Stephen Edmondson's ATR Article on Communion of the Unbaptized

This article, a theologically thick description of opening the eucharistic table to all, is rooted in Aidan Kavanaugh’s conviction that liturgical theology is primarily that “knowledge” of God generated by the encounter of Christian congregations with God in the liturgy. Thus, this work began with a working group of four Open Table Episcopal parishes reflecting together on what they have found of God, Christ, church, and grace within their practice. The vision that emerged from this reflection was centered in a complex theology of grace and response inherent in Christ’s parable of the Prodigal Son. This central commitment was, moreover, structured around intuitions concerning the universal status of all persons as God’s children, the relational character of grace, the communal character of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, a Christocentric ecclesiology defining the church by the commitments at its center, and a missional understanding of baptism.

Read it all carefully.


Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, * Christian Life / Church Life, Episcopal Church (TEC), Eucharist, Ministry of the Ordained, Parish Ministry, Sacramental Theology, Theology

19 comments on “Stephen Edmondson's ATR Article on Communion of the Unbaptized

  1. DGus says:

    “Theologically thick”? I skimmed through it to see if it discusses or even cites 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. It does not. Remarkable. I decided I need not “Read it all carefully”.

  2. A Senior Priest says:

    I can understand someone receiving communion if that person comes to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior along the same lines as St Paul speaks of Abraham being justified by his faith before he was circumcised. But the big caveat is that the person must have a genuine saving faith which then leads irresistibly to baptism. 99% of this hoo-ha over communing the unbaptized is about allowing the uncommitted and unsaved to purportedly participate in one of the two central Christian mysteries without having received the prior rite of initiation. All religions everywhere assert that in order to validly participate in the practices particular to that religion one must have received the necessary initiations and empowerments. That this is even being discussed shows how devoid of grace the people advocating it are.

  3. Dan Crawford says:

    I find it amusing that the late Fr. Aidan Kavanaugh got dragged into this “theologically thick” hodgepodge. I’m fairly certain he wouldn’t be amused the rigorous application of “intuition” and “experience” in such a prime example of intellectual detritus.

  4. Dan Crawford says:

    He wouldn’t be amused “by” – sorry.

  5. Jim the Puritan says:

    Absolutely no recognition that Scripture speaks specifically to this, just like it speaks specifically regarding homosexuality and sexual immorality.

  6. Saltmarsh Gal says:

    So, what would happen if I tried to take Algebra 3 before I had basic math..I’d FAIL, that’s would happen. So, too with the Church. This is setting people up for failure as disciples – their life in Christ would become like the seed sown on the path, in the rocky soil or in the weed patch. Eliminating the spiritual disciplines of a faith community is the surest way I know to dissolve it…how can the salt retain its’ saltiness? This is crazy thinking! (‘Scuse me while I have a hissy fit!)

  7. driver8 says:

    Why am I not surprised to learn that the author taught at VTS. “Theologically thick”? How true…

  8. Formerly Marion R. says:

    And the sand-castle virtues are all swept away in
    the tidal destruction
    the moral melee.
    The elastic retreat rings the close of play as the last wave uncovers
    the newfangled way.
    But your new shoes are worn at the heels and
    your suntan does rapidly peel and
    your wise men don’t know how it feels

  9. Anastasios says:

    I might suggest that anyone interested in another view might re-read Bishop Kallistos’ theological (but by no means thick) “Communion and Intercommunion” which first appeared in ‘Sobornost’ in 1978 and has be republished as a booklet by Life and Light Publishing out of Minneapolis [ISBN 0-937032-20-4]. Although specifically addressing intercommunion amongst baptized Christians, it makes important points about the necessity for shared faith. Sample: “In celebrating the Eucharist together, and in receiving communion together from one loaf, we proclaim our faith; we sum up and express in visible form the dogmatic truth that we share. In celebrating and communicating together, we also actualize and manifest in visible form our membership in one church.” Bishop Kallistos also reminds his readers of the significant point that the Creed precedes Communion in all Eucharistic rites in which it is used, and for a very good reason.

  10. MotherViolet says:

    If you don’t need one sacrament why bother with the other?

