Communion Without Baptism and the Collapse of Eucharistic Discipline
Or, the conditions of possibility for communion without baptism
Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” – Exodus 3:5
But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’s knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” – Luke 5:8
Thanks for reading Draw Near With Faith! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
The other day I was talking to my friend Dhananjay Jagannathan, co-author of the excellent Line of Beauty Substack, about the seemingly-endlessly raging controversy within mainline Anglican circles about the acceptability of ‘communion without baptism.’ The question, for those blessedly unfamiliar with it, is this: should all be invited to the table to receive the Eucharist regardless of whether they are baptized, or should the Eucharist be restricted to the baptized? Now, as most of you probably know, I am opposed to the practice of communion without baptism, but that’s not what we talked about, nor is it what I want to talk about today. What we discussed is, to put it in technical terms, the conditions of possibility of CWOB as a question. That is, under what circumstances could CWOB become an issue? It is not particularly controversial to note that advocacy for communion without baptism is a novel position in church history. This novelty is not itself proof positive of the wrongness of the position. Or, rather, there might be reasons one might give that make the newness itself enough to condemn the practice, but one does have to at least proffer those reasons rather than just assuming them! But this novelty, at the very least, interesting. What makes it possible for nigh two millennia of Christian practice around the Eucharist to suddenly seem problematic, with the result that some church bodies now as a matter of policy welcome the unbaptized to the table and others (like my own) are engaged in conflict about it?
There are a number of answers that one could give to this question, but I want to think about one aspect in particular. I want to trace a change in how baptized Christians related to the Eucharist that I believe to be a necessary if not sufficient condition for the emergence of CWOB. Specifically, I want to argue that something like communion without baptism is only legible in the wake of the collapse of an older system of Eucharistic discipline. In this piece, I try to explain how this system worked, and how it collapsed in the wake of the Parish Communion movement. This spiritual system involved careful preparation before partaking of Communion because it taught that receiving Communion was a solemn, joyful, and sometimes terrifying act, both a great gift if received rightly and a great danger if received wrongly. It was an account of communion that took seriously Paul’s injunction in 1 Cor that you examine yourself carefully before receiving, an account that reflected, perhaps, Peter’s awe and terror before the Son of God in Luke: “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” This earlier system was not perfect. But its wholesale dismantling seems to me to be even more dangerous. If I am right that CWOB can only be a live option after this system has been destroyed, CWOB might be seen as a symptom of a deeper problem of Christian teaching and formation, in which we are encouraged to approach the Eucharist casually, without any particular preparation required or expected, rather than as a killing and life-giving communion with the Living God. And thus restoring some form of these earlier practices, and the account of the Eucharist underlying them, will I believe be necessary if we wish to maintain the church’s historical baptismal requirement for receiving communion. I close with some thoughts about how we might do that, and more broadly about how to think about inviting people into a more rigorous but ultimately more life-giving Christian faith.
Traditional Eucharistic Preparation: An Anglican Example
What did this older system of Eucharistic preparation look like? Anglicanism provides one example, although you can find roughly analogous systems within both other Protestant churches and, for that matter, Rome and Orthodoxy. Eucharistic preparation was taught by Anglican liturgy itself, particularly in the exhortations of the 1662 prayer book (which of course was the primary liturgical text of global Anglicanism until the second half of the twentieth century). There was an exhortation to be read the Sunday or Holy Day before Communion was to be celebrated (recall that in most contexts Communion was not celebrated weekly). The priest described the great gift of the Eucharist, proclaiming that in it we receive Jesus as “our spiritual food and sustenance,” a reception which is “so divine and comfortable a thing to them who receive it worthily.” But the exhortation warned that there was danger involved too: there is a “great peril of the unworthy receiving” of the sacrament, and thus careful self-examination was necessary beforehand so that the communicant could come “holy and clean to such a heavenly Feast.” And so, the priest called the people to a set of preparatory practices: they were to examine their lives in the light of God’s commandments, confess their sins, reconcile themselves with any neighbor they had sinned against, and forgive those who had sinned against them. If people had trouble attaining a “quiet conscience,” they were to go to a priest and confess their sins, that they might receive “the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice.” If they were sufficiently prepared, they were then to let the minister know, at least a day in advance, if they were going to receive communion that Communion Sunday. Not every potential communicant would receive communion every time that communion was celebrated. In fact, they wouldn’t even be there for communion proper. On Sundays that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated, non-communicants would depart after the intercessions, and only those communicating would remain, coming forward into the choir or chancel for the service of the Table.
