My denomination is fighting again.
The Episcopal Church, which meets for its General Convention in Baltimore this July, is considering whether to repeal the canon (church law) that requires baptism for those who receive communion.
Lots of people have strong opinions about this – should those who come to the table to receive the sacrament of Holy Eucharist – communion – first have to receive the sacrament of Baptism? Are we all welcome at the table, or should we first understand what the table is for and why we’re there? I’ve been following many heated arguments around these questions on social media for the past couple of weeks, and I’ve mainly been thinking this:
We have so few people at the table that we might be missing something.
Christianity in America is losing membership at astonishing rates, and the Episcopal Church is no exception. Most of this has to do with older members dying and no one taking their place. This is something we cannot be in denial about anymore: we are not sharing the life-giving love of Jesus in a way that compels many others to want to join us.
Fighting about the details is not helping.
It’s not that I believe that our primary sacraments – baptism and communion – are details. Far from it. I believe they are essential elements of a living faith. It’s that so few people are seeking either of them that I wonder if forcing the issue of which one comes first is helpful evangelism.
the baby and the baptism water
It easy to understand how we have such strong feelings over the most fundamental aspects of our faith. Yet those of us who are in conflict about it are the ones who are already here. We are the baptized, the ones who come to the communion table for solace and for strength.
It seems to me that we’re fighting about how to bring more people to both, but who we’re bringing remains largely theoretical.
We see in our minds the faces of those we don’t want to feel unwelcome because they’re told there’s barriers to the communion table. And we see the faces of those we want to be fully immersed in the faith through baptism so they understand that receiving communion both gives something and asks something of disciples.
It’s easy to see how we disagree over the issue. It’s not so easy to see that most of the examples we imagine are just that – our imagination. There are simply not that many new Christians being brought to faith in our church today that this is a huge practical concern.
It’s not the door, it’s the path
When we argue about whether one has to be baptized to receive communion, we’re literally having this conversation from inside the church doors. We’re imagining scenarios where people are worshiping in church and deciding whether they can – or will – come up to the altar to receive the bread and wine.
It’s an argument about how members are fully welcomed into the faith.
Given the current situation, though, I wonder more about how people are (or aren’t!) getting to the place where they’re sitting in our pews at all.
How are we bringing others to faith?
It seems to me that this is the time – it’s far past the time, but not too late – to be taking the energy we’re using to argue with each other and use it to share with others about the life-changing joy of being baptized into life with Christ. And the redeeming sustenance of the sacramental meal of communion.
Who are we talking to?
To try and keep myself from falling into the same trap I’m describing, I will end by saying this: to those who really don’t care what denominational infighting is all about, or who think this is just another sign that church is not something you want to be part of:
This conflict is about love.
If those of us in the church didn’t feel so strongly about the love of God we have received through baptism and communion, we wouldn’t feel so strongly about how best to share it. The reason we feel so strongly about it is that we know what it’s like to be lost, and then found. We know what it’s like to be forgiven and redeemed. We know what it’s like to be loved beyond reason.
We fight like a family fights, and for the same reason: we’re bound together by this love.
Of course, fighting’s not all we do (but let’s be honest, we’ve been fighting about how church should be since the concept of church began!).
Church is where you learn that if it’s not Good News, it’s not the end. And that in the end, all that matters is love. Come to the water – and the table – and believe.