Communion and the Broken Body

As the National Conference of Catholic Bishops puts it,

Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life, and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to Communion.

To put in the language of the street: Catholics have closed communion. Non-Catholics are not invited to the table (well, technically Eastern Orthodox Christians can receive communion in a Catholic Church, but even they “are urged to respect the discipline of their own churches” — which probably means in most circumstances they should not participate, because their own church has closed communion). If you are a Protestant, Anglican, Evangelical or post-denominational Christian participating in a Catholic mass, you are specifically expected not to receive the host or the precious blood.

It is not the purpose of this blog post to either defend or attack this doctrine. Perhaps it is a litmus test of whether one is a “traditional” or “progressive” Catholic, as to whether one agrees or disagrees with this matter of church teaching. But I do not wish to get into the dogfight, and I certainly lack the theological chops to make a persuasive argument one way or the other. All I can talk about is the evolution of my own experience in regard to this particular aspect of the Catholic faith. This evolution has undergone four stages: my “Protestant” phase, my “Pagan” phase, my “RCIA” phase, and where I am today. When I look at the arc of my personal spiritual journey, I suppose it is inevitable that I’ve ended up where I am now, but I sure didn’t see it coming beforehand.

1. When I was a Protestant (I grew up Lutheran, and then as a young adult became an Episcopalian) I thought that closed communion was wrong. As I saw it, this was one of the many ways in which Roman Catholicism had abandoned the gospel. I felt no compunction about receiving communion when I attended a Catholic mass, even though I knew that I was violating the teachings of the Catholic Church. I believed I was obeying a higher authority — basically, my conscience — which therefore freed me from any obligation to observe Catholic customs.

2. Eventually I abandoned Protestantism to explore Pagan spiritualities such as Wicca and Druidism. Initially, this meant that I no longer cared what the Catholic Church taught. I thought that Catholicism, like all forms of Christianity, were no longer relevant to my own spiritual practice. However, over the course of my sojourn within Paganism, as I learned more about mystery religions and the idea that some practices should only be engaged in by those properly initiated into them, I began to see the Catholic understanding of communion in a new light. Catholics denying communion to Protestants were no different from Wiccans who only allow initiates to participate in their full moon rituals. Since I accepted Wiccan teachings on initiation, why should I be judgmental of Catholic teaching? Indeed, I began to respect Catholicism for having clear boundaries.

3. After a crisis of faith eroded my interest in Paganism and I felt drawn to return to Christianity, I faced the question of whether I should return to Anglicanism or pursue another path. I pondered whether I should become a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Catholic. My interest in sacramental theology pretty much eliminated the Quaker and Unitarian options, and my desire to engage in monastic spirituality drew me toward Catholicism (although there is a monastic culture within the Episcopal Church, I live only 20 miles from a Catholic monastery, whereas the nearest Episcopal monastery is hundreds of miles away). So I entered RCIA, this time taking a humbler approach to Catholic teaching. I accepted the idea that the Eucharist is a sign of Christian unity, and that it is simply a violation of that sign for non-Catholics to receive communion. I refrained from receiving throughout my period of exploring Catholicism, first as a seeker and later as an RCIA candidate, and did not receive communion until after I was confirmed and formally received into the Catholic Church. So by this point I had done a complete about-face from where I stood as a Protestant: from contemptuously dismissing Catholic teaching, I had moved to fully accepting and upholding it.

4. We never really stand still, do we? It’s been over five years since I discerned an interest in becoming Catholic; over four years since I was confirmed. In that time I have immersed myself deeply into Catholic culture, working at a monastery bookstore and entering into formation as a monastic lay associate. I love Catholic spirituality and see it as a framework not only for my religious observance, but for living a good life. Still, I live in a part of the country where Catholics are in the minority, and so continue to have many non-Catholic friends. I’ve learned that many non-Catholics would dearly love to be invited to the Eucharistic feast, and — unlike me when I was a Protestant — won’t presume to come without being invited. Even more interesting, as I see it, is how so many Catholics are divided on the question. Some are vehement in their insistence that if anyone wants to receive Communion, they need to become a Catholic. Others feel that closed communion is a man-made rule, and that Jesus himself would never do such a thing. As I said above, I don’t really want to get involved in this fight, but I am fascinated to learn all the different sides of the argument.

But where am I? Here’s what I can say. Just last night I attended a church (I won’t say which one) that is not my home parish. I’ve been to this church before, and have enjoyed the priest there, who is rather playful and has a warm rapport with his congregation. At last night’s mass there was a Baptism, and many extended family members and friends were present. The priest chatted up these folks before mass, and many of them were non-Catholic. I was in the pew directly behind the baptismal party, so I heard it all.

