Another ecclesiastical squall seems to be brewing on the horizon, and that is whether the unbaptized should be allowed to receive Communion. In a collection of papers by a task force of the Diocese of Northern California (hat tip: Karen B.), I particularly liked a thoughtful essay by the Rev. John F. Mangels.
Hospitality as the Higher Value?
Fr. Mangels touches a chord in arguing that hospitality counted for more with Jesus than one's ecclesial status (emphasis added):
... But the Eucharist is where we are fed. It is a foretaste of the feast to come. It is a gathering of the family around the table.
In my family, when we gather around the table to eat, any guests are normally invited to join us. I wouldn’t think of asking someone to sit at the table with us and watch us eat. To do so would be extremely inhospitable. And whatever barriers we, as a church, may have put around this meal, I cannot imagine that Jesus would turn people away. That’s what the disciples wanted to do when they feared they would not have enough to go around. But Jesus would have none of it. He fed all those who came to him, without inquiring about their religious status.
For me, the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman is instructive. As I hear the story, his first inclination (the teaching of his tradition) was to tell the woman that as a non-Jew she did not qualify for his gifts. They were only for the children, not the dogs. After her response, I believe he saw her also as one of the children, and not a dog. I believe he reevaluated his received tradition. And as his follower, I believe I have been called to reevaluate my own received tradition – in order to be faithful to his example. His gifts are for all his people.
First Corinthians: Quoting Paul Out of Context
I understand the point of those who say that Communion is a state of union with Jesus and must be limited to those who have taken the step of coming forward to be baptized. Many who take this position rely explicitly on what I claim is a misunderstanding of Paul's views in 1 Corinthians 11:
27 Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. 32 When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.
Unfortunately, it looks to me as though this quotation is severely out of context. Here, Paul is not making an abstract theological statement in a vacuum about the nature of the Eucharist, nor about purity requirements for the Communion ritual. Quite the contrary: He is tackling an important, specific, practical task, namely chastising the Corinthians for their ungenerous spirit in coming to the Lord's Supper. Paul makes the meaning of "unworthy manner" crystal clear, two paragraphs before the passage quoted just above:
18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, 21 for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22 Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!
(Emphasis added.) And when Paul says in verse 29 that "anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself" (emphasis added), the context of that chapter and the next one makes it equally clear that "the body of the Lord" means the Body of Christ, that is, the other members of the church. In the very next passage, Paul sets out his famous metaphor about the parts of the body, leaving no doubt as to what he meant by "the body of the Lord":
12 The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
14 Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15 If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. ... 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. ...
(Emphasis added.) It's blindingly obvious that Paul's concern is not for the purity of the Communion ritual, but for the less-regarded members of the Body of Christ.
This still doesn't answer the question: When it comes to the Body of Christ, who is "in"? Paul does imply in verse 13 that it is baptism "by one Spirit" that makes us into one body. But that's not necessarily the same as ritual baptism with water. From an epistemological perspective, it's a very dangerous enterprise for us to presume to say who has and who has not been baptized by the Spirit.
So theologically and scripturally, I don't see a significant impediment to communion without baptism with water.
Pragmatism in Ecclesiology
Purely pragmatically, there's an argument to be made that Communion should be limited to those baptized with water. Differences in status based on achievement can be a great motivator. It can be useful to deliberately make the unbaptized feel left out, and thus — we hope — motivate them to take the plunge (no pun intended).
On the other hand, refusing hospitality to a visitor seeking it might be a real demotivator to them. Fr. Mangel sees pros and cons here too:
It is my belief that sharing our common meal with those who come to our table invites the seeker into deeper relationship with Jesus and that it can nourish the growth of faith. While I can give particular examples pro and con, it is my clear sense that this is what it tends to do. It models Jesus’ open hospitality and acceptance of sinners (among whom I include myself). It invites them into a deeper relationship with him. * * *
 As con examples, I am really thinking of people I know who have commented to me on how the difficulty of moving through the process of incorporation has made baptism more important or more meaningful to them.
What About the Canons?
On the merits, I like the statement of policy of Fr. Mangel's parish:
Everyone present this morning is welcome to receive Holy Communion. Jesus is our host, and he welcomes you. We believe that he is really present in the bread and wine, which become for us his Body and his Blood. It is expected that anyone who receives regularly will formalize their commitment to Jesus through the sacrament of baptism.
Unfortunately, this policy arguably flouts Canon 1.17.8 of the Episcopal Church: "No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church." Flouting the canons without a really, really good reason seems like a bad idea.
The lawyer in me says that maybe there's a way around this "prohibition," and that is by treating it, not as a prohibition, but as a declarative ontological statement: If a person who receives the consecrated bread and wine happens to be unbaptized, then what he receives simply is not Holy Communion (cf. also Paul's comment quoted above in 1 Cor. 11.20).
I confess that this strikes me as casuistry. Theologically, however, it's certainly no less plausible than the fanciful notion that the priest's consecration is what transforms bread and wine into ... whatever Communion is.
Clearly the best course would be for General Convention to change the canons.