I have been visiting a lot of churches in the past few months and as a Roman Catholic visiting Churches not in communion with Rome, I have had to respectfully decline the communion plate and cup, an action that sometimes causes offense. These visits have forced me to think about the problem intercommunion among Christians and why it is good to refrain from partaking in the body and blood of Christ together until we are actually in communion.
I have visited, among others, a lot of Anglican churches recently, and in Anglican churches, right before communion is shared, the celebrant almost always says that all baptized Christians are welcome to the table; I have noticed that if it is a small congregation and the minister notices my unfamiliar face, he or she will inevitably offer this invitation. And when I refrain from going up for communion, a parishioner almost always comes up to me and says, “You know, everyone is welcome as long as you are baptized.” (At least, there is still requirement of baptism; some churches have even done away with that.) I usually respond with, “I know. Thank you.”
Occasionally, I have noticed that the priest or parishioner takes offense at my refusal to come to the communion table. They think I have rejected them; they probably assume that as a Roman Catholic, I am rejecting the validity of their Eucharist.
My decision to refrain has nothing to do with validity or lack thereof. During many non-Catholic services, I have experienced the same sense of the presence of God that overshadows me during the celebration of the mass at a Catholic Church. I don’t really doubt that God is here. But that does not change the fact that we are divided.
In a recent conversation with an Anglican priest, I asked whether we should not confess the same faith before sharing the body and blood. She said, “yes, but we do. We believe in the Nicene Creed.” This is a problematic reduction of confession of the same faith. Certainly, if all that is necessary is confession of the Nicene Creed, then there was no need for reformations and counter-reformations and the multiplicity of Christian confessions cacophonously claiming access to a more perfect understanding of God’s revelation. Presumably, these divisions exist because there are consequential differences between us; differences that have great impact on our faith and morals. Is the Pope infallible? Are you saved once and for all by saying the sinner’s prayer? Can one remarry after divorce? These differences must be worked out before we can honestly say we confess the same faith.
By partaking in Holy Communion together before doing this important work, we are shirking the responsibility of truly being one in Christ. Recently, an Anglican woman told me, “We don’t really talk about what we believe. We assume that we believe the same thing.” This is not oneness in Christ. This is a superficial gathering at the table; it is lazy. Instead of working towards Christian unity, it mocks it with indifferentism.
A few months ago, I attended a beautiful service at an Orthodox Church. And while the parishioners went up for communion, I knelt, mourning. I knelt knowing that Christ was indeed present and I could not receive Him, not until I have resolved my problem with my brothers and sisters. And so I did the only appropriate thing, I wept. I did not dream of avoiding the actual tragedy of Christian disunity by claiming a right to come to the table, nor by pretending that there were no real differences between us, nor did I dare feel rejected, as if the whole thing, the centuries of Christian strife was about me.
Weeping. That is what I disunity demands. We must start by weeping. It is this very need to weep that intercommunion avoids. When we refrain from partaking in communion together, we remind ourselves that there is a tear that needs to be mended. If we partake at the same table, what need is there to mend anything? Intercommunion must be the end of our ecumenical dialogue, not the beginning.
Furthermore, there are a good pastoral reasons for not offering communion to those not in your tradition. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul cautions us against the kinds of reception of the body and the blood that brings judgment to oneself (1 Cor. 11:29). In the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, there has always been an understanding that one cannot come to the table when one has serious, unconfessed sin in her life. This is not unique to these traditions, even evangelical reformers like John Wesley, were known to have asked people to refrain from the communion table unless they were repentant.
Unfortunately, given the disagreement among Christians about what constitutes sin and repentance, the discernment about whether one is prepared to receive communion can only occur within that particular tradition. When I walk into a protestant Church, it is possible that I may be unrepentant about something they consider sinful. Perhaps, the night before I walked into a particular Baptist Sunday service, I had had a few beers over a game of poker. I don’t consider that sinful but many Baptists do. Likewise, the protestant does not know whether I refrain from communion because I have acted in ways that I consider sinful. And if sin does not factor into reception of communion, then that church simply does not take communion seriously.
Lastly, when a baptized person walks into the door, even if she is trying earnestly to follow Christ, it does not follow that she knows a thing about the Nicene Creed, or that he does not have some misguided notions about sin. It is the responsibility of each Church to shepherd these seekers in the ways that they believe will lead them into greater union with Christ. By rushing every baptized person to the communion table, Protestants are not only avoiding the hard work of Christian unity, they may be endangering souls.