Baptism versus Communion


In traditional Anglican theology there are two sacraments and five sacramental rites. The two sacraments are baptism and communion.

Of late, the sources of our theology in the Episcopal Church has been dominated by a repeated invocation of the baptismal covenant as the justification of much of what we are doing.

But I’ve been struck by the thought that there might be a creative tension present between being a baptism centered church and being a communion centered church. (Kind of like the tension between the priestly and prophetic functions in Israel.)

I wonder if it would be useful to think through what we might gain by insisting on a return to an equal weight between the sacraments? I’ve been meditating on the connections and disconnections between the communion language of patristic writers and the covenant language of the reformers of late. I’m wondering if some of those might be reflected in a tension between a spiritual life dominated by a focus on baptism vs a focus on communion…

Not sure what to do with the idea, or if there’s any fruit to be borne from it, but perhaps y’all might have some ideas.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. I would say no, that this distinction is too neat. Hooker is fairly clear that Baptism is as much about communion as Eucharist, and that communion first and foremost is being brought into the life of the Trinity.

  2. The issue that I would have with this is that, if we are not able to participate in one, would that mean that we could not participate in all? Would there potentially be that inference?

  3. Thanks Christopher – that’s truly helpful in getting me to be more clear about what I mean. I completely agree with you that the two are inextricably bound – and should be taught as so.
    My wondering is whether the over-emphasis on the baptismal covenant in episcopal popular theology of late might not have unintended consequence that we haven’t thought through. And as a thought-experiment I’m thinking about what a similar over-emphasis about communion might look like, and then to see if that situation might help us see if we have in fact over done the baptismal side. (A liturgical/theological gedanken experiment I guess.)

  4. David Casey says

    I believe the emphasis on the baptismal covenant stems from the premise that we are all put on the same playing field, for we are all marked as “Christ’s own forever.” The over-emphasis on the baptismal covenant may make us more reactionary, in a progressive sense. The secular version would be an activism for progressive social issues.
    The over-emphasis on communion would lead us in the opposite direction, where change in the status-quo is even more difficult than what it is now, even when change is warranted.
    Emphasis on one end would then seem to produce a type of chaos which could prove unhealthy in the long run, and emphasis on the other would produce a stasis with just an unhealthy result. If the two are held in tension and given equal weight, the result would, theoretically at least, by a healthy dynamism.
    This is probably a gross oversimplification, and I am probably wayyyyyy off in some of my thinking, but this is what my instinct says.

  5. ruidh says

    Communion only has power if you can control who gets it and who doesn’t get it. Excommunication is the power to withhold God. We’ve systematically dismantled the power of Communion. We practice and open table. We give communion to children. We’ve made it difficult for a priest to refuse communion. There is even a movement afoot to share communion with the unbaptized. We freely give away the power.
    With communion waning, baptism is in the ascendancy. Instead of baptizing anyone who shows up at the church, as we once did, we now expect parents to attend classes and even expect them to live up to the promises they make. We even do commissioning services for all kinds of offices which are roughly based on the baptismal rite.
    The only way to rebalance the rites is to reassert the power of communion. We would have to have reassert stricter limits on communion. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

  6. Gosh ruidh – that’s a great point. I hadn’t thought about the contrast between the way we’re lowering the wall for people to participate in eucharist, and raising it for baptism.
    You’re absolutely right, the two are on a seesaw aren’t they…

  7. Jeremy Warnick says

    This is an interesting idea. One of the things I have noticed in my shorter time in the church (30+ years) is that access to both Baptism and Communion has become easier. We have done away with much of the gatekeeping even moving so far as to do away with altar rails in many places. For many communities, mine included, Baptism is no longer the entry way into Communion. I sense that this is more what Jesus may have intended.
    What would a rebalancing or return to a greater emphasis on Communion look like? One of the challenges is to determine what sort of Eucharistic theology and liturgical practice we might emphasize. Are we talking about a more Patristic understanding where it was clear that Baptism was an essential prerequisite for Communion? Are we thinking of a more medieval Eucharistic theology where even non-communcating masses were frequent? Or, are we thinking of a post-liturgical renewal movement Eucharistic theology that emphasizes the communal meal aspect and celebrates a more immanent expression of the Sacramental presence of Christ? Or perhaps what would a post-modern post-liturgical movement Eucharistic theology that claims to be more Patristic like that of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco do for our re-balancing?
    I do believe that our tendency to encourage autonomy through the ministry of the baptized may be having the unintended consequence of encouraging the kind of fractured communion in which the Anglican Communion now finds itself. Why is it, for example, that those Primates and clergy who feel most threatned by those Primates and clergy who accept the full ministry of GLBT Christians will often avoid worship and making Communion with those with whom they disagree? How un-Eucharistic of a theology is that?

  8. Jeremy Warnick says

    Having just read Nick’s response to ruidh, I do wonder though if we are really raising the wall for Baptism? In many communities in which I have lived, we have baptized first and discipled later. This is quite different than the Patristic practicve of the catachumenate.