  11. Mark Baddeley says:

    Well, at least this time around I can recognize this as a piece of theology. I disagree with the methodology, the starting point, basic definitions that drive the argument and the conclusions, but it is actually theology. That’s probably a step forward. Here’s a few extracts that struck me as fairly important for the argument and where the final position is heading, I’ll make a few observations after each. It’s going to take a couple of comments, so it’s only for those with a real interest in this.

    In Christ’s meal fellowship, Christ does not offer his presence as a blessing on the response of those with whom he dines, but rather as a catalyst for this response. Christ’s meal with Zacchaeus stands as an archetype of this dynamic within Christ’s meal ministry (Luke 19:1–10), but certainly Christ’s last meal with his disciples, who would proceed to betray, deny, and abandon him before they took up their cross to follow him, is patterned in a similar way. This dynamic of God’s prevenient outreach eliciting human response has been recognized by theologians from Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin and Luther, and it was continually referred to in our working group as the theological model that governed their practice. The Open Table, as one member put it, is a means of embodying justification by faith. The claim is not that all are invited because all are justified, but that the invitation is God’s unconditional gift of grace, though the gift will only come to full fruition when it is received in faith. The meal, therefore, is offered not as a prize for faith, but as a gift that might produce faith.

    Ironically, the problem here is fairly similar to how many Anglicans in Sydney argue for Lay Administration—Luther’s idea that Holy Communion is the preaching of the gospel is being taken to an extra degree as though there is no difference between evangelizing someone and their partaking in the sacrament. But Word and sacrament are not all but identical, even if they are closely related. Anyone can hear the gospel, not anyone can partake in the sacrament (the problem here). Anyone can preach the gospel, not anyone can administer the sacrament (the problem with many, but not all, Sydney presentations of their case).

    Second, while it is true that God’s grace elicits/causes the human response of faith, and so this is in line with Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin and Luther, none of them would recognize ‘Open Table’ as even remotely valid or good as a liturgical expression of this principle. Some substantial recognition needs to be given that those figures you have implicitly (albeit tangentially) invoked in support would consider this rank heresy. Calvin and Luther would not recognize this as an expression of justification by faith—see above paragraph for why.

    Third, while the claim is not that ‘all are invited because all are justified’, it becomes clear as the argument develops that all are invited because all are God’s children, and that arguably serves the same function. All are invited by God to the communion because they are already his children, and so what is being sought is ‘full fruition’, not a shift from death to life, from enmity to being a child. Hence faith does not (instrumentally) make you a child of God, you are one already, it just ensures that it ‘comes to full fruition’.

  12. Mark Baddeley says:

    The claim is that our relationship with God, embodied at the table, rests on God’s graceful initiative, not our response. This is true of all the baptized who come forward for the Eucharist; we come not because of our baptism but because of God’s offer in and through Christ. It is also true of our extension of this same offer to all whose journey brings them to us. We invite all to the table, discerning in them not their baptismal status or lack thereof, but their status as the beloved of God to whom God has extended Godself in Christ, inviting them to come and eat. To withhold this invitation would be to call into question the welcome at the table of us all, since our worthiness
    to come to the table is grounded solely in the “manifold and great mercy” of God.

    This is a distinction that, for different reasons, Catholics and evangelicals will recognize as false. And it comes down to this definition here: ‘We invite all to the table, discerning in them not their baptismal status or lack thereof, but their status as the beloved of God to whom God has extended Godself in Christ…’ For Catholics your status as being God’s beloved to whom God has extended himself in Christ is effected by baptism, so to discern the latter is to discern the former. For evangelicals in roughly the Prayer Book ballpark, baptism is the sign that you are God’s beloved to whom God has extended himself to you in Christ, so again, to discern someone’s baptismal status is to discern their status as the beloved of God.

