclusive and ungenerous–to newcomers. And lets recall that many of these may be long standing Buddhists, or Jews, or psychotherapists, or Quakers. Surely this situations calls for dialogue rather than flat rejection and correction of wrong opinions. And it will be discussed, because of this resolution. Maybe people on both sides will learn something about each other, and for themselves.

    Lizette writes that she’s never turned anyone away from communion. Of course not. This would run counter to her nature and even her formation. If theology runs counter to our practice, because enacting that theology feels un-Christian…maybe the theology needs to be developed.

    1. “And lets recall that many of these may be long standing Buddhists, or Jews, or psychotherapists, or Quakers. ”

      I would be curious how true this actually is for seekers in ECUSA congregations.

    2. Jeff, to clarify, I am full of respect for those who have no tradition and wish to explore Christianity. I have helped many such people in my lifetime. As Todd says above, it is a gradual process. There are some innocent mistakes and bewilderment, of course. There’s no need to be harsh. But that’s where the community has to help people. Hospitality doesn’t mean there are no boundaries. It means that the community commonly recognizes those boundaries and helps newcomers to understand and respect them. Rather than being off-putting, this is welcoming and empowering.

      I would never presume to walk into a mosque and disregard the traditional boundaries of their sacred practices (say by not wearing a head covering or keeping my shoes on). Would you? No more would I go to an orthodox Jewish synagogue and presume to open up the Torah scrolls. I respect the discipline of those Christian Orthodox Churches that do not permit me to receive Communion, too. If I want to become Jewish or Muslim or Orthodox Christian, there are ways of doing that. It’s not my call; they are the ones to decide how it’s done.

      1. Yes Rita I think this shift of perspective throws light on the value of boundaries and the distinction from hospitality. I live across the Street from a Mosque and once went into pray out of curiosity. I followed their instructions and removed my shoes. They were quite hospitable but I didn’t do things I knew would be offensive to them ( I didn’t make the sign of the cross for example). Of course I prayed to the Trinity and of course they didn’t ask “who” I was praying to. I am also a former Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. When I attend with my parents when visiting, I do not take communion. It bothers my mother but I have explained it would violate norms of both her Church and my Church. I don’t feel “personally” left out. I do feel some sadness at the ongoing division in the Body of Christ – but that is not going to be addressed by my going to communion in the LCMS.

      2. I can remember a sermon decades ago by none other than Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie, senior minister of Boston’s Arlington Street Church, a lodestar of Unitarian-Universalist Church, on the importance of not blurring faith/denominational identities in a false lowest common denominator ecumenism, because ecumenism can’t really flourish when such pragmatic conflict-avoidance becomes the rudder.

  6. All very true, Rita. Believe me, I’m not unsympathetic to what Lizette is saying! But this has been an issue that’s come up within the Episcopalian Church I used to attend. The former Rector was for open table. So was the acting deacon at the time. So were many, perhaps most, on the Vestry and in the congregation. And others strongly felt as Lizette does. My point is that serious people within the Church are advocating for open table. I think discussion is warranted.

  7. Richard Hooker, a priest in the Church of England during Elizabeth’s reign, wrote in his “On the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity” a succinct and reasonable position on this question: “The grace which we have by the Holy Eucharist does not begin, but continue life. No man therefore receives this sacrament before baptism, because no dead thing is capable of nourishment. That which grows must of necessity first live.”

  8. I am one of those LCMS Lutheran Pastors, prayerfully not of notoriety for refusing Holy Communion. I encountered this practice of welcoming those not baptized to the communion rail when I was the Head Spiritual Director of the Lutheran Cursillo Movement of Arizona. The practice came to my attention by the ELCA Pastors who served along side me during Lutheran Cursillo Weekends. The issue was “hospitality”, not the integrity of the Sacraments nor 2 centuries of Christian Tradition and practice.

    On a practical level, serving in Arizona where there is a swell in numbers of “snowbirds”, I am sure I have unwittingly communed folks who were not baptized. I do not “check ID” at the rail so there is no one who was turned away. If they appeared not to know what was happening when they came forward, I would take a knee before them at the rail and ask them if they were a baptized Christian. If there was any uncertainty, I would calmly explain that I will give them a blessing and offer a meeting with them if they planned to return to our church. That was very well received by both my members and first time visitors. Those Christians who knew the traditional LCMS policy on Holy Communion would often express delight in my “pastoral approach” and willingness to catechize on Baptism and Eucharist.

    I am confident that in the past 35 years I have communed those who have approached the Communion rail who were not baptized, but it was never my policy. I also catechized often in sermons and Bible studies on the sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. I have never played “gotcha” with those whose affiliation with a LCMS congregation was tenuous at best. I am confident of my standing before God by faith awash in grace and mercy in Jesus Christ our Lord.

    1. The arguments advanced for the new practice attempt to be scripturally based, but they are not. More than two decades ago Michael Joncas’s article “Tasting the Kingdom of God: The Meal Ministry of Jesus and Its Implications for Contemporary Worship and Practice” appeared in Worship, 74:4 July 2000. I would commend it to anyone caught up in this issue. It served as the basis for my article “The Open Table: Who Should Share in Communion” which appeared last year in Doxology and Spirituality.

  9. Yes, we welcome the stranger. But at the same time, the gospel is supposed to be divisive. Jesus didn’t come to bless everything so that it could go on its merry way just as before. Among His very first words in the oldest gospel is “repent.” A demand for change is inherent in the project.

    In the liturgy, before communion, we say the creed. But the creeds are not just nice mission statements. The Apostles Creed is deliberately written so that a Gnostic cannot say it in good faith. The Nicene Creed is written so that both Gnostics and Arians cannot say it in good faith. The creeds are instruments of division. Yes, the creeds say who we are, but they also say who we are not — and who is not us.

    We are a sacramental people. But the very word “sacrament” derives from a soldier’s oath of allegiance. In participating in the sacraments, we are expressing our allegiance to the Lord of heaven and earth.

    Yes, we welcome the stranger. But that welcome cannot make our faith anodyne and painless.

    1. According to Jungmann, the position of the Creed in the Byzantine tradition was to serve as the “password” to the Eucharistic portion of the service. If I remember correctly, the Mozarabic put it before the Communion for the same purpose.

  10. Keep it up, commenters! This seems to be one of those rare – and indeed grace filled – moments when we sit across the table from one another, with true affection and respect, smiles on our faces, wondering “what the hell are you thinking?!” Excellent opening article, and such fine commentary.

    (I’m told this is how politics used to be…..)

    Keep this civil and erudite discussion going, please! Fascinating.

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