  9. Hmmm, it might be appropriate to draw a distinction between the sacrament of baptism and the baptismal covenant. They go together in TEC, but I hear that isn’t the case elsewhere.
    The focus I’ve seen in TEC seems like it leans more heavily on the covenant, especially the parts that reiterate our Christian duty to act in the world, than on the words and actions at the center of the rite of baptism. Perhaps, therefore, we should look at it as more of a tension between our obligation to work in the world for peace and justice, our obligation to proclaim God explicitly, and our obligation to worship God (through/in connection with/in? I’m not quite sure what the right word is) the sacraments.
    If the tension were really between the sacraments of baptism and communion it seems to me that it would be a tension between emphasizing the alreadiness of God’s grace and the need to constantly renew our reception of Christ as time passes. If we place the emphasis to heavily on baptism my expectation is that it would encourage people to be less careful about self-criticism and encourage people to view the church as unneccesary, while an overemphasis on eucharist could lead to reactionary conservation of the institution of the Church and a rather superstitious sort of faith that looks to magic words and actions to make everything all right.

  10. I think you would need to do at least the following liturgical comparative work:
    Compare baptismal covenants from other parts of the Anglican tradition with our own. And compare our present covenant with our past usages in the U.S. What are the similarities, differences, theologies involved? How have they been understood and what are the controversies surrounding them? How are we enjoined to live, respond in the world? Our present language speaks of justice. At the least that means those we don’t want to hear from have the possibility of saying “you’re hurting us”? Do other versions have this? Given our history as a colonial church and tradition? What do we mean by justice and who decides? Are the voices we’re making decisions about consulted in our discussions about what justice might look like?
    How is the covenant being used? It seems to me that some folks determine that the covenant is primarily in terms of how we are to be in the world, are secular, as does the presumption of the latest bishops’ statement, but is that reasonable or Christian? I don’t divide the sacred and secular, and recognize God can be at work in both the church and in society; I also don’t think that the church should be immune from reflection upon its own life and how we treat one another, which seems to be the implication lately. Volf asks questions about ecclesial rights necessary because we are not in the Eschaton and thus must protect others from abuse and more importantly protect the Body from making a spoilation of the gifts others bring to the community. We don’t ask the fruits of our current teachings on others, though I think there is ample evidence and multiple studies in this regard in the psychological field, nor how we are spoiling gifts? Why not?
    There is a plethora of communion ecclesiologies on the market from nearly a century of reflection beginning in Eastern Orthodoxy
    Zizioulas and Ratzinger, come to mind. The greatest danger is a tendency to disappear the personal and particular into what is good for the whole, or to divorce prophetic and priestly. Both are the Office of Christ; both proclaim the gospel. Miroslav Volf’s After Our Likeness is a great place to begin to see the end of that theological movement while he provides a reconstruction that is quite interesting.
    I would say the danger of a communion approach is suggesting that we can ourselves maintain communion of our own accord or suggest that unity and communion are eschatologically fully worked out together or equivalent without standards of the Holy Trinity in the relationship among the persons and how Jesus relates to us as Church and individually members therein. Our history is filled with lots of emphasis on communion while treating one another as we wouldn’t wish to be treated if we were those others. And having very little by which to make a correction beyond some kind of explosion of conflict in our life together.
    I think we need to step back a bit further than this to reexamine what we mean by these things:
    relationship of these to law
    how have our Divines (like Hooker) understood law
    I’ve written a number of posts recently following the latest bishops’ statement. After each round, I continue to ask myself what theological grammar or language we even share anymore beyond the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which itself is controverted by some of our greatest Divines (especially in terms of the episcopate as esse rather than bene esse of the church). I don’t know what we seem to mean by gospel anymore, and that isn’t just those on the left (justice/inclusion) or right (purity), but center (unity). We seem to be preaching something other than what I understood to be the Good News of Jesus Christ.
    At least among Lutherans, I know that I will need to grapple with Scripture, Luther, the Confessions, and though our interpretations may disagree, there’s a commonality. Articles? Historical here and elsewhere. Prayerbook within a common family? Not since the new prayerbooks of the mid-Twentieth century. Catechism? I’ve never heard a priest use it. Our best Divines: Hooker, Taylor, Jewel, etc. Doesn’t seem so.
    What do we share in terms of hermeneutics in how we read Scripture, for example? Little. And though I would read them through the Creeds, which tell me everything about salvation and in Whom I have faith, others read Scripture and want me to follow every jot and tittle while making excuses for themselves in all manner of complex ways…Paul makes clear in Galatians, it’s either all or nothing if we want to read in that way. Hooker seems to come to similar conclusions in dealing with the Puritans.

  11. Yeah. . . I went and looked at what the old prayer books in the US and the CoE had in the way of a baptismal covenant, and it was all limited to “Do you renounce the devil?”, “Do you believe the Apostles Creed?”, “Are you willing to get baptized?”, and “Will you obey God?”. Of course they said it in fancier ways, but none of the older books expanded on what it meant to obey God.

  12. Like Christopher, I’ll probably be posting on this at my place soon.
    IMO, the problem isn’t an equal balance of the dominical sacraments. Rather we’ve lost the sense of how both of them call us the discipleship which is fundamentally about obedience.

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