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Administering Holy Eucharist to the unbaptized.

25 August 2010


Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas discusses in an essay, linked below, the relationship that exists between the two sacraments of Baptism and holy Eucharist. From the earliest days the Church has understood that ontological changes are made by the sacraments in those who receive them; changes aiding the Christian toward an increasingly closer relationship with God. In light of the ongoing debate in the Episcopal Church over the increasing practice of administering communion to unbaptized people I would like to offer for your consideration the following excerpts from Zizioulas: 

“But Baptism includes another element. It is not only the death of the past -which is thenceforth abolished- but also the Resurrection into a new life, which new life however is expressed (and this is a very important point which is very often overlooked) with our incorporation into the Body of the Church. There can be no Baptism, which does not automatically entail incorporation into the Body of the Church. “ 

“…it is of vital importance to insist that Baptism, the Chrism and the Divine Eucharist constitute a unified and inseparable liturgical unity.” 

“Our criterion is that we undergo an ontological change; that a person must enter a new relationship with the world. One cannot be baptized and yet distance himself from experiencing the Community of the Church; this is why Baptism simultaneously signifies a placement within the Community of the Church and participation in the Divine Eucharist.” 

“…What is important with regard to the Eucharist experience is that man now enters into a relationship with others and the world in general, with Christ as its center. The Church has, at her center, the Body of him who overcame death, and this victory over death that the risen Christ possesses is the same victory from whence life springs for all members of the Church. This Christ-centeredness of the Divine Eucharist is what makes it different from every other experience that the faithful (or people in general) may have. There is nothing so Christ-centered as the Divine Eucharist. There is no other experience that the faithful can have, which is so directly associated to the corporeal presence of the risen Christ.” 


Many parishes in the Episcopal Church have begun the novel practice of allowing people who have not been baptized to receive Holy Communion. This practice of Communion without Baptism is contrary to The Episcopal Church’s Canon Law. What Canon Law does allow for however is that ANY baptized person regardless of their denominational affiliation may receive communion in the Episcopal Church. The practice that is permitted by the canons is itself quite lenient compared to the Eucharistic discipline of some other churches. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches restrict communion to their own members only, while the Missouri Synod Lutherans refuse communion even to non-Missouri Synod Lutherans. Be that as it may, the Episcopal Church canon is apparently too restrictive for the tastes of many Episcopal clergy, who regard a radical form of “hospitality” to be of a much greater value. 

Reading the quotes from Zizioulas in this context, we might want to ask ourselves a question, which is this: “Are we basically just individuals who associate with other individuals, for one reason or another, or can we more correctly be seen as persons who are shaped by our membership in a community?” If the answer is the later, then belonging is of essential importance. I think that the later is the answer that the vast majority of Christians would have given over the course of the Church’s two millennia of history. 

In the post-Enlightenment setting that America finds itself in, most of us have been shaped to some extent by a ideology of radical individualism. For those shaped in that context the difference between real community and a mere association of individuals can be a difficult one to fully appreciate. Inviting someone to receive the Holy Communion regardless of “where they are on their spiritual journey” is an act that puts all of it’s emphasis on the individual rather than on the fact that all those belonging to the Church are members of one another with both responsibility for, and accountability to others in the Body. The Church will not find itself able to counter the deceitful and damaging ideology of radical individualism if it is reinforcing that very ideology when it is celebrating it’s central communal practice, the sacrament of Holy Communion. 

To borrow from Rowan Williams manner of speech, It is in the sacraments that the Body of Christ “happens”. In Baptism a new member of the body is made so by the member’s incorporation into the whole. In the Holy Eucharist the Body of Christ is at work in several different ways. Holy Eucharist is the feast by which we remember the life, death, and resurrection of the one whose historical body was broken for us. It is the place in which the bread and the wine become for us the body and blood of Christ. And it is the feast by which its members are fed. “In these holy mysteries we are made one with Christ, and Christ with us; we are made one body in him, and members one of another” (page 316, 1979 Book of Common Prayer). 

Augustine of Hippo said, “Behold what you are. Become what you see: the Body of Christ, beloved of God. ” And Augustine also added that when we receive the body of Christ along with the bread and wine, we do not so much transform that food into our bodies as we are transformed by it into Christ’s glorious body. 

We can say therefore, that participation in the Holy Eucharist is not simply about experiencing God’s consolation. It is that, but it is so much more as well. It is an essential part of our conversion process on the way to what the Eastern Orthodox tradition calls theosis: our being made capable of being “partakers of the divine nature”(2 Peter 2:4), capable of bearing the absolute love, goodness, joy, and beauty of God. 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 29 August 2010 9:34 pm

    Here is the link to the Zizoulas Article that I promised but failed to include:

  2. Dave permalink
    29 March 2012 9:57 am

    Zizioulas is among my few favorite modern theologians.

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