Ask an Anglican: Who May Take Communion

This is a question that came in a few months ago but that is perhaps most apt to answer now, given that the General Convention of the Episcopal Church will be taking up the question of Communion without Baptism this July.

Jon writes:

My family is now starting to attend an Anglican church.  My wife communes with me, but I don’t know where she is at with believing/understanding the Real Presence.  The church also allows children to receive Communion and one of my sons received the bread this past Sunday.  I know that none of us can fully “understand” it – but I just wonder if baptized Christians who believe in Christ as their Savior (like my wife) are eating and drinking judgment on themselves for not believing in the Real Presence.

Know Your Catechism, Kids

Many churches practice what is called “fencing the table” or “closed communion,” meaning that only members of the given church body can receive communion. In large measure, this was also the practice of classical Anglicanism. In fact, it predates the Reformation. Archbishop of Canterbury John Peckham decreed in 1281 that no one should receive the sacrament of Holy Communion without first being confirmed. The Reformers continued this practice, enshrining it in the rubric at the end of the Confirmation service in the prayer book that “there shall none be admitted to the holy communion; until suche tyme as he can saye the Catechisme and be confirmed.” The original rubric in 1549 had only required Confirmation itself, but the revised rubric in 1552 and 1559 also required the recitation of the Catechism to make the point that the reason Confirmation was necessary was not because Confirmation somehow magically completed Baptism, as would later be asserted in the nineteenth century, but because Confirmation was a mark that indicated that a person had come to a mature faith. A person who has been through Confirmation has learned and assented to the Church’s teaching about the Christian faith, including the teaching about Communion itself, and so he or she is equipped to actually receive in faith.

Changes to Confirmation

In 1662, the Confirmation service was revised so that the Catechism, previously included within the service in its entirety, was separated out and replaced with a few simple questions. Though confirmands were still expected to know the Catechism, they were no longer required to recite it in its entirety in church. As it stands today, the rubric at the end of the Confirmation liturgy reads, “And there shall none be admitted to the holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed.” In 1972, this lead the General Synod of the Church of England to authorize a variety of situations in which people who have not been confirmed might receive, including those visiting Anglican churches from other Christian denominations. In 2006, the list was further expanded to include, in some dioceses, children who had not yet been confirmed.

Faith Does Not Live in Our Minds

This shifting practice in the Church of England is not dissimilar to the shifting practice in the Episcopal Church in the United States. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer allowed for the first time for Communion to be given to all Baptized Christians of any denominational background, regardless of their age. Certainly this represents a break with the Reformation tradition and practice, but it also recaptures something of the early Church where Baptism and first Holy Communion were administered at the same time, even to infants. The early Church took the sacraments very seriously, but they also understood that the locus of faith for the Christian is not the intellect.

Holy Baptism gives us the grace that leads to true faith and true repentance, but who is to say that a six-year-old has less faith and less repentance than a sixteen-year-old or a sixty-year-old? These are gifts from God, not ideas that we memorize or attitudes that we conjure up in ourselves. This does not excuse the Church from the practice of good catechesis. In fact, the best criticism that can be made of what the Episcopal Church has done is to note the way in which the classic Catechism has been sidelined (which is a topic worthy of its own post). Nevertheless, if we are going to take seriously what Scripture and the Fathers say to us about Baptism, we have no really compelling reason not to give Holy Communion to children. And once that rubicon has been crossed, it becomes very difficult to argue that people who visit from other churches must have a perfect understanding of the Real Presence before they can come to the table.

Discerning the Body

That said, Paul cautions us in 1 Corinthians 11:26-30:

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

If we are to discern the Body when we come to the Eucharist, are we not putting people in danger by allowing them to receive if they do not believe in the Real Presence? In a certain sense, perhaps, we are, but this could be applied equally to the members of our own churches whose minds and hearts are not known at all times to the pastor. It is significant here that Paul’s admonition is given not to priests to examine their parishioners but to the parishioners themselves. Priests are certainly called to shepherd their people, and there are times when that shepherding means telling someone not to receive until he or she has come to faith or has abandoned a particularly wicked practice. Still, each Christian is also called to make inquiry of themselves and to only come forward when prepared. It is significant that in the Episcopal Church we invite all Baptized Christians and not merely all people who happen to have been baptized. If you do not believe in Jesus Christ, if you have rejected the faith, then you should not come forward, which is exactly what the prayer book Exhortation calls upon us to say. It is as simple as that.