When the time came for the passing of the peace, the family and friends of the little girl being baptized were all vigorously hugging one another — and even though I was a stranger, I got caught up in it too, getting more hugs during the passing of the peace than I ‘ve experienced since my Episcopal days. The family was all smiles, laughter, and joy.

And then the priest, his normal jovial manner suddenly absent, made this announcement: “Since we Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and believe that the Eucharist is a sign of our oneness in Christ, Protestants are not invited to receive communion. If you are not a Catholic and want to come forward anyway, just ask for a blessing.”

The atmosphere among the Baptismal party immediately changed. The smiles were gone, and everyone looked at each other, with questioning expressions on their faces. None of the non-Catholics went forward to “ask for a blessing.”

My heart was broken for these folks.

I know it’s church teaching, and I know the priest was only doing his job. Certainly he could have done it better — I think he should have asked the family of the girl being baptized (remember, her immediate family is Catholic) to discreetly go over church teaching with their non-Catholic friends and relatives, before the mass. But from the strict letter of church law, he did what he was supposed to do, even if he did it artlessly.

But when I saw the looks of confusion on the faces that just a minute earlier had been beaming with joy and laughter, the faces of those who were there to celebrate their young niece’s entry into the church family, my heart was broken. Catholic teaching basically intruded on the Christian joy of the moment.

So now, I think my relationship to official church teaching on closed communion is simply that of a broken heart. I will not attack the teaching like I did when I was a Protestant, nor will I simply defend it like I did during my RCIA days. It is what it is. And it breaks my heart.

Yes, communion is a sign of oneness in Christ — see I Corinthians 10:17. But the body of Christ is a crucified body. It is a body broken and wounded. I can only imagine that every time someone is denied or disinvited to communion, whether in writing (the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a statement that can be found in most Catholic missals) or over a church P.A. system as took place at the mass I attended last night, I believe Christ’s heart is broken yet again.

I suppose the hard line is this: once all the non-Catholics see the error of their ways and submit to papal authority, this sad division will cease. But from New Testament times onward, the body of Christ has been “broken” in the sense of parties and divisions within the church. The divisions we know today aren’t going to go away. Likewise, the other hard line is to just denounce Catholic teaching (like I did in my youth). But boundaries are part of being human, too. If we say this boundary is wrong, what do we replace it with? Just a broader boundary? Episcopalians and Lutherans are proud of the fact that Christians from other denominations are welcome to their Eucharistic feast, but their official church teaching draws the line at non-Christians partaking. Isn’t that just the same problem, a difference of degree rather than kind?

I think taking a hard-line stance toward closed communion (either pro or con) is just an attempt to armor ourselves against the pain that goes with the territory. But is such armoring really helpful, or useful? I don’t think so. So we are left with a broken heart. We who are invited to the Eucharistic feast will forever be haunted by the fact that others are not invited, either by their own choosing or by the decisions of yet others. This is not a problem to be fixed. It is only a reality to be lived into, vulnerably and tearfully.

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  1. I know. I go to Florence’s Mass for the Poor and my Roma friends there are Orthodox. The teaching is that they may receive the Eucharist on their great holy days as they do in Romania, and even then sometimes it is not given to them. It breaks my heart, too. To nursing mothers who do not drink milk on Fridays and who fast so much more rigorously than do Catholics. When I left Anglicanism it was largely over being told mortal sin was not to be confessed. Catholic teaching, which is scriptural, is that one can’t receive unless one confesses such sin, lest one drink damnation. That is a good boundary in a world where there is clergy abuse. Anglican theology is that the sinner needs Communion more. Brother Roger at Taizé had the most beautiful Eucharist, simultaneous, the Catholics receiving at the Virgin, the Protestants at the Cross, the words the same, the longing to join over the abyss.

  2. Excellent post! I myself am Catholic and feel deeply ambivalent about our “closed” table. The fractures in the Body of Christ are a reality — “it is what it is,” as you say — and a tragedy. Your story of the family of the baptized is touching and, I think, hints that there is a way between strict legalism and blatant disregard for Church teaching. At my father’s funeral several years ago, the priest, who was and is a good friend of mine, invited everyone to receive communion. Now, my father and the immediate family, we were all Catholic (though in different degrees of practicing and non-practicing), but I know for a fact that many of my father’s friends were not. My friend, the priest, did not mention official Church teaching, either to enforce it by excluding non-Catholics from communion or to say, Well this is Church teaching but we’re just going to suspend that this once. Some may say that my friend exercised “blatant disregard” for Church teaching, but I felt that he went straight to the heart of God’s love and invited everyone to receive the Body of Christ in this sacred time of grief. He did, if I may be so bold, what I think Jesus would have done in the moment.