For those who needed a little more guidance than offered in the exhortation, there was a plethora of literature designed to help laypeople of the Church of England make a good preparation for receiving communion. One of the homilies in the sixteenth-century Second Book of Homilies dealt explicitly with communion preparation, focusing on the nature of the sacrament, the sort of faith in Christ alone that was required to come to the table, and careful self-examination. After the Restoration, the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the explosion of guides for preparation for communion, whether as a part of longer treatises on the spiritual life (as in Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living) or as stand-alone pamphlets. The most well-known examples of this latter category were two texts both known as ‘A Companion to the Altar.’ These would in fact often be bound with the prayerbook in order to aid Christians in their communion preparation. These – like most of the other similar materials – included a form of self-examination based on the Ten Commandments along with a set of prayers thanking God for the gift of Christ and especially for the gift of the Sacrament. By following these guides, would-be communicants could ensure that they were well-prepared for the awesome, holy privilege of eating bread and drinking wine, receiving Christ’s Body and Blood at the Holy Table.
Now, it must be admitted that this system of preparation had a dark side. Despite such redolently Gospel-centered prayers as the Prayer of Humble Access immediately before reception, in which communicants acknowledge their unworthiness but proclaimed that they came to the table trusting in God’s mercy, this system of preparation could lead to people feeling unable to receive the Sacrament nearly at all. God’s free gift of himself in the bread and wine could become an occasion not of thanksgiving mixed with holy fear but simply of dread and despair. Indeed, the doyen of CofE evangelicals Charles Simeon tells a quite moving and depressing story about how Communion Sundays were occasions of great mental anguish for him until he came to fully grasp that it is Christ Jesus, and not a sufficiently perfect sacramental preparation, that made him able to receive the sacrament. The 1662 prayer book itself notes the problem, although its solution leaves much to be desired: there is an additional exhortation added for use “in case he [the priest] shall see the people negligent to come to the holy Communion,” which is, I confess, perhaps my least favorite part of the old prayer book. It is all Law, no Gospel: presuming that people do not come to the Table only because they are lazy in repenting and amending their lives, it warns them that “sore punishment hangeth over your heads” if “ye willingly abstain from the Lord’s Table.”
There are, however, spiritual resources from the time that took a more helpful position, at least by my lights. Rather more to my taste are a few old Lutheran prayers designed for those worried about their worthiness in the Supper:
“My Lord Christ, I have fallen and would like to be strong. And for this reason You instituted this Sacrament, that by it we might kindle and strengthen our faith and so be helped. Therefore I am here and intend to receive it. Lord, behold, there is the Word; here is my deficiency and sickness. And You Yourself said, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened; I will refresh you.” Therefore I come and allow myself to be helped.”
Or a portion of a much longer prayer: “…fear and trembling have come upon me for the great sorrow of my heart, because I am worried that I may have come to the holy table of Your most worthy Supper unworthily and sinned against You. And it is true, my dear God, when I look at myself, I am unworthy in all things and cannot stand before Your holy righteousness. At the same time, it is also true that You have given us Your dearest Son, Jesus Christ, for our righteousness and sanctification…Therefore, my Lord and God, by Your holy and good Spirit, drive out of me these and similar sad and false sentiments, lighten my heart and my eyes, and mercifully grant that I may turn away from myself and look with ardent devotion only upon Christ Jesus, Your dear Son…”
So this was the old system. I don’t mean to suggest that there was a golden age in which every single communicant of every Christian Church spent hours on their knees preparing to receive. There, of course, was not. Nor, for that matter, do I wish to suggest that the story of Eucharistic preparation was static until the latter half of the twentieth century. Within Anglicanism, for example, the Catholic Revival in the nineteenth century led to the introduction of a new (but also rigorous!) style of Eucharistic preparation largely borrowed from contemporary Roman Catholic sources. But there does seem to be, across time, varyingly observed, a clear teaching that Holy Communion was something of profound seriousness, of both gift and danger, and thus required careful preparation. You did not want to be found at the wedding feast of the Lord without a wedding garment.
