The resolution that stoked perhaps the most vigorous online debate in advance of the 80th General Convention died in committee on Monday when the legislative committees on Prayer Book, Liturgy and Music of the House of Bishops and House of Deputies voted to take no action on it.
Resolution C028, endorsed by the Diocese of Northern California, requested the repeal of Canon I.17.7, which states: “No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.”
The resolution had been proposed at Northern California’s diocesan convention by Martin Heatlie, an 81-year-old former volunteer fireman and junior warden at Grace Church in Wheatland, California, which, he estimates, has 12 to 15 members. Heatlie learned about the canon while reading “Jesus Was an Episcopalian and You Can Be One, Too” by Chris Yaw in a Lenten book study, and decided that the best way to offer what he invariably refers to as “the holy meal,” to all comers was to eliminate this sentence entirely.
“This seemed like a manmade restriction that really shouldn’t be,” he said in a telephone interview. “The words of the Book of Common Prayer say ‘the gifts of God for the people of God,’ and I think the Episcopal faith thinks of everybody as the people of God. There’s nobody God excludes. So based on that, it just seems like everybody should be welcome to receive the holy meal.”
Heatlie’s reasoning was not persuasive to Bishop Megan Traquair who opposed the resolution at the diocese’s 2021convention, but it passed easily in the lay order, 117-81, and narrowly in the clergy order, 49-44.
The issue of “communion without baptism,” as opponents of the practice tend to call it or “open table” and “open communion” as its backers are more likely to say, has a charged history in Northern California, says the Rev. Jim Richardson, an alternate deputy. In the 1990s, a sheriff’s deputy who was the husband of then-Bishop Jerry Lamb’s secretary, was killed in the line of duty. Lamb presided at his funeral, and the church was full of law enforcement officers from around the region, Richardson recalls.
“And the bishop said, I can’t stand there and say only baptized Christians may come forward, I just can’t do that. And that’s why he always practiced an open table,” Richardson says.
Lamb’s practice rankled some of his clergy, a task force to study the matter was assembled, and debate Richardson describes as “rancorous” ensued. A survey conducted during this period indicated that more than half of the churches in the diocese already practiced some form of open table. Heatlie was not involved in these debates, but the passing of his resolution at the diocesan convention in the fall of 201 put him in the middle of a controversy that quickly extended beyond his diocese.
“I didn’t realize it would be such a hot topic,” Heatlie said.
The curiously worded resolution was initially submitted to General Convention as a Memorial, but memorials have no binding effect, and so the diocese’s action was recategorized as a resolution. It still, however, maintained wording that, had it passed, would not have repealed the canon, but only acknowledged the diocese’s request that it be repealed.
Neither the lack of efficacy nor what most convention observers believed was the exceedingly slim possibility that it would be enacted tamped down the online outcry that it created. The resolution was hotly debated on Facebook and Twitter where it roiled long-established online communities. Debate intensified in early May after Episcopal News Service covered the legislative committees’ first hearing on the resolution, at which no one outside of the Diocese of Northern California supported it.
Some on the commentary of the resolution suggested the church might be on the verge of a significant change in its teaching, but committee members were not of that opinion. Interviews and correspondence with five committee members, who spoke on background in order to speak freely, suggested that the only significant argument for sending the resolution to the floor of convention was made by those who thought its defeat should be visible.
Online argument about the resolution was receding when a group of 22 seminary faculty members released a letter that brought it back to life.
“While the precipitating cause of the statement is the proposed resolution C028 for General Convention to eliminate Canon I.17.7, our concern is broader than that,” wrote the faculty members—at least one from every Episcopal seminary except Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary.
Their statement, they said, arose from “the more pervasive sense that something has gone amiss in our collective sacramental theology when (1) Baptism is regarded by many as a barrier to participation in the Church; (2) the essential relationship between Baptism and Eucharist is ignored or forgotten; and (3) the Eucharist is regarded exclusively as a ‘meal’ on a ‘table’ and not also a ‘sacrifice’ on an ‘altar.’”