  3. Thanks for this post; I appreciate the perspective. I’m also not someone who wants to get into a big theological argument about this, but here’s my perspective, which should not be construed as an attack on anyone else’s. :)

    I also see Communion as a symbol of the unity of Christ’s church. I see it as our Lord’s table, to which he invites all His people. And so, for one particular denomination to say that you have to be part of that denomination to eat from the Lord’s table implies that you are only one of His people if you are a part of that denomination, which I fundamentally disagree with. If the Eucharist is a symbol of our unity as followers of Christ, then it should be a symbol that reaches across denominational boundaries; an expression of hope in our eventual reconciliation, and an acknowledgement that despite our diversity of theological opinion, all those who love the Lord are one in the Spirit.

    That said, I do not receive the Eucharist when worshipping in a Catholic Church. Not because it would violate my conscience to do so, but because it would violate the conscience of those I am worshipping with, and showing love and humility to my brothers and sisters is a better way to work toward that reconciliation than insisting on my “rights,” as though God’s grace, freely given, could ever be a “right.”

  4. Excellent post, Carl. I can feel your heartbreak as a believer who wants to be faithful to his church yet can’t help but disagree with its teachings. The church’s reasoning is circular and nonsensical: they are perpetuating the divisions they mourn, by their own act of denying communion. As a non-Catholic, I don’t think I’d want a “blessing” from a priest who has just denied me communion.

  5. Darrell, let me push back at you. One could just as easily argue that the church’s claim to be one is meaningless if the church permits those who hold contrary teachings to the table. I’m neither upholding nor attacking such view, but I think it’s disingenuous to dismiss it as nonsensical. I still have to say that the onus is on those who don’t like one particular boundary to reflect on the question of the boundary they do approve of. I’m reminded of a gay Christian I once knew who expressed open hostility toward the leather scene. He was just as bigoted as straight Christians, only he drew his boundary just far enough to keep himself as an insider. And I don’t think just doing away with boundaries altogether is the answer, either. It’s a fine line that separates “freedom” from “chaos.”

  6. I’m with Darrell — um, thanks but no thanks on the “blessing.” I like how you wrote about this, Carl. It’s that dynamic tension in the situation – I have to constantly remind myself to remember humility, remember “I could be wrong.” This is probably why I’m not Catholic. They are so sure.

    The more honest real reason why I’m not Catholic is that I’m simply not called to be one.

    I do respect the callings of others. But this is what is so compelling to me about those who know the Christ. They can be on very very different seeming paths.

  7. As a United Methodist, we practice open Communion; Most pastors may make a statement something like “If you are a Christian and wish to join us for Communion, please be welcome.” However, no one would ever be refused at the Communion table. I have had to give this considerable thought, since I am a candidate for ministry myself. Long ago, I realized that all are welcome at God’s table, and I have no right to deny them. That being said, I have wondered if those denominations that practice closed Communion, do so in an attempt to show appropriate respect to Christ.

  8. As an Anglican priest (US Episcopalian) this is a subject I have dealt with on several occasions both in my own church and while visiting Roman parishes. Basically, it seems to me, the Episcopal Church, whose theology of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is nearly identical to the eucharistic theology of the Roman Church, sees the Eucharist as a sacrament of unity *hoped for* and thus opens its communion to Christians of other traditions, while the Roman Church sees the Eucharist as a sacrament of united *achieved* and thus opens its communion only to those of its own tradition. The question comes down to one of eschatology more than eucharistic theology: is the church fully the kingdom of God here and now, or is the church only a shadow of the kingdom of God living in expectation of its full realization. Rome seems to hold for former view; Anglicans and most Protestants, the latter.

    One should note that Rome is not the only “closed communion” Christian tradition. Certain forms of Lutheranism (Wisconsin and Missouri Synods, for example) and many smaller, evangelical sects have the same practice. In these cases, the issue seems mostly to be one of doctrinal, confessional uniformity.

  9. Indeed, the Eucharist has an ecclessial, canonical, and spiritual dimensions as the “summit and apex” of Christian worship. It should be appreciated as such in its practice and the reception of communion.

    It is important to ask if some non-Catholics who would like to receive communion appreciate it with reverence and understanding in faith? To me the “heart break” should not come from the sense of external social isolation but from the fact that humanity is ever divided in its deepest level we call faith.

  10. Of course, Ron, you’re right on the money. I hoped that readers would recognize that the body’s broken heart functions, in its own way, as a sacramental and indeed eschatalogical sign.