    The argument hinges on detaching baptism from its biblical and historical function as distinguishing God’s people, of marking out those who belong to God in Christ – either by actually uniting them to Christ, or by being the sign that that has occurred. This then means that baptism needs a new function, which is offered a bit later:

    The significance of baptism, adult Christian commitment, and membership in an ecclesial community was roundly upheld in our discussion, but it was upheld only as it stood in a particular relationship to God’s grace. Baptism and ecclesial membership were seen by members of the group as an embrace of grace, so that those baptized could live more fully into the presence offered by Christ. In this sense, baptism is seen not as a requirement for access to the grace of fellowship, but as a movement toward the blossoming of this grace in the lives of those who have experienced it. Moreover, baptism and membership in an ecclesial community were seen in relation to grace’s fruition by making one not only a recipient of grace—one who is invited to the table—but, through that reception, also a servant of grace—one who waits at the table in Christ’s name.

    It is an entirely Zwinglian understanding of baptism. Baptism is about your response to grace (‘an embrace of grace, so that those baptized could live more fully into the presence offered by Christ’), and marks you out as someone who is doing the things Christ is on about (like Zwingli’s illustrations of belonging to Christ’s army and the like IIRC). As baptism no longer says anything substantial about God’s actions in Christ—because that would then mean that it was requirement for access to fellowship (and by putting ‘the grace of fellowship’ in there, once again a distinction between the gospel and communion is again removed, to make it seem as though one would be denying people access to the gospel otherwise) it says something about the person, that they are living more fully into the presence offered by Christ. Baptism isn’t about a change from one status to its polar opposite, but about indicating a gradation, ‘a movement toward the blossoming of this grace in the lives of those who have experienced it’—the Catholic idea that baptism gives the initial deposit of grace which then blossoms as people respond is now taken out of baptism, given to everyone, and baptism becomes the sign that that process is under way. Making this completely antithetical to both Protestant and Catholic understandings of baptism.

    This dynamic is best captured in the parable of the Prodigal Son, which clarifies this logic of prevenience and response (Luke 15:11–32). We see the prevenience of grace, which constitutes its gratuity, in the activity of the father in the parable: his anticipatory watch for the return of the younger son who has rejected him; his unconditional embrace of the younger son, dismissing his confession of unworthiness so that it simply does not factor into the father’s invitation; the setting out of the feast for this one who had betrayed the father, lived with pigs, and was as yet unwashed in preparation for the meal. In offering the invitation to the eucharistic feast to all who enter our churches—and by all we mean baptized or not, members or not, ordained or not—we recognize our equal status as those whom the Father longs for and embraces, apart from and as the basis of any
    confession or commitment that we might make.

    There is the killer paragraph. Humanity’s equal status as those whom the Father embraces apart from any confession or commitment that we might make, and whose embrace is the basis of any confession or commitment we might make. God has embraced everyone as his child irrespective of their beliefs or behaviour. Everything in the argument hinges on that, utterly heretical, theological assessment of God’s relationship to the human race.

  13. Mark Baddeley says:

    When the parable is read in this way, then it is evident that baptism confers on one not the right to be invited to the feast: this is the status of the younger son that is proper to all of God’s children. Although often read as a parable of repentance, the context (the parables of the lost sheep and coin) and content (the son’s economically motivated confession and the father disinterest in it) guide us to an interpretation focused primarily on the father’s grace. Baptism, instead, joins one to the mission of the true Elder Son, as we are remade in his image. This means that we stand not only as guests at the feast, but also as those who share all with the Father. This begins to develop the notion of the fruition of grace through baptism and ecclesial membership mentioned above. More particularly, this means that we share with the Father his concern that we seek out and welcome the multitude of our siblings who might return. We are called to set out the feast, prepare their way to it, run out to greet them, issue the invitation, and help them to feel at home, so that they may learn to make this community their home. Then they too can come to share all with the Father and with those who have embraced the role of the true Elder Son.

    This is where the paper becomes very tendentiously related to the only real Scripture it engages with at any length. Before this paragraph, the author argues that Christ is the true Elder Son—the one whose heart is aligned with the Father’s and wants the erring son/brother to return, who seeks him out and kills the fattened calf for him. That’s one of those cute things that people either like or hate. It’s exegetically ridiculous—it’s nowhere in the passage—but, when you place the parable against the Bible’s teaching as a whole it is true that Christ is our elder brother, the true Son of God, who does the will of the Father gladly, and so he does compare well to the Pharisees. But that comparison is not remotely on view in the parable itself. Nonetheless the point strongly shapes the theological reading of the parable being offered, so that now baptism also gets red into the parable (!!). I mean, what? Since when does baptism have anything at all to do with either brother, when you’ve already concluded that the parable is fundamentally about the father, not the sons. So, without justification, baptism is stated to join us to the mission of the true Elder Son—a mission being read into this parable that has little (no) exegetical support for it.