The Parish Communion Movement and the Collapse of Eucharistic Preparation
I expect that the system of Eucharistic preparation I have outlined above sounds foreign to many of you. For indeed it has almost entirely collapsed throughout not just mainline Anglicanism but the broader mainline. In the Society of St Mary Magdalene, the pan-Protestant society of which I am a member, one of the expectations we have for our members is that they adopt a regular practice of communion preparation. And I’ve heard from members from a wide variety of traditions – each of which once had a robust tradition of preparation, including in some cases ones even stricter than the Anglican one! – that they were interested in trying such preparation but had not encountered it before and did not know how to do it. It seems that across the mainline, robust Communion preparation has essentially disappeared. It is no longer a commonly-held view that to receive communion requires setting aside a period of prayerful preparation and self-examination before the worship service itself. How did this happen?
I suspect that the twentieth-century Parish Communion movement had something to do with it, and the broader Liturgical Movement of which it was a part. The Parish Communion movement refers specifically to a group of mostly liberal catholics within Anglicanism who, beginning in the early twentieth century, sought to drastically reform the typical Sunday worship life of Anglican Christians. They looked back to the early church and saw the Eucharist being celebrated and received weekly by early Christians (albeit with a far more intense initiatory and disciplinary system than any church today!). In comparison, they argued that contemporary worship – which in Anglicanism at this point typically meant Sunday Morning Prayer – was seriously lacking. It was, in their view, a problem that weekly Communions (when they existed at all) were often scheduled early in the morning on Sundays for those prepared to receive, with the principal service being Morning Prayer or, in the spikiest of Anglo-Catholic parishes, a non-communicating High Mass in which only the priest would communicate. Their goal was summed up as “the Lord’s people around the Lord’s table on the Lord’s Day,” a newly Eucharistic-centered piety for all Christians, every week. And these reformers succeeded beyond their wildest imaginations. The larger Liturgical Movement of which they were, more or less, a part transformed the worshipping life of Christians throughout the West! Not just in Anglicanism, but in Lutheranism and many Methodism and Reformed circles, weekly communion became the norm. Indeed, the primary status of the Eucharist is enshrined in the BCP 1979, which explicitly calls the Eucharist “the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord's Day and other major Feasts.” For more or less the first time since these various Protestant bodies split from Rome, weekly communion (which, it is worth noting, was the desire of the 16th century Reformers as well!) was a reality. For Roman Catholics, too, the story is much the same: with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the old non-communicating mass largely disappeared, and there was a clear expectation that the laity would be invited to commune at every mass – and that they would receive communion far more often than before.
And as far as I can tell, as this happened, the old spiritual disciplines around Eucharistic preparation collapsed. We can trace this fairly precisely in Roman Catholicism: starting in the 50s, as the Liturgical Movement gained steam, the rules for communion preparation got repeatedly loosened, although – in theory if not necessarily in practice – they have retained more of an emphasis on careful preparation than we Protestants. It is a little harder to track in Protestant communions, but it striking that the sort of exhortations to preparation that show up in the 1662 BCP find no equivalent in those Anglican liturgies produced under the influence of the Liturgical Movement. Certainly the old communion preparation manuals fall out of print. And perhaps this is small surprise. The rather lengthy and emotionally intense forms of Eucharistic preparation characteristic of the old system are rather difficult to use on a weekly basis (trust me, I’ve tried). After all, they were designed for when receiving communion was a monthly or quarterly affair. There may have been suspicion too that they emphasized consuming the Eucharist as a question of individual worthiness over and against communal solidarity in faith, or that they were over-harsh and frightened people away from the table. Regardless, the system disappeared.
