For all looking for a current state of the question on the development of some of what I discuss below, I recommend The Origin of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons by Paul Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson.
The question of receiving Holy Communion without being baptized (CWOB) as rubric, that is as constituent of who we are as Episcopalians continues to vex us. Up front, I have to say that I find this practice gravely theologically deficient as a practice. The claim that there is an exclusivity otherwise, is I think, specious because all may be baptized, and indeed, we are commanded to go to all peoples and invite and do so, that among every people we would find some living out of God's Life for the life of the whole. I think we continue to ask the wrong questions by focusing on theologically upending CWOB.
So, I want to reframe the question, necessary in a changed contextual reality--post-Christendom. The question is about Holy Baptism. What is our practice of invitation?
Baptism has been greatly recovered as the ever-ground out of which we participate (and grow) in the Life of God—“indissoluble” "bond" as our Prayer Book notes. One of the great unspoken influences on our Prayer Book renewal is F.D. Maurice. He shifted Anglican thinking muchly, drawing upon Luther among others to move us beyond an event understanding of this Sacrament. Moment by moment, day by day, we return to our baptism, God’s adopting us as children in the community as our lasting identity. Baptism is not a mere one-time event as F.D. Maurice reminds us, it is our proper existence before God and once done is not back there but right now. Nothing can separate us from this bond God does for us as pure gift. Our nourishment and deepening in this baptismal existence is by Holy Communion. To jump the shark, so to speak, and make CWOB as policy, leaves the unbaptized person guessing about her or his adoption, about her or his lasting identity. The desire for Christ as the invitation to communion, as is the CWOB rubric, is a desire, best constructed, that is not solidified once-for-all not by us, but by God through the community. No words, no mark, no cleansing and rebirth by water has touched, soaked, wrapped, slaked, drowned the person. The classic Western Invocation (In the Name of the Father, and + of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit) could mean little, where to the received, it means adoption irrevocably, not matter what, including what is always true, that we are sinners and need God. Repentance is return to our baptismal existence. The official practice of CWOB, it could be claimed, is a form of a docetic sacramentality (an oxymoron, I know) because it denies the need for matter, for created things mediating, in our being adopted. It suggests that sin has not wreaked havoc on us, fragmenting us, and leading us to live lives as if we are not God's human creatures.
It is not that such a one, an unbaptized person, is not beloved of God. On the contrary, as Maurice reminds us, Jesus came to his own. In so doing, Maurice draws together the intimate connection of creation and redemption. Yes, Jesus came to his own—the Hebrew people particularly, but as is the case in Scripture, particularity always stands for the whole, so ultimately to all of humanity, and indeed the whole of creation. Nevertheless, we knew him not. It is we humans, as the Orthodox remind us, that have stepped outside the dance, and require the attention if all of creation is to experience healing, renewal, salvation. Being sinners, our receiving of being God’s own requires particular attention. This attention is Holy Baptism. God’s work on our behalf by water with Word and Spirit that we indeed receive and be indissolubly children, where children is a living out of this Life and growing more fully therefrom living for one another, general society, and all creatures. This is the human creature freed, again, drawing together our creation and our redemption—for the latter is who we are intended to be in the former.
So, before we begin to reframe the question, however, we need to dispel some historical truisms that may be getting in the way of our revisioning the practice of Holy Baptism in a post-Christendom Episcopal Church.
1) Catechesis—While mid-Twentieth Century historical research placed great weight on Apostolic Tradition and its recommendation of a three-year catechumenate, the document is now in question. The provenance of that document was once considered to be Roman. It is now likely to be read as of mostly Egyptian origin. The generalizing of its instructions to all of Fourth Century Christianity is now greatly questioned in light of a variety of practices and theologies within the orthodox range. After all, it is notable that Tertullian, of North African provenance, recommended a one-year approach. And we all know the famed passage from Acts and the Ethiopian Eunuch. The notion that somehow folks must have oodles of formation before being baptized is only one of several perfectly catholic notions. It may serve in some contexts and moments. I do not think it may best serve our own.
2) Pre-Baptismal Preparation—Coupled with a hard-and-fast thumb at Apostolic Tradition, our 1979 revision assumes that Triduum was to a tee the high feast for Christians that was later lost and that Lent contains and derives from a pre-baptismal preparation that includes the reception of the penitents. We now know that the Triddum, while on the Roman books may not have received as much attention always and everywhere in the Western Church(es) in practice. What is on the books cannot be assumed to be what was actually done. Indeed, most books carry on what was once done well past their use. We see hints of this (sadly) in the example of Rite I in our own time. Moreover, while in some places, Lent developed at least partially from a pre-baptismal, penitents receiving origin, it also developed as much from a post-baptismal Epiphany. Epiphany too has historically been a day for baptism (by the way, any Sunday is, and even any day as necessary). The baptismal theology that flows out of Epiphany is not one of penitence, but of deepening in the mind of Christ, that is, the light of Christ as adopted children. This after approach is very similar to St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s catechetical mystagogical approach. The Mysteries are unfolded in the undergoing and in follow up to having undergone them.
3) Terminology—Open Communion is the invitation of all who are baptized to receive Holy Communion. Communion Before Baptism occurs when unofficially or officially an unbaptized person receives and there is the hope that any receiving by a non-baptized person will lead to follow up to draw the person to receive God’s indissoluble embrace. CWOB is official policy of communing the unbaptized, and what I think actually happens in most cases of so-called Communion Before Baptism because we’re too shy to boldly proclaim the Good News and invite others in.
4) Inclusivity—Our Church denies no one the possibility of Holy Baptism. Inclusivity is a red herring, drawing on a simplistic read of certain Gospel stories of meals that conflates Holy Communion with these. I am reminded of the rabbinic story of God searching the earth for a people to take up the covenant and commandments. Only the Hebrews are willing to be chosen. Being chosen is not about being privileged, it is about precisely the opposite, about being called to serve. What is missing from conversations about inclusivity is that adoption, our being grafted into Christ, carries with it that same weight as the Covenant God has with our Jewish kin. Do invite without any sort of explanation of what the person is getting into seems dishonest. The invitation is to be included in God’s work in Christ Jesus, and that is no soft thing.
I’m accustomed to end my sermons by pointing to the Altar-Table in word and gesture, reminding folks of our life as receivers, our life as God’s in Christ. Perhaps it is time instead to point to the Font?
One possible solution for us to truly consider is to have regular invitation to Holy Baptism in Sunday liturgy. Folks have heard the Word proclaimed. They have heard the News expounded upon in Sermon—or so we hope, with the hard call this entails. Instead of these or similar words for invitation to Holy Communion as I have seen them in CWOB settings, “All who desire to draw near to Christ are welcome to receive communion,” why not use these words instead to lead folks to the Font? “All who are not yet baptized and who desire to receive Christ are welcome to come forward to be baptized.” And from there to the Altar-Table in a beautiful drawing together of the Sacraments as new-old catechetical approaches do. And instead of emphasizing pre-baptimal preparation, why not overlap this with or do instead post-baptismal teaching and mystagogy? At least then we maintain a catholic approach, if one different from the one we have emphasized in the last century.