One of the unexpected elements of moving from worshipping in the context of the Episcopal Church to the Church of England is a different approach to the Eucharist. This has been more a difference of emphasis than of importance, but I think it points up divergent ecclesiologies between the two churches.
This experience of difference is felt most strongly for me at the local parish church my family attends. Two things stand out for me (keeping in mind that I came to the Episcopal Church about 15 years after the introduction of the 1979 BCP). First, the Eucharist is not celebrated as the primary service every week. Rather, once a week there is a type of Morning Prayer that is labelled ‘All Ages Worship’ and includes ‘family’ oriented songs and prayers. In practice, this is geared for those ten and under. That there could be a primary service without Eucharist reveals the broader approach to worship in the Church of England where there is more need to encompass a wider set of worship practices than one finds in the Episcopal Church.
But why no Eucharist at the All Ages Worship? Because it is not normal practice in the Church of England to communicate children. The norm is for children only to receive communion after confirmation. In 2006 regulations were introduced to permit diocesan bishops to allow parishes to communicate baptized prior to confirmation. Now about 15% of parishes do this as a regular practice.
This practice brought up short my children, especially my 5 year-old son. Both of our children were communicated for the first time the day they were baptized. I realize now that our assumption (and that of our priests and parish) that this was acceptable is in part due to our location. I mean this in two ways. One reason is that the Episcopal Church has taken it that Eucharist is the central act of Christian worship and ideally is done as the principle Sunday service (I realize there are still some Morning Prayer churches kicking around out there). A strong piece alongside this is the baptismal ecclesiology of the Episcopal Church which holds that once one is baptized, one is brought fully into the life of the church. In this ecclesiology, communicating baptized infants makes sense.
The second reason is that our children were baptized in two different parishes in the East Bay in California. Of course the seminary where I teach, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, is also located there in Berkeley. And at CDSP, there have been important professors of liturgy who have championed this very idea of baptismal ecclesiology. One of them was Massey Shepherd who had a great hand in writing the 1979 BCP and was a clear articulator of its baptismal ecclesiology. The second figure was Louis Weil, who was oversaw the writing of the Baptismal Covenant of the 1979 BCP. More importantly for this post, he was a clear proponent of communicating children prior to confirmation and incorporating children into the worship of the congregation. This did not mean dumbing down the liturgy but making sure children were actively involved in it. Indeed I was honoured to have Louis preach at my son’s baptism at St. Mark’s Berkeley in 2007.
What all this means is that my children have a highly developed awareness of the Eucharist. Between attending weekly community Eucharist at CDSP during the school year and attending most Sundays at our current parish, All Souls in Berkeley, I would guess my son has received communion about 300 times and my two year-old daughter about 130 times. My son especially is very serious about receiving the Eucharist.
So when we got to our parish church here in England, we were surprised to find that children leave the service soon after the opening hymn for children’s church and are not brought back for communion. In fact, they never return to church but parents get them afterwards during fellowship time. This really distressed my son in particular though my daughter noticed it as well. After some asking around, I found out that a child from another province of the Anglican Communion who has regularly received communion in that province may also receive communion in the Church of England prior to confirmation. With that knowledge, we worked it out with our vicar to ensure both our kids could regularly receive communion and this has worked out very well.
All of this throws the current debate in the Episcopal Church about open communion or communion without baptism into sharper relief for me. You can follow some of that debate in a recent thread on the Episcopal Cafe here.
The first observation is that the current set of assumptions about the role of the Eucharist and who has access to it varies greatly between the Episcopal Church and the Church of England. I cannot speak for other provinces of the Anglican Communion on this front, but I suspect more are closer to the CofE than to TEC.
The second is that these differences stem from different interpretations about the meaning of the sacrament of Baptism. Baptism and Eucharist are inextricably linked, but how that linkage matters is different in the two churches. If Baptism means that you are commissioned for ministry, which is at the core of the Episcopal Church’s baptismal ecclesiology, it makes sense to give communion to anyone baptized. In the Church of England there is a more traditional ecclesiology, shared with Roman Catholicism, for example, in which the mission of the church is identified with ordained ministry. Flowing from this come the differing views on communicating children.
The third observation is that if there are such obvious differences between communicating children in the two churches, then one can only imagine the amazing gap that would open if the Episcopal Church were to endorse communion without baptism (as proposed by the Diocese of Eastern Oregon) at the General Convention this summer. I am not sure it would deepen the divisions that currently exist in the Anglican Communion as a whole, but it would be a notable departure.
Finally, I would argue that welcoming baptized children at the table is not the same as explicitly inviting those who are not baptized. First, the baptized child has had promises made by godparents, parents, and indeed the entire congregation to ensure this child is raised in the faith of Christ. My wife and I have powerfully experienced this at our parish. Our children receive communion in the context of those promises. This sort of act of making promises and acting them out as a body of believes is a clear expression of baptismal ecclesiology.
But no one in the congregation stands up and makes promises that they will lead those unbaptized people who come up for communion into a deeper faith in Christ. We don’t because it would not make sense in the context of our baptismal ecclesiology. I fully believe that the desire to practice open communion comes from a place of good intentions. But it lacks the Anglican virtue of coherence in which a practice or belief reasonably coheres with the fullness of scriptural witness and apostolic tradition. In essence, it contradicts our proclamation that full participation in the Body of Christ begins from baptism. How then could one receive the Body of Christ before baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection?
This takes me to a possible solution: get serious about sharing meals on Sundays.
One of the themes in the debate around open communion is whether it is about replicating Jesus’ table fellowship or the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. I hold that Eucharist is directly linked to the Last Supper and less obviously linked to other gospel accounts about table fellowship. A reading of early church literature also bears this out. However, proponents of open communion are absolutely correct in arguing that Jesus’ practice of radically open table fellowship is a necessary element of Christian witness.
Curiously, an atheist intellectual has pointed the way on this. Alain de Boton, in his new book Religion for Atheists, has argued that the agape meals practiced by early Christians can provide a model for how to overcome the modern problem of alienation. Boton envisions creating secular ‘Agape Restaurants’ where strangers become friends. He describes it this way:
Such a restaurant would have an open door, a modest entrance fee and an attractively designed interior. In its seating arrangement, the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart. Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach. By simple virtue of being in the space, guests would be signalling—as in a church—their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.
What strikes me about this is that Boton identifies what can be best about church – that it makes strangers friends – but rarely is manifested. But I argue it can. I live in foodie heaven. My parish is two blocks from Berkeley’s so-called ‘Gourmet Ghetto.’ When I moved here I was struck about how food oriented coffee hour is here. Back in Boston, coffee hour was just that – coffee, and usually bad. Here there are delicious spreads of cheese, sweets, and desserts often from the fruit tree in someone’s backyard. It is never elaborate, but it takes works. And it also creates a space where people linger and connect.
Now, imagine if instead of a coffee hour, the time after church involved a full blown meal. Every week. And imagine if at communion, the priest said that all baptized Christians were welcome to receive and that afterwards everyone was invited for a full meal that would continue the feast begun at the altar. Such an invitation would show seekers that here was a church that both took its worship of God seriously but also truly invited all to explore the way of Jesus. I also argue this would create a deeper sense of fellowship in Christ among congregation members. A weekly agape meal would require greater commitment for all, since clearly all members of the congregation would be expected to pitch in. But it would be a tangible piece of discipleship and deeply countercultural in our overscheduled world. And it is already working in its own way at places like St. Lydia’s.
In short, what would it look like if every time we celebrated the foretaste of the banquet of the Lamb we actually had a banquet? Kids and seekers welcome.