The circle of believers is expanding by the power of the Holy Spirit, the provisional Bishop of Eastern Oregon told member of the 77th General Convention’s Commission on Evangelism, and must not be hindered by man-made rules that forbid welcoming the non-baptized to receive Holy Communion.
On 6 July 2012 members of the commission chaired by Bishop Duncan Gray of Mississippi heard sharply conflicting testimony from supporters and opponents of resolution C04 “Open Table” proposed by the Diocese of Eastern Oregon. The resolution asks the General Convention to interpret the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer “to invite all, regardless of age, denomination, or baptism to the altar for Holy Communion.”
The resolution also asks Convention to delete Canon 1.17.7 which reads: “No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church."
The universal rule of the catholic church has been that baptism must preceed table fellowship. The rule is enshrined in the canons of the Episcopal Church, while Article XXIX states: "The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing."
The Rt. Rev Nedi Rivera, the provisional Bishop of Eastern Oregon, opened the hearing by speaking to the pastoral and scriptural support for removing baptism as a pre-condition for receiving Holy Communion. The explanation for the proposal provided by the diocese stated the Episcopal Church “has consistently moved to being a more inclusive, open and welcoming member of Christ’s Body. Such grace is riveted on the teachings and actions of Jesus and the compassionate embrace he had for all…no matter their creed or race. We believe it essential our Liturgy reflect the unconditional hospitality our Lord employed for his mission.”
Bishop Rivera cited the example of Cornelius the Centurian from the Book of Acts, arguing that faith preceded baptism. She also likened the opponents of radical inclusion of an Open Table to the Pharisees. Supporters of “tradition speak” like those who cited the “Torah in Jesus Christ’s time”, she said, arguing they placed the letter of the law before the spirit.
Several members of the youth delegation spoke in favor of the resolution, saying that they had felt the power of the Spirit when receiving the host during communion services, and it was unfair not to share this experience with the unbaptized. Preventing the unbaptized from receiving the Eucharist was unfriendly and small-minded, youth delegate Julia Robinson from Ohio said, as “communion is bigger than the church.”
The Rev. James Mosier of Eastern Oregon offered a theological defense of the resolution, adding that he believed the issues under discussion were of deeper significance to the doctrine of the church than recent disputes over women clergy and human sexuality.
He stated that “for the past 20 centuries” Eucharistic fellowship was constructed on the model of “we believe, we belong, we behave.” By this he meant that we first come to faith and are baptized; once baptized we participate in the fellowship of the Church which is centered in the Eucharist; and we then live our lives based upon or faith and strengthened by our fellowship.
What Eastern Oregon was proposing was a model of “we belong, we believe, we behave.” The invitation to receive Holy Communion “came from Jesus Christ, not the church” he said. “How we welcome someone into the community is by welcoming them” at the altar in Eucharistic fellowship he said.
The passion of the resolution's supporters was matched by its opponents. Deputies and bishops from liberal and conservative dioceses stood to speak against the resolution.
The Rev. Danielle Morris of Central Florida stated the claim that an open table was full inclusion was misguided. “Baptism is true inclusivity,” she said, adding that the Eucharist was not a “cocktail party with wine and crackers.”
The Rev. Amy Coultas of Kentucky noted that the Episcopal Church had endorsed the World Council of Churches’ statement on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, and to remove the requirement of baptism before receiving communion would violate the church’s ecumenical agreements. Baptism was part of the “order of the church. To change it out of pastoral concerns is not the best approach,” she argued.
The Rt. Rev. Ted Gulick, Assistant Bishop of Virginia, offered the committee portions of Augustine’s “On the nature of the sacrament of the Eucharist” (Sermon 272) as a concise statement of the doctrine of the universal church on this topic, and urged rejection of the resolution. “The first experience” of a new believer “is baptism, not Eucharist,” he said, adding the “invitation to community is more than the meal.”
The Rev. James A. Sorvillo, Sr., of Central Florida told the committee the call to communion without baptism was pastorally unkind as it robbed the potential Christian of the joys of belief in exchange for the experience of fellowship.
Upon the conclusion of testimony the committee will issue its recommendation to accept or reject the resolution, which will then be taken up by the two houses of convention early next week.