  11. I used the word “nonsensical” because I believe a closed eucharist is contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Let me change “nonsensical” to “demonic” (i.e., anti-Christ) to be more specific.

  12. The more liberal elements in the Episcopal Church have kicked this controversy up several notches by giving communion to anyone, whether baptized or not. This contradicts Episcopal canon law, which allows communion to all baptized people, whether Anglican or not. This is done in my own parish under the rubric of “radical hospitality”. I think it’s appropriate to limit communion to the baptized, and I think “hospitality” and “inclusion” have become largely empty buzz-words. I suspect they just don’t want to risk alienating potential members.

  13. Joe: I guess I’m one of the “conservative” Episcopalians who believe that giving communion to the unbaptized is contrary not simply to canon law, but to good sacramental theology. I do not offer communion to the unbaptized.

  14. I think we need to be very careful about dismissing theological positions with which we disagree as demonic.

  15. What happened here? I wrote a response with the sole intention of affirming what you wrote, and it has turned into an argument over semantics. I think I need to be very careful about posting comments to your blog.

  16. Carl,

    There is a place in Paul’s writings where he states that to receive communion without discerning the real presence is to bring condemnation upon oneself. In a study of the catechism that we participated in a couple of winters ago, it was this scripture that was given as the reason for not inviting our Protestant brothers and sisters to communion. If you want I can try to find it for you.

    My husband, who is a convert, said he wished people would point to that scripture more often, as it was the only reasoning that made sense to him.

  17. I believe it is 1 Corinthians 11:29.

    I use the New American Bible translation and the verse reads “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.”

    I can imagine that there are various interpretations of this scripture, but it does point toward a compassionate rather than exclusionary reason behind closed communion.

  18. I was once asked to con-celebrate at a RC wedding. I am Presbyterian. The priest was “not diocesan” but a member of some order. When some more conventional Catholics I knew said I was “witnessing to a unity that does not exist,” I replied that I was witnessing to a unity that exists in Christ, but not in our institutions. Fwiw….

  19. I go to a church sometimes that welcomes and any and all to the Eucharist, regardless of denomination, regardless of religion.

    Interestingly enough, it is a church that is very focused on initiations. The Eucharist is the only thing that is open to everyone at any time.

    I think their idea is that partaking in Communion is good for everyone, spiritually. And let people take as much as they can from it. The cyclical understanding…the idea that each time you repeat the practice you do so from a different position that will then reveal more spiritual value to you…I think that’s a good one.

    I must say it felt quite welcoming.

  20. I have an impression that there are varying interpretations of the Eucharistic theology here. Catholics believe in the “real” presence in the meal. If one does not believe it is not proper to force unity in communion. Nobody wants to give his money to those who are not appreciative — much less inclined re sacred things. Even Jesus could not share God’s healings and blessings to those who do not believe?

  21. Hey Carl & commentators. I for one am glad people with a variety of opinions have taken up the invitation to share their thoughts and experiences. Liz, in particular, I like your effort to ground the discussion in scripture. I offer a different angle on that verse, in that it speaks of what a person does when they choose to eat at the Eucharistic table yet choose to not discern or variously, know or believe in, Christ as The Savior, as He repeatedly clarified & demonstrated He was. Therefore, many priests and pastors of many Christian denominations allow the person to so choose and with varying effort may warn them of the stated consequence and stand on that verse in that position of opening communion. I am a bit surprised by Eric’s comment that seems to say the gap between consubstantiation and transubstantiation is so slim as to seem nearly identical. World history of various denominations would show many disagree and died for the difference. Personally I am closer to your idea, Eric, in that it is noticeable but not as different as most other protestant doctrines of communion as rememberance, ‘do this in remembrance of me’ and taking the phrase ‘this is my body….this is my blood’ as allegory or metaphor or some such non literal statement, which has its own irony for those groups often proclaim generally a more literal, inerrant, inspired, infallible character to scripture. I have communed with Catholics and on occasion have respected the boundary and refrained, for many of the reasons cited by Carl and others above, and sometimes commune without fully confessing all my sin to a human, knowing none are hidden from God. I have had experiences with episcopalian and with evangelical protestant pastors where they are open to and actively call congregants to private confession, and I think most Lutheran denominations include a corporate confession prayer in the Eucharist liturgy. One more interesting point, The Missouri Synod Lutheran Church speaks of close vs. closed communion, as in staying close to their doctrine, their understanding of truth, and so are not so far from Roman Catholic doctrine int that those who are unified, close together, commune, those that aren’t don’t. Preparing guests far before the moment of communion certainly is the more compassionate, I think spiritually pastoral, step to take. Ultimately, we accept the brokenness of our efforts and yet worship God and give the Father the glory Christ calls forth from the Holy Spirit within us and unbelievers beware & be aware, God is a fascinating and a terribly powerful mystery, come and believe.