It might not be the case that the dramatic increase in frequency of both the celebration of communion and the actual reception of communion had to correlate with the abandonment of any robust Eucharistic discipline. Indeed, I rather hope it that there is no necessary relationship here! After all, I tend to agree with both the Reformers of the sixteenth century and the Parish Communion advocates of the twentieth that, in general, the Lord’s Supper ought to be celebrated (if not necessarily received by every parishioner) every Sunday and major Feast. But as a matter of historical fact, the celebration of the Eucharist (with lay communication) as the principal service each Sunday went along with the destruction of the existing system of Eucharistic preparation – and this destruction was not addressed by replacing it with another way to prepare for the Eucharist. People, in my experience, are no longer taught that any particular preparation for the sacrament is necessary. This is not quite the case de jure: the catechism in the Episcopal Church 1979 BCP does continue to teach the necessity of communion preparation. To come to the Eucharist, “it is required that we should examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people,” the catechism teaches. But this, alas, is widely ignored in practice. Apart from in Anglo-Catholic devotional aids like St Augustine’s Prayer Book, I have seen no discussion of, no instruction in preparing to receive communion.
And what is the result? Here I am of necessity veering into anecdote, but I’ve noticed the notion that Paul’s injunction to discern the body before communing or Jesus’ parable about the wedding feast and the wedding garments might have anything to do with contemporary Eucharistic reception is not infrequently poo-pooed. The idea that taking communion could in any wise be spiritually harmful is similarly often rejected. Note that this does not necessarily correlate to a ‘low’ view of the Eucharist as solely about community or togetherness or what have you. You will sometimes find people with a quite ‘high’ view of the Eucharist as an actual reception of Christ’s Body and Blood who say the same. It’s a sort of extreme ex opere operato view as far as I can tell, in which the disposition of the recipient truly does not matter whatsoever and grace is not only always given but always received. And what of our actual people in the pews? It is not my place to make guesses as to the spiritual state of everyone who comes up for communion every week without fail; to do so would be presumptuous. But I know that I have encountered a surprising degree of, well, weirdness from clergy when I am at a Eucharist and do not receive but come up for a blessing instead. There are times when I’ve nearly felt that the sacrament of my Lord’s Body and Blood is being pushed on me! And given this, and the lack of instruction around Eucharistic preparation, I confess that I do worry that people may well be consuming thoughtlessly or casually. I know that I have done so, to my deep regret.
The Collapse of Eucharistic Discipline as a Condition for CWOB
What, then, does all this have to do with communion without baptism? It seems to me that when even baptized Christians were expected to carefully prepare and examine themselves before receiving communion, extending communion to those who have not even made the minimal preparation of baptism would be essentially unimaginable. If the Eucharist, even for the professing, committed Christian, was a matter of awful joy necessitating prayerful preparation, to be approached with a certain degree of fear and trembling, how could one think of inviting just anyone and everyone, of any faith or none? (I should note parenthetically that there are, in my experience, a variety of pro-CWOB positions, ranging from “all who desire to follow Jesus should be invited, even if they haven’t sorted out baptism yet” to the rather more radical “all are welcome, no matter who you are or what you believe”). But if unworthy receiving is no longer something that one need concern oneself with, if the Eucharist is simply good for everyone, always, no matter what…well then maybe it makes sense to invite everyone to the table, then maybe baptism as a requirement starts to seem just as arbitrary and legalistic as the old Communion preparation manuals. Indeed, I could imagine a proponent of CWOB narrating the history that I’ve sketched out as precisely such a gradual overcoming of unnecessary boundaries between people and God’s grace. It would go something like this: ‘God longs to feed all abundantly, without concern for worthiness or status or anything else, at his table. But Christians have gotten it wrong from the beginning. For a long time, even baptized Christians were taught to fear coming to the table to be fed by Jesus. But when the church finally realized that this was incompatible with the loving welcome of God, Christians in power still tried to limit access to God’s grace by requiring baptism before communion. But now we have come finally to embrace the radical truth of God’s inclusive welcome: all are welcome at the table!’