    Nonetheless, that’s where it goes, so baptism becomes, not being joined to Christ (as per Rom 6, completely missing from this paper), but being joined to Christ’s mission. That because, while they never seem to be prepared to say it outright, everyone is already joined to Christ, they are already God’s children and Christ is already their older brother. Baptism simply means that you now have taken up Christ’s mission as your mission. It’s not a sign of grace, but of your works.

    What that means, is that baptism is a sign that you’ve taken on board the theology and practice of Open Table—like Christ, you want everyone to share in Communion irrespective of their confession or commitments.

    The theological conviction concerning grace and response that emerged from the conversation among practitioners of the Open Table was remarkable for its coherence with the broad stream of the Christian tradition, especially as it has come down to us in the West. Calvin, Luther, Aquinas, and Augustine would all recognize this emphasis on the humble sovereignty of grace in the unconditionality of its invitation, and the spiritual flourishing of grace as the substance of our response.

    This is highly disingenuous. None of the four figures invoked would recognize Open Table as valid or good. Yes they’d recognized the emphasis on the humble sovereignty of grace in the unconditionality of its invitation. There is no way on this earth that they would recognize ‘the spiritual flourishing of grace as the substance of our response’ as in line with their views—unless that phrase was very carefully defined (and defined differently from each other as this was one of the key issues of the debate between them). They certainly wouldn’t recognize a view that says everyone has been embraced by God as his child, and so baptism is about being united to the mission of Christ as in anyway coherent with the broad steam of the Christian tradition.

    This conviction about our universal status as God’s children, whom God seeks and invites to the feast before and apart from a confession or a bath, does not mean that parishes who open the table reject the equally biblical distinction between the ways of God and the ways of the world. Rather, it is to define “world,” when used in this negative sense, not as the unbaptized, but as the spiritual and material forces that oppress us and separate us from the love of God. By this definition, these parishes are more concerned about not perpetuating alienation from God as a loving, inviting parent than including the unwashed at their feast. They see the church as those of God’s children
    who, in rejection of the world, have embraced the Father’s mission of love and reached out to their siblings; they are the true elder brother.

    Again, everyone is God’s children apart from a confession of faith.

    This has a further knock on effect that will become fairly important (if predictable in its results)—‘the world’ now gets redefined. It is not referring to people, certainly not people who are not God’s children because, well, there aren’t any. That’s any empty set. So now it exclusively refers to those forces that oppress us and separate us from the love of God. (The latter phrase is quite telling, and shows the problem that occurs when you go universalistic. You extend God’s love in one direction—everyone’s in. But you evacuate it of any power—you can be in and yet alientated from God. God’s acceptance of you is now automatic but has the impact of being hit with wet spaghetti. You can’t offer people the kind of definitive statement of Rom 5:1 or, still less, Rom 8:38. Those assurances can be offered because only a subgroup within humanity have been accepted by God. Once everyone has been, and yet most are still alienated, then that kind of assurance becomes impossible.) So the world that God is opposed to is not people—no matter what you do or believe God accepts you—but those forces that will cut you off from God’s acceptance of you no matter what you believe or do (and you can see where this is going).

    We must recognize that to be Christ’s body in the world is to be Christ’s broken body, whose boundaries stand open to the outsider. We must be wary of the attempt to define our communion through the clarity of our boundaries, for these inevitably tend to exclude and become, themselves, oppressive. We must remind ourselves that the world against which the church defines itself is not those persons, beloved of God, who stand without us; they are, along with us, members
    of God’s family. Rather, the world against which the church defines itself is those forces that serve to oppress and destroy God’s beloved. The church as Christ’s body is responsible for service to
    these, our alienated siblings.