  22. Gary, thanks for such a statement of “generous orthodoxy.” I think it is so important to remember that we Christians of various denominations and traditions have far more that unite us than what separates us.

  23. Carl and others,
    I often wonder if we as Christians can’t find unity with the Eucharist is there any hope for a Christian witness in our world. I have to believe that God’s purposes are paradoxically being worked out even with our divisions with this issue. I grew up RC and saw the majority take communion and walk out the door. I see more of the superstitious elements in Mexico and the “third world” countries. I’m amazed at how central is the Eucharist to Catholics as preaching is to Baptists. I go to a Baptist church out of deference to my wife. I just consecrate the crackers and grape juice before I eat. No one else realizes that they are eating the literal flesh and blood of Jesus. It’s scandalous that the priest can make God act to change the elements into the flesh of Christ. That is the one thing about Catholics that I find attractive. I also go to Saturday mass once a month and receive communion just to make sure I’m right with God. It is a crushing and awesome responsibility to be a pope myself to determine what actually happens at consecration. All of us (all people) have to stand before God alone with our conscience and reasoning about the Eucharist. Another sign of his great love.

  24. Thanks for the post and getting this wonderful dialogue started, Carl. Our brokenness is where Christ’s redemption is present. Our heartbreak over our “distance” from one another is where God is hard at work on us (there is no distance in God’s heart). I think “covenant” is a more helpful way to approach this communion/Eucharist matter. What is the covenant that exists between us and God and each other?
    As an example, one of the monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit (where Carl works) and I have a good, ongoing dialogue. Basically, I receive the blessing of the celebrant during Eucharist because it affirms our covenant, maintaining our respect for the Mystery itself (I’m a Disciples of Christ clergy person). Do I feel slighted? Well, my little ego self does; what little of Christ that dwells in me rejoices that we are together, sharing in the best way we puny little humans know how. When I have asked my monk friend if he could accept communion at MY church, he paused and said “It wouldn’t be right” with such sadness in his eyes and voice. It is precisely that brokenness that draws us together. We can either be compassionate toward each other – “bearing one another in love”- or not.

    Having said this, I am not beyond reminding my monk friend, “No, you’re not catholic; you’re Roman Catholic. We’re both catholic.” You speak wisely, my friend, when you assert that we have more that unites us than divides us. That which unites us is of God; that which divides us is our own doing.

  25. The rules of who receive Communion are not meant as an exclusion of those not in “the club”.

    The priest or Eucharistic minister holds up the host and says, “The body of Christ”… we say, “Amen” which literally means, “I believe.” We are acknowledging the truth of this as the body of Christ. Having a rule that people who do not believe this is the body of Christ… body, blood, soul and divinity… may not receive it seems logical.

    In the same vein I would not receive communion in a Protestant church. With greatest respect for their beliefs I would decline. Since I do not believe what they believe about communion, I could not in good conscience say, “Amen”.

  26. Thanks for your words of wisdom and love, Phil. I wrote above that I don’t think I’d want a “blessing” from a priest who has just denied me communion… But I was wrong. I’d gladly receive a blessing (and I have) from Fr. Tom, Fr. James, or any of the monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. I strongly disagree with their church’s teachings on closed communion, but I have nothing but respect for them and for their important work of prayer. I can see Jesus in their eyes and in their hearts. I hope I can tame my little ego self so that others can someday say the same about me.

  27. I’ve enjoyed reading all the comments in this discussion.

    It reminds me of something I’ve come to believe with more and more strength as the years go by: good and compassionate people can, with great thought and deliberation, come to different conclusions.

    I think as long as we remember that, respectful and loving conversations such as this one can continue to take place, even when the participants disagree. Especially in the light of recent events, this kind of conversation is so needed.

    Thank you all so much.

  28. I am reminded of a quote fro St Issac of Nineveh from the 7th Century.

    “Did not our Lord share his table with tax collectors and harlots? So do not distinguish between worthy and unworthy. All must be equal for you to love and serve.

  29. Okay, I’ve been meaning to wade into this for a few days now, but I’m taking the time this morning. First off Carl, thank you for sharing this – I recall you and I discussing some of this the first time I came to the monastery with you and participated in the morning prayers and mass; the Christian community’s celebration of unity with God and each other is fragmented, broken much like Christ’s body on the altar, and this does indeed call for sadness.

