Committees hear testimony on canonical language requiring baptism to receive Communion

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Apr 11, 2024

The Rev. James Richardson, bottom right, a deputy from the Diocese of Northern California, answers a question from the Rev. Melissa Adzima of Colorado, bottom left, a member of the House of Deputies Prayer Book, Liturgy and Music Committee, during a hearing on April 10. Watching on the Zoom screen are the chair of the deputies’ committee, the Ven. Stannard Baker of Vermont, upper left, and  the Rev. Cynthia Black of Newark, upper right, a committee member who served as timekeeper.

[Episcopal News Service] The General Convention legislative committees on Prayer Book, Liturgy & Music on April 10 held their first hearing, where bishops and deputies heard testimony on three resolutions, including one dealing with the language in Canon I.17.7 requiring that a person be baptized before receiving Communion.

That canon says, “No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.”

Resolution D002, which was proposed by the diocesan convention of Northern California, calls for the church’s main liturgical body to consider language that keeps the requirement but frames it in a more positive light, which could mean changing “no unbaptized person shall be eligible” to “all baptized persons are eligible.”

The General Convention is the governing body of The Episcopal Church. Every three years it meets as a bicameral legislature dividing its authority between the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops and composed of members from each diocese. Legislative committees include parallel committees of deputies and of bishops, which, though distinct, typically meet and deliberate together. If members vote to recommend it, Resolution D002 will be considered by the 81st General Convention when it meets in Louisville, Kentucky, June 23-28.

The Rev. James Richardson, a Northern California member of the House of Deputies, told the committee that D002 is not a repeat of one his diocese proposed in 2022 – C028 – that asked the convention to repeal Canon I.17.7. That resolution was rejected by the House of Bishops so was not considered by the House of Deputies.

The proposal this year, Richardson said, is different in that it asks the church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to look at Canon I.17.7 and decide two things: if the requirement for baptism before receiving Communion even belongs in the canons and, if it does, to consider proposing a “positive pastoral statement” there; and to create “a generous pastoral and invitational rubric” about baptism to be added to the Book of Common Prayer’s Communion rites.

He said in proposing this resolution, Northern California’s convention wanted to meet a “spirit of hospitality” around this issue while “respecting baptism as the gateway to the Holy Eucharist.”

Another Northern California deputy, the Rev. Robin Denney, assured the committee Resolution D002 “is not open Communion, nor does it propose open Communion, but rather invites the church to a deeper conversation.”

She said she hopes the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music could use language that maintains baptism as the “normative entry point” to Communion while offering a more positive phrasing. Rather than beginning with the word “no,” she suggested the language might be changed to a more positive, “All baptized persons are eligible to receive Holy Communion in this church.”

Four people who spoke against the resolution said they did so because they want to be certain baptism before receiving Communion remains the norm across The Episcopal Church. Joshua Maria Garcia noted that many of his 26,000 followers on TikTok are, like him, young converts to Christianity and sometimes to The Episcopal Church. While these young people overwhelmingly are liberal about social issues, he said they retain a sense of liturgical conservatism.

Shruti Kulkarni, a student at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin, said that before she became a Christian and was baptized, she attended churches where she nonetheless was invited to receive Communion. While she could have refused, she said she received “to be polite” but felt that no matter what the priest had said, the sacrament “was not meant for me.”

Nathan Brown, a deputy from the Diocese of Washington, said he had found nothing in “either sacred tradition or in reason” favoring a change to the practice of baptism before Communion. Kevin Miller, a deputy from the Diocese of Massachusetts, said changing this practice would “fly in the face of almost 2,000 years of church tradition.”

Resolutions to clarify or change the church’s position around baptism before Communion also were considered by General Convention in 2006 and 2012.

The committees will again consider and hear testimony on Resolution D002 at a future online hearing.

—Melodie Woerman is a freelance reporter based in Kansas.