Furthermore, in allowing that anyone who is a baptized Christian may receive, we assume a common understanding of what it means to be a Christian. As Anglicans have received the faith, part of that understanding is the role and place of the sacraments. This is perhaps where the modern practice is at its most dangerous, given how weak catechesis is around these issues. We do not have a good way of explaining what we mean by a Christian in the soundbyte moment before the Eucharistic prayer begins. It takes only a moment to say “Only confirmed members of the Episcopal Church may receive” or “All baptized Christians may receive.” It takes significantly more time to say, “All baptized Christians may receive, and by a Christian we mean someone who has come to have faith in the Trinitarian God of the Bible and the saving work of Jesus Christ; and that same Jesus has told us that we truly receive His Body and Blood in this sacrament and that it is more than just a sign; and if you don’t believe that, you may want to ask yourself what else He has said that you aren’t willing to accept.”

However, a person who comes forward to receive Communion who truly has faith in Christ is not in a tremendous amount of danger unless he or she has explicitly, willfully, and consistently rejected the teaching of Our Lord about the sacraments to the point that it would be of no consequence to step on the consecrated bread or toss the wine in a ditch. Remember, the issue for Paul was not just that the Corinthians did not fully grasp the doctrine of the Real Presence, but that the Corinthians were treating the Lord’s Supper as if it were just like any other meal, acting like drunken idiots, pretending the whole thing was of no more importance than a frat party. Paul’s concern was that if people did not understand that Christ was truly present, they would continue not to take the Supper seriously and would continue to blaspheme, sparking the Lord’s wrath against them. While it is better to receive with a proper understanding than without, most Christians, even with a defective eucharistic theology, are in little danger of dismissing the whole thing as meaningless.

Communion Without Baptism

It is helpful to remember these admonitions of Paul in light of the ongoing controversy over Communion without Baptism. While there may be good and bad arguments about whether or not to confirm a person before giving him or her Communion, the only grounding upon which to give Communion to the unbaptized is if we do not take Paul’s words all that seriously. A person who has not been baptized is in no position to make any kind of discernment about Christ, one way or another, even in their hearts, and so it becomes a kind of blasphemy to commune them, not because we are any better than they are but because we are clearly worse since we have been catechized and yet take the sacrament with so little seriousness.

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17 Responses to Ask an Anglican: Who May Take Communion

  1. Jeremiah C says:

    When I was a Lutheran, my old pastor always said at the beginning of the service something like, “All baptized Christians who know Christ as their savior and believe that he is present in (or through [I can’t quite remember now]) this celebration of bread and wine are welcome to partake with us.”

    I always thought that was a good and simple way to emphasize that they believed in the real presence without necessarily requiring a dissertation on what exactly it was.

  2. Jay M. says:

    I can’t even believe that Communion without Baptism is even being considered at this point. How much further may we stray?

  3. Brian says:

    I love that Fr. Jonathan can address a serious issue while at the same time leaving room for a chuckle, as in the soundbyte that he points out is NOT made: “… if you don’t believe that, you may want to ask yourself what else He has said that you aren’t willing to accept.”

    It is nonetheless very good advice indeed, and it made me chuckle because it reminded me of a the title of a book by Bishop N.T. Wright, “What Saint Paul Reallly Said”. At a 2010 Wheaton College conference featuring Bishop Wright, the entire panel — for an entire weekend — engaged in penetrating (often beyond me) dialog of topics addressed by Wright in his many books, and one of his colleagues jokingly referred to another imaginary Wright book, called “What Saint Paul Really Meant.”

    All chuckling aside, what the Bible says vs. what it means is the crux of all the differences among Christian denominations. And while I wish I could take simple comfort in the pronouncement of an evangelist friend who proudly thumped his black leather Bible with a smug “If it’s in the Word, then I believe it. This is the only book I need” — ultimately, a few things that we MUST believe, and much of what we SHOULD believe (sound doctrine, Gr. “didascalia” (cf. 2 Tim. 4:3, and esp. Titus 1:9 and 2:1)) actually require some interpretation.

    So we are back to conciliarity, for that is where clarification and proper instruction originate.