    But I also agree with Darrell and some of the other (you could call us ‘green meme’) commentators on this thread – that unlike other things the Church might mourn, such as the energy crisis or genocide in Darfur, this is a matter wholly of our own making and within our purview to change. In stages of grief, if grieving doesn’t lead to fresh beginnings and new action, the griever is stunted in her growth. So let’s move on.

    How might we do this? Well, if Catholics want to appeal to tradition and authority, and Protestants want to appeal to conscience and Scripture, maybe we can all agree to hold these in abeyance while taking a moment to appeal to Jesus. (Ack – I realize upon typing this that it can sound awfully Protestant, even Pietist. Bear with me a moment…)

    If I may be so presumptuous, I think Jesus agrees with your growing realization that there are legitimate boundaries to the community of faith – that there are mysteries to be stewarded, and hard roads to walk, and that while hospitality is a crucial part of our vocation as apprentices to him, there are also places where the general public simply won’t go – and this is fine. Inclusive green meme progressives like us struggle with this a bit, but Jesus deliberately thinned out the crowds from time to time – speaking in enigmatic parables, ratcheting up Moses’ law a thousand-fold to show the heart of God’s reign, and ultimately inviting followers to a challenging third way path between Roman hegemony and reactive Jewish intransigence. In this way Jesus brought a ‘sword,’ and families were divided over what to do about him and his message. So Jesus is exclusive, yes?

    And I hardly need to argue in this esteemed audience that Jesus is inclusive, too. Maybe cranky and reluctant at times, but reaching out to Samaritan women and Roman centurions and – most significantly – to lowest-caste Jewish folks of his day that polite society and religious elites wouldn’t countenance. Jesus seems to genuinely enjoy the company of the outcast and ne’er-do-well.

    And Jesus gave us a meal – sometimes somber, sometimes joyous, in re-membrance of him, embodying Christ for the sake of each other and the world. And the question we post-Christendom, postmodern friends of God in the way of Jesus are asking ourselves is, How then shall we eat? And with whom?

    Recognizing that there are initiation rituals and boundary rituals in any religious group, we could then ask the question what are our boundary rituals, and what are our initiation rituals? And is Eucharist the former or the latter? I know that official Roman Catholic polity – and that of many other communions – say that Eucharist is the former, it’s a boundary ritual reinforcing membership in Christ’s Body.
    Byzantine/Anglo-Catholic liturgist Richard Fabian makes a brief-but-compelling case for reversing the well-tread order of Baptism and Eucharist in his essay First the Table, Then the Font. I’m not going to reiterate his arguments here, but it’s well worth the read. Summarizing him from my point of view, I have to ask the question “How did Jesus see his meals in his earthly life? Were they initiation, or boundary-maintenance?” I have to conclude that, overwhelmingly, in his eating Jesus is precisely at his most inclusive. This is when he dines with terrorists and sex workers and tax collectors, whilst the religious authorities of his day were disgusted. “But oh,” contemporary religious authorities might object, “his final meal this side of the grave – the one where I told his followers to keep eating in remembrance of him – that was just with his inner circle.” Granted, but let me ask you this: If Jesus was asking his followers to eat in his manner to celebrate his presence among them, would they be drawing solely on this one ‘final’ meal, or the collective memory of their years shared together? To put it another way: If the Church wants to insist on a closed, bounded-set meal based on one night of our Lord’s life, shouldn’t it work equally vigorously to celebrate the scandalously inclusive, no-strings-attached manner of eating our Redeemer practiced during the vast majority of his public ministry?

    Religious thinking is so bass-ackward sometimes. We’re afraid of ourselves, and afraid of the ‘outside world.’ We think of boundaries as something that we need to institute and enforce, externally, while gratuitous inclusion is something that will result in the loss of distinction and identity. Jesus seemed to reverse this pattern, finding his identity in complete open-handed inclusion at the site of the shared meal, with boundary naturally arising in his call to follow him. It’s good branding, really – being salt and light both attracts and repels different people, or even the same people at different times – even ourselves. I think that Eucharistic celebration is primarily for the edification of committed apprentices of Jesus; it is not ‘evangelistic’ per se. Even so, it is invitational when practiced in the way of Jesus. We needn’t be concerned that abject heathens are going to keep beating down our doors to participate in a ritual that they disrespect and that holds no meaning to them – it just ain’t happening, folks. On the other hand, atheists, agnostics, sinners and ne’er-do-wells might just be curious enough to participate alongside us – to see if they can belong before believing.

    That’s what happened to Sara Miles, who stumbled into Fabian’s congregation over a decade ago. I loathe to think what would have happened to Sara, her city, and her congregation had she not been allowed to encounter Jesus in that manner at her local church’s open table Communion. I shudder to think of how Jesus is being shuttered up in buildings across this world – what we’re missing out on by not making liturgy the work of the people, for the people.