    At this point, one wonders whether there should be a Democrat membership card handed out to every candidate for baptism. All human beings are members of God’s family. Our job is to fight for them by fighting aginst those who oppress and destroy them—by making them think that they are not part of God’s family already (obviously more than that, but certainly not less).

  14. jkc1945 says:

    “. . . the universal status of all persons as God’s children . . .” is where all this turns to nonsense. There is no such status taught or supported in scripture anywhere; in fact, quite the opposite is clearly held up for all of us to see. “Jesus’s statement to the Pharisees, “. . .you are of your father, the devil. . .” puts an absolute end to this heresy.

  15. Mark Baddeley says:

    Boundaries, in this context, are important not to hold us together, but to protect us from the forces that oppress us; they create a safe space. We require safety not from the unbaptized, but from the destructive forces in the world that would invade our hearts. This is a theme to which our discussion returned again and again in our meetings. The “other” from which the church must distinguish itself in our world is the force of oppression, exclusion, and degradation that threatens to unmake us. Those who are not baptized need the church’s protection, seeking safe haven among us. The practice of the Open Table is one bulwark through which the church provides them passage into port.

    And so here is the, fairly predictable, finishing point. Everyone is accepted by God, everyone has a place in church. What the church has to create boundaries against is the destructive forces in the world that invade our hearts, that make church not a safe space. You can fairly safely predict that these destructive forces will be ‘conservatism’, given the U.S.’s culture wars, and theological and ethical orthodoxy—they’ll be the forces of oppression, exclusion, and degradation. Hence, there is here also a mandate to depersonalize and exclude those who are aligned with those movements—they will need to be removed as expressions of those destructive forces. All people as people are accepted, but certainly classes of people will still need to be excluded as agents of oppression, exclusion, and degradation in order to make the church a safe place. So, once again, we’re back at the exact same position as this theology starts off by polemicizing against—of having a class of people who are excluded, it’s just that who is in the class has been changed.

    The predominant practice of baptism in the Episcopal Church is infant baptism, and this practice accords fully with the theology that we have explored in this article—that God’s love comes to us through the embrace of the community, before and apart from any response that we can make, and that it gathers us into a community so that we might learn God’s ways through the ways of the community. Eventually, through the work of grace in the community, those baptized as infants can come to a place where they may, in turn, fully commit themselves to this mission of extending God’s embrace. So, likewise, with those invited to the table as adults, regardless of their baptismal status. The practice of opening the table catechizes those entering our communities from the edge in the principal tenet of our faith—its foundation in God’s gift of Jesus—much as the practice of baptizing infants.

    More of the same basic step as before with communion and the gospel. Now baptism and communion are conflated, so that both sacraments are more or less the same as the other, so we can move from the logic of one directly to the logic of the other. In this, again, is missing the fact that the church historically doesn’t baptise just any infant, but only those infants who have a parent who is already a Christian. In arguing for an Open Table, the take on baptism has essentially made that ‘open’ as well.

    This understanding of grace, finally, coheres with the sense of the Fall as our alienation from God—our assumption that we are now outside the realm of God’s mercy and care. This sense of the Fall as alienation does not supplant more complex understandings of sin; there is a full recognition of the sundry ways that we betray the image of God within us as we betray God, self, and others through our intentions and actions. It will claim, however, that we can begin to be converted from this sin only as our relationship with the love of God is restored. Thus, in the theological universe of the Open Table the order of conversion, which typically begins with revulsion at our sin and culminates with a turn to God, is reversed. We can truly recognize and repent of our false ways only when we have been embraced by God and have begun to allow ourselves to be transformed by this embrace.

    The fall is now understood as our assumption that we are now outside the realm of God’s mercy and care. That’s it, that what it means to be alienated from God. That’s not entirely wrong—doubting God’s goodness is definitely part of the matrix of sin, part of unbelief. But it’s not what ‘alienated from God’ means—that’s a relational term, not a description of our subjective take on our relationship. Oh, we’re given the nod that this isn’t to supplant other understandings, but we then return to it and articulate a view that, in the matrix of a non-universalist understanding, would be quite orthodox because it would involve a recognition of a change that God has effected, but here is purely subjective—I no longer feel that I am outside God’s care, but realize that I always have been inside it. Cue, I’m Okay, You’re Okay.