The church, they argued, “must reaffirm its commitment to Baptism as the foundational sacrament through which we become members of the Body of Christ and share in the life of grace; to the Eucharist as the repeatable element of the baptismal rite of initiation; and to an understanding of the Eucharist that holds together the equally necessary emphases of meal/table and sacrifice/altar.”
Their letter drew a response from a group of scholars, clergy and lay leaders that included Diana Butler Bass, the Very Rev. Gary Hall, former dean of Washington National Cathedral and Seabury-Western Seminary, and the Rev. Susan Russell, a longtime leader of the LGBTQ movement in the church.
Signers asked the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music “to consider replacing the language of the canon with a positive statement affirming that the fullest meaning of our Holy Eucharist is lived out through our Baptismal Covenant.”
They expressed a concern that “the language of the canon carries a tone of control and gatekeeping,” and made it sound “as if one sacrament — Baptism — is a dinner ticket to the other sacrament — Communion.” They also argued that the canon was “virtually unenforceable,” as no clergy check baptismal status at the altar rail, and no clergy have been disciplined under the existing canon.
The signers included Richardson, retired faculty members from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, and numerous clergy from the Diocese of Northern California. They also expressed concern that the 22 faculty members assert that “God’s people” are restricted only to the baptized.
“That assertion has a narrow, tribal tone that does not serve our church well,” they wrote.
While the online debate that followed included close scrutiny by each camp of the other’s principles and motives, Heatlie, who was not previously a participant in such debates, was straightforward about the experience that shaped his resolution.
Brought up without much exposure to religious teaching, he began to hunger for knowledge about God in his mid-30s. He, his wife and their three children began attending Trinity Episcopal Church in Folsom, California, and his wife, as the only baptized member of the family, was the only one who received Communion.
“This went on for several months,” he recalled, because the parish priest wanted to baptize Heatlie and his children at the Easter Vigil. “I was dedicated enough to stay with it,” he says. But he did not find the experience a welcoming one. “It’s not natural to exclude people from the holy meal,” he says.
Nathan Brown, a lay member of the Diocese of Washington says he respects Heatlie’s “very sincere beliefs,” but he testified against the resolution and has opposed it in online debate.
“We have a sacramental theology and we need to be faithful to it,” says Brown, a former Roman Catholic seminarian. “But we need to do a better job of not making people feel unwelcome.”
The questions, he says are “What can we do to better educate people as to what we believe?” and “How can we make baptism more accessible?”
Making baptism more accessible is “the biggest hope I have,” he says.
In this he might find common ground with Richardson, who says his hope is to “reframe the conversation” around Canon I.17.7. “How do we really invite people to baptism and how do we invite them to the Lord’s table?” he asked. “How do we make this invitational instead of ‘Oh no, you cannot come unless you do this?’”
While a number of online opponents to Heatlie’s resolution said they hoped its defeat would lay the issue to rest, Brown says he found the debate helpful.
“It’s nice to hear all of the perspectives of the church,” he says. “We don’t do enough to take a deep dive into what we believe, and why it matters.”
In the end, after all the ardent debate, committee members decided not to disturb the peculiar balance that currently pertains in the church in which Communion is limited by canon to the baptized; Communion to those who have not been baptized is widely practiced; no one is brought up on charges for violating this canon; and most of the church seems at ease with that.
“The committee clearly did not want to advance controversial proposals at this truncated convention, and this is no surprise,” Richardson wrote on his Facebook page after the unanimous votes to take no action on the resolution. “We learned a lot, and we may come up with something better for 2024.”
In the meantime, the trajectory of Resolution C029 of the 2012 General Convention submitted by the Diocese of North Carolina in 2012 continues to be illustrative. It arrived at convention directing the presiding bishop and the president of the House of Deputies to “appoint a special commission charged with conducting a study of the theology underlying access to Holy Baptism and Holy Communion in this Church” that could recommend possible amendments to Canon 1.17.7.
After a lengthy debate on “pastoral sensitivity,” a flurry of amendments and a series of procedural maneuvers, it passed reading as follows: “The 77th General Convention reaffirms baptism as the entry point for receiving Holy Communion.”