    I’m sorry, Carl – I got into the very argument here that you didn’t want to have. And I’m going to ratchet it up slightly here – I don’t think that Darrell was being overly unkind or by describing the exclusivity of certain Eucharist practices as ‘demonic.’ This needn’t be seen in an overly polemic way, but rather in the spirit of the apostle Paul, when he wrote a church to say he was giving one of its members “over to the devil.” This wasn’t a curse, but a naming of things as they really are in hopes of full repentance and restoration. I can’t – and won’t – stand in judgment of denominations that fence the table from all who don’t have confessional unity with them. But I do sniff the smell of fear and sulphur around such behavior at an institutional level, at what Walter Wink would call “the Powers” (demonic again.  ) And I do pray that such power will be broken – for Christ’s sake, and the sake of the world.

    Further reading: Come to the Table by Jamie Howison – full book available here.

    Making A Meal of It: Rethinking the Lord’s Supper by Ben Witherington III.

  30. Like I told Darrell, I think we have to be very careful about the word “demonic,” if for no other reason than that it can close down conversations precisely where they need to happen. You’re right about grieving itself being a process: and there is a process to contemplative action, as well. If we simply react to what we perceive as injustice, without steeping our choices in contemplation and discernment, we run the risk of putting our ego in charge. The cause may be just, but the ego does have a tendency to run even righteous causes off the rails. Just something we all (me included) do well to keep in mind.

  31. Also – to balance out Jamie Howison’s book, here is a link to the opposing argument, made by the Anglican theologian James Farwell:

  32. Thanks, Carl, for the reference to Farwell’s article. I particularly like his concluding statement: “Better than offering open communion, the church might well consider how to hold out its hands in invitation over the waters. Then others, too, can be so nourished, receiving that extravagant gift that is both utterly free and costs not less than everything.”

  33. Thanks, Mike, for including me in your “green meme” and for putting my use of the word “demonic” in the context I intended (in a Walter Wink-ian way). I used that word to express the strength of my belief in the inclusiveness of God’s open table. But I certainly understand how it could be seen as unkind, and for that I sincerely apologize. After talking with Carl in person about this, I see that I do indeed need to be more careful in my use of such words. In my zeal for inclusion I was using a very exclusionary word!

  34. How about the word “Pharisee” instead of “demonic?” Methinks a little out of historical context, but applicable in a dogmatic or even psychological sense. I know I have to ride herd over the Pharisee self in me (re: “well, that’s the rule!”) :)

  35. Ick. Doesn’t work for me, Phil — just reminds me of all the ways Christians have, willfully and foolishly, stereotyped Judaism over the centuries. I still insist that the question of closed communion, regardless of whether the line is drawn at baptism or at denominational membership, is simply about boundaries. Ours is a culture that loves to attack boundaries we don’t like, and perhaps a little less attacking and a lot more conversation would suit all of us well.

  36. Carl you sound a bit discourage in your last comment! If indeed you are please don’t be.

    This very important conversation has progressed with such thoughtfulness, gentleness, insight and love that you have done all participating here and all just reading along a great service and benefit by opening this up for discussion.

  37. No, Jan, I don’t feel discouraged. I think it’s an enormous issue, especially since both “sides” have strong arguments and reason for believing they’re (we’re?) “right.” Conflict resolution is a tricky business indeed. I understand that the Holy Spirit moves slowly — and as I’ve said elsewhere in this blog, patience is not exactly my long suit. But I think if we all keep breathing, then we can relax and let God do God’s work, and try to love each other as best we can in the meantime.

  38. Does the Holy Spirit move slowly, or do WE (myself included) move slowly in following the Holy Spirit’s promptings? :o)

  39. Yes. :-)

  40. Carl, sorry, but I stick by the Pharisee comment. There’s a Pharisee piece in all of us, as individuals and as collectives (e.g., church). It is the part of us that wants to justify hiding our hearts behind “the rules,” or the more politically correct term you have chosen, “boundaries.” As a minister and therapist you know I’m most concerned about appropriate boundaries. The implication of the word is “to fence or mark people out.” Anywho, “Pharisee” seemed more respectful somehow than “demonic.” My tongue was partially in my cheek (note the dreaded smiley face at the end of the post). In short, none of us like when the inevitable inconsistencies or shadow aspects of our particular faith communities surface. To me, that is almost always an “ick” experience. Or, as we say down South, “A hit dog barks loudest.” :) To be continued…

  41. Not another smiley face! :-)

    Everything you say is golden. I just think we need another word than “Pharisee” or “Pharisaical” to say it. It’s like saying, “Jesus was killed by the Jews.” Just because John said it, don’t make it a good thing to say. “Pharisaical” may be more respectful than “demonic” to Christians (or to demons), but not to Jews.