    As we stated earlier, with baptism, membership in the church, and an adult commitment of faith, we are on the move from the position of the younger son to that of the elder son who shares everything with the father—or perhaps it is better to say that, while remaining in the position of the younger son, whose place at the table remains always and securely a gift of the father’s love, we also begin to grow into the reality of the elder son who shares in the life of the father. Chief among the goods belonging to this life is the call to mission. There are two aspects that we must grasp in this understanding of baptism and membership in the body of Christ. The first is the recognition that the fullness of baptism is defined by its service as a response to God’s grace, not by its privilege taken from that grace. We recognize the baptized not through their admission to the table of Christ, but by their service at the table, as they join with Christ in sharing the love they have found with him. Proponents of the Open Table would argue that this is what it means to participate in the paschal ministry through which Christ has redeemed us. This understanding of baptism’s intimate relation to ministry gets lost when we close the table, making baptism the gateway to it. We do not want folks to be baptized on the basis of what they might get, but on the basis of what they might give.

    And so pride finally manifests itself. We get the ‘two tiered’ people of God once again. Everyone is part of God’s family irrespective of confession or commitment. But those who practice Open Table are more like Jesus. They aren’t only the younger brother but also the true elder brother, getting on a doing the mission of Jesus. They are better than everyone else. There’s a low road and a high road, and the Open Table proponents are the high road children of God. If you drop the bar of membership, you almost always generate a new elitism for a sub-group to compensate, and Open Table is following the same path. The younger son’s place at the table is secure no matter what he does or believes. But it is the older son who ‘shares in the life of the father’.

    The view that all baptized must have access to all orders of ministry is hereby shored up. Baptism isn’t about you becoming part of God’s family, its basic connection is to ministry. So to exclude a baptised person from ministry (e.g. a practicing homosexual from being a priest or bishop) is to deny the true meaning of baptism. Hence, as I suggested earlier, baptism is a sign of your works, not a sign of God’s grace—you don’t get baptised on the basis of what you might get (i.e. receive the grace of God), but on the basis of what you might give (which is, in classical Christian thinking, your works). Baptism is not a means to receive grace, or a sign that grace has been received, its your statement that you are giving yourself to the works that God calls you to do. Communion collapses into the gospel, and, on the other side, baptism collapses into works.

  16. Jim the Puritan says:

    Mark Badderly — So is one possible construction of this the fact that the unbaptized cannot be excluded from communion, but those which side with the “force of oppression, exclusion, and degradation” can be? And could I venture further that those who justifiably could be excluded from communion under this latest development of Episcopal theology will be those who believe in orthodox Christianity and the Bible? Perfectly diabolical.

  17. NoVA Scout says:

    Why do I always get the impression that these discussions of open communion tied to radical hospitality are confusing the eucharist with the coffee hour?

  18. Mark Baddeley says:

    They certainly aren’t saying that here Jim the Puritan, but I think they’ve set up the theology in such a way that fits into the progressive (both theological and social) tendency to dehumanize a conservative and so be justified to treat them at least as badly as they see conservatism treats individuals that progressivism wants to defend.

    The world, that thing that is opposed to God, is now only the forces that oppress. To the degree that someone aligns themselves with those forces, whose presence in the fellowship brings those forces into the church and so harms people in the place where they should be safe, then that person would, ultimately (possibly sooner than ‘ultimately’…) need to be excluded for the church to be true to its calling. They aren’t being excluded as a person, but as an instrument of those forces. Which is both (ironically) a return to the ‘love the sinner but not the sin’ approach that this Open Table deplores, but also dehumanises the person by treating them as representative of forces.

    Again, they’re not going there in this document. But I think that’s a natural practical implication of the theology they’ve articulated.

  19. Jim the Puritan says:

    It seems in line with the “baptismal covenant” of the Episcopal religion, which is not a covenant to be obedient to God and walk in His commands but instead to carry out worldly social justice, which of course can be defined however the Episcopal Church cares to define it, embracing whatever cause is trendy at the time.