If this connection between CWOB and how baptized Christians approach the Eucharist is true, it might shift the questions we ask around CWOB. We might focus not only how those ‘outside’ (ie, the unbaptized) are to be welcomed at the table, but also raise anew the question of how those of us already baptized into Christ are to approach Holy Communion. And indeed, for those who (like me) think that something profound was lost in the collapse of the old system of Eucharistic preparation, we can start to understand CWOB as a symptom of a much larger problem, a church-wide failure to do what St Paul commands us to do, to discern the body of Christ and examine ourselves before coming to the table. I fear that we have too often domesticated the Eucharist, rendered it a sort of automatic weekly power-up, rather than a moment of awesome, joyful encounter with the One who lived and died and rose for us. We have ignored the very real and clear warnings, both in Scripture and in the tradition of the church, about the perils of receiving unworthily. And it’s because of this failure that the question of Communion without Baptism can even present itself (I should note parenthetically that I suppose it is logically possible that one could hold that rigorous preparation – but not baptism – was required for communion, but I have never encountered such a view).
And so, for those like me who are committed to opposing CWOB, it might well be the case that the best way to oppose the practice is to seek to restore the older practices of Eucharistic preparation and the view of the Eucharist underlying them. After all, if it’s the loss of all this that makes CWOB possible and even plausible, I am not sure we will be able to hold the line on CWOB without them. Indeed, as I suggested above, if you’ve conceded that the Eucharist can only and always be good, that the grace freely offered is automatically received no matter what, the force of the objection that requiring baptism is mere gatekeeping is rather hard to resist.
How, then, ought we to do that? For me, it will mean not only continuing my own practices of Eucharistic preparation, but taking advantage of opportunities to preach and teach about what Communion is and how we ought to prepare ourselves for it. I’m also going to be thinking about ways to make clear to people that they need not receive every week, that it is quite possibly better for them spiritually if they come up for a blessing instead if they have not spent any time in prayer and repentance beforehand. I am also working on putting together an order for communion preparation, a sort of adaptation of the earlier Anglican preparation tradition that I have sketched out above, albeit avoiding some of the theological dangers of the earlier tradition and being compatible with more frequent reception. I’ll post that here when it’s done (probably sometime at the very end of 2022 or early 2023, to be honest). If you are looking for something in the meantime, I highly recommend St Augustine’s Prayer Book; it includes a robust and helpful preparation for communion and short service of thanksgiving for after receiving.
But beyond the to-do list, I think there’s a broader question, important not only for the question of instilling a deeper reverence around the Eucharist but for a lot of the ‘inclusive orthodox’ project in the mainline. It’s this: how do we invite people formed in a thin understanding of Christian discipleship into a thicker, deeper, more rigorous (though ultimately more grace-filled) version of Christianity in a way that is, well, attractive? How do we communicate that this (whether “this” means specifically communion preparation or the inclusive orthodox project more broadly) is important not primarily because the Rules Aren’t Being Followed but because we are missing out on the fullness of new life in Christ? It is not that I think that reproof or the theological use of the Law should be off the table. But frankly, were I to get up in the pulpit and give a sermon about how we are all risking the health of our souls by receiving the Eucharist thoughtlessly, the response would more probably be “oh, there’s that new curate with his wacky ideas” than repenting in sackcloth and ashes. And indeed, while the terrors of the Law have their place in Christian life, it is the proclamation of the free gift of the Gospel that our people so desperately need to hear and believe.
I certainly don’t have a pat answer here. I know that my deep sadness and frustration over the spiritual state of our church can tempt me to go heavy on the Law, especially in my public writing here. But I also know that successful renewal in our churches has to be driven by love and excitement more than anger and frustration. It can’t be about hitting weary people over the heads with how they are failing to measure up and how they need to do more, but rather must announce to them the promised rest of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins and new life given freely to them in Jesus Christ. And yet it can’t be a proclamation that leaves people content to remain where they are, but just urge them all the same to zealously pursue nearness with Jesus and holiness of life. If there’s any coherent project for my Substack – frankly, if there’s any coherent project for this stage of my ministry – it’s about thinking through how to do exactly that. I welcome your thoughts and ideas, in the comments or otherwise, and covet your prayers.
Thanks for reading Draw Near With Faith! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.