    THANKS BE TO GOD that the most essential message — that Jesus the Christ died for our sins that we might be saved and restored to relationship thru Him with himself, the Father, and the Holy Spirit — on this, Holy Scripture is wonderfully clear in the plain language.

    Finally, Fr. Jonathan, your concluding comment re baptism and communion clarifies that, as a young man and before baptism, I was wrong to take communion before my believer’s baptism at age 15. I was raised in a very solid Baptist church, and understood, even from the words of institution, that what I believed was all that really mattered. This of course makes sense if you believe that the sacraments are ONLY symbolic, as do those in Baptistic traditions. But even if it were sound doctrine, we don’t do people any favors by not requiring testimony of belief (their parents’ in the case of child baptism, and their own in the case of Communion) before welcoming them to the sacraments. (I hope my still-growing Anglican belief is right on the child baptism part; this is they way the Presbyterians put it and on this I think they make it pretty clear and get it right).

  4. Jon Parks says:

    Thanks for this post, Fr. Jonathan.

  5. MichaelA says:

    Thanks for this article. Well argued, and timely.

  6. Joshua says:

    I enjoyed reading your article and really everything you post is fantastic and rings with truth. I am a convert to the Episcopal Church from the Wisconsin synod Lutherans. I converted mostly because Conciliarity could not be denied where as a confessional Lutheran I was always asking myself “Is this really what the Bible teaches?” However, I am not to happy with what I am seeing in many Episcopal Churches. I do believe that classical Anglicanism is the truth but I find that few Episcopal Churches have that truth. I am a member of a Traditional Anglican Parish with forward in faith north America (fifna). If it were not for this I would probably still be a Lutheran or maybe even Orthodox. Do you think the Anglicans will ever be classical? At this point many are allowing non celibate homosexuals to be ordained. Part of me thinks we should join ACNA. What are your thoughts on this? Thank you for everything you are doing, your an inspiration. Sola Fide.

    • Joshua says:

      This is my Churches teaching from their webpage: “Receiving Holy Communion
      By receiving Holy Communion, we give our Solemn Assent, our “Amen,” to the entire Anglican Eucharistic Service. We express our belief that the Eucharist is a spiritual sacrifice which must be administered by a bishop or a priest whose ministry derives in succession from the Apostles themselves. We express also our faith in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. Because of the seriousness of these affirmations, this Church does not presume to invite those who in good faith cannot yet accept these beliefs to compromise their conscience by receiving Holy Communion at our Altar. It is for these reasons that we are not an “open Communion” Church. Those who do so believe, and who have been confirmed by a Bishop in Apostolic Succession, and who are spiritually prepared, are welcome to receive Holy Communion.

      Preparation for Holy Communion generally takes the form of private prayers. In many Anglican parishes, those physically able to do so refrain from eating ordinary food prior to morning Communion, or for three hours prior to an evening Communion.”

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Joshua. I responded to this a day or so ago, but it appears that the comment didn’t post. I appreciate your comment and your questions. I’ve written about the state of the Episcopal Church here:

  7. Daniel says:

    Interesting discussion. In my experience Episcopal churches invite any baptized Christian to receive and make no mention of holding to a certain eucharistic theology. And it seems to me that there are in fact several different eucharistic theologies out there that all claim to be “Anglican.” Is there some rule that these churches are breaking by inviting all baptized Christians – or are you arguing that there is not but their should be?
    I’m a United Methodist presbyter and we too have some variety of practice – after the Great Thanksgiving and Lord’s Prayer, I tend to say something along the lines of “All [baptized] Christians who seek to meet with the presence and grace of Christ at this table are welcome to receive” – of course for us there is a liturgical invitation that is said before the confession as well inviting those “who love Christ and repent of their sins.” Our “official interpretation” document (This Holy Mystery) says that baptized communicants is and should be the norm but if someone presents himself who is unbapitzed (and we actually knew this ahead of time) we should serve him the sacrament and then seek to discuss with him the importance of being baptized. There are some of our theologians who seem to be arguing that our table should be “utterly open” with no regard whatsoever as to whether someone is baptized, though that seems completely out of keeping with the Tradition all the way back to the Didache.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Daniel,

      You are correct that the invitation made in the Episcopal Church today is to all baptized Christians. I don’t think that’s wrong. On its face, it acknowledges the necessity of Baptism and also the necessity of faith. But not everyone interprets it that way. I think it would be more helpful if we gave some degree of explanation of what it means to be a Christian, including the need to believe what Jesus says in the Scriptures, like where He says for instance, “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood.” That does not mean that there isn’t room for a certain amount of diversity in our understanding of the Eucharist. It’s a mystery and all we know for sure is what Scripture has revealed about it. Nevertheless, at a minimum that means acknowledging that through our reception of the same that we truly receive Christ’s Body and Blood, that it is not simply a memorial.

  8. While I accept Jesus Real Presence (in, around, under, over, through) the bread and wine (Luther’s early, undefined views make sense to me–Jesus said it, I believe it…) I have a hard time accepting the idea that those who do not perceive this mystery (or who haven’t really thought about it…which may be most) are either not receiving holy communion with Christ, or are doing so irreverently.

    Do we really believe our evangelical, independent, Baptist, Presbyterian et al. brethren are NOT taking communion–because they have the wrong thinking about it? That would seem to return to the idea that faith is in our minds…

    To me it is a bit like light. Symbolists who do take communion seriously–and obey (as much as they understand) Paul’s warnings in I Cor. 11, apprehend the light of Jesus presence, even if dimly–even while their minds may tell them its only a memorial…a stark symbol. Orthodox Real Presence folk apprehend things more clearly–even though its the nature of mystery to only apprehend and not comprehend things of God.

    One side loses some blessing because of its blurry, dim sight, the other is blessed more fully by knowing with more clarity and detail God’s revelation of Himself. BOTH however have a level of communion with our Lord. To deny communion to those who only have a Zwinglian view, I think is to rend the Church again, as as Marburg–and turn people away from the light, emanating from Jesus Himself–even while their vision is yet dim.

    “Let the little children come unto me, forbid them not” applies to adults too, perhaps especially.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Ralph,

      In terms of memorialist church bodies, the issue isn’t so much what the individual who is receiving believes, or even what the individual pastor believes, but what the Church teaches. If the church body itself says that there is no real presence, that affects how communion is celebrated, what words are used, what action is taken. Moreover, in almost all of these cases, we are talking about church bodies that have abandoned the historic orders of ministry. None of this is to say with absolute assurance that these folks are not receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, but merely to state that there is an unknown element about the whole thing. It seems to me to be infinitely better to be with those who teach unambiguously that Christ means what He says, rather than to hope for the best amongst those who teach unambiguously that He doesn’t.

  9. Stephen says:

    A policy of ambiguity and vagueness with something as essential as Communion is bunkum.
    Blathering on and on with the intent of finding ways to open Communion up to anyone and everyone is also bunkum.
    In 1st John chapt. 6, when the Jews who were listening to Jesus were clearly stupified, Jesus made no attempt to soften what he said, no attempt to correct misunderstandings. He did not say, ‘Hold up, Brothers! Of course you can take that metaphorically if you want too, OK?’
    He stuck to His statement and even challenged his elect as to whether they would also leave.

    Paul confirms this in Corinthians :
    “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”
    So when we receive Communion, we actually participate in the body and blood of Christ, not just eat symbols of them.
    Paul also said, “Therefore whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. . . . For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself”

    How can one be held to such standards for participating in something that is merely symbolic?

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      I believe you mean John 6, not 1 John 6. This comment is a bit off topic. I’ll allow it to stand but please remember to try to stick to the topic of the post. There is a whole series of posts on the Eucharist that you can find in the sidebar.

  10. Stephen says:

    Yes, I meant John 6. (Sorry.)
    That being said, it eemed to me that the topic had progressed to how requirements had changed in the Anglican Church (one even commenting that they couldn’t believe that Communion was being allowed to unbaptized), as well has how Communion is viewed in other Denominations.
    Comments were made about Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, after all.
    If I crossed a line, perhaps it was because the line had already become blurred.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      My apologies. I get all the comments in one feed for the whole site, and when I read your comment earlier I thought it was on the Justification thread. Your comment was fine here.

  11. Stephen says:

    It’s quite alright. I’m sure you have your hands full.
    And didn’t I read where you have a new born in home now as well?
    Been there, done that, so I assure you, I understand.

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