    Back in my Lutheran days, we had a vicar who shocked us all by saying that us, nice, mainstream church-going American Christians were, in many ways, quite similar to the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Everything I’ve learned about both Christian and Jewish history ever since leads me to believe she was right. So, since we are not Jewish, but Christian, perhaps we should own our exclusionary stuff not as “Pharisaical” but as “Christianaical”?

  42. As you can see, above, I’ve posted about this myself – it’s largely my comment earlier in this post, but refined, polished, and linked a bit. I’d love your feedback there, if you’re so inclined.

  43. Daphne Reiley says:

    I realize that I’m jumping in on this wonderful diverse conversation late in the “day”; however, I’d like to contribute my beliefs. I am a Disciples of Christ — new to the denomination, a former Missouri Synod Lutheran, raised Presbyterian . . . okay so you see the progression here? Ufdah!

    I believe that communion is and should be open to all who desire to partake for the Holy Spirit is present around that table and who am I to limit to whom the Holy Spirit has this miraculous access? As to participation of non-believers, it has been my experience that those who aren’t sure can receive just the Spiritual sustenance they require from this partaking to be made sure. My own experience with taking communion with my DOC community took some getting used to. . .EVERY SUNDAY?! What’s that about? However, now (almost 3 years later), I suffer when I am deprived of that communal approach to Christ and the celebration of the presence of the Holy Spirit among us. I believe my feelings on this express the feelings of many. . .it was the exploration, it was the repetitive nature of the event that brought me to my knees. My spiritual connection with those of my community (members and non alike) is strengthened each time we serve each other. Community friends, neighbors — strangers and known — are all welcome at Christ’s table (not “our” table) where we can all receive the Holy Spirit to feed and sustain us on our spiritual journeys.

    On a very basic level, I understand and appreciate the desire for only those who truly believe in what they’re doing to receive communion. However, I do feel like it is humanity’s ego that has polluted Jesus’ intention on that last night with his Disciples. I realize in scripture that only the Disciples are spoken of as being in attendance. However, I have my own doubts about that. That last evening, the entire evening in my book, was reflective of what Jesus intended. Breaking bread with fellow, faithful and imperfect workers. Learning to love one another as we are loved by Christ. Learning to serve others. . . .all cycling back to the food for this work. Taken, blessed, and given.

    So many times Jesus did this for so many people. People who were imperfect and questioning and searching. Breaking bread together, remembering the sacrifice Jesus made, the example Jesus gave us of perfect obedience to the Love of God, all embued with the Holy Spirit the great Sustainer, Comforter, and Healer.

    So, in a nutshell, I believe that the elements of communion are food for our spiritual journeys. Who are we to limit the recipients of such miraculous, clarifying, uplifting, healing food?

  44. Hi Daphne, I appreciate these reflections. Unlike you, I don’t find any particular reason to doubt that it was only the 12 (or some proximate number of initiates) who were present at the Last Supper. However, I think that those who use this narrative example to hold up the ‘purity’ of the Eucharist are barking up the wrong tree. After all, at this meal was present (at the very least) someone who would deny Jesus three times over the next day and someone who would betray him to be crucified! Jesus knew that those at the table weren’t ‘worthy,’ and he included them anyway in the most intimate of fellowship.

  45. Daphne Reiley says:

    Thank you. I agree that “worthiness” is not something I’d like to have to decide on whether someone else could partake. Nope.

    I have a question, one that I’ve not asked anyone else yet . . . how do we know it was Jesus’ intent that this meal continue from the 12 (or so) out to the community of believers. There’s something about that which keeps flitting around my head like a bothersome moth. Just thinkin’ out loud . . . any ideas?

  46. I don’t think the scripture cited is sound as a basis for closed communion. The translation given is a bit hard to parse. Here it is in The Message, “If you give no thought (or worse, don’t care) about the broken body of the Master when you eat and drink, you’re running the risk of serious consequences.” I really can’t see that this has anything to do with being confirmed in a particular faith tradition. I am sure there are Catholics, just as there are non-Catholics, who do give such thought and those who don’t.

    Note that it is a warning to individuals (and this is true of other passages in the NT regarding communion as well) not a prescription for how the church should act. Key here is whether anyone outside of the Holy Trinity is competent to judge another’s worthiness to receive the body and blood, let alone make a rigid rule about it. Someone taking it “wrongly” may injure themselves spiritually, but it doesn’t hurt the church unless the church sees itself in legalistic terms (in which case, you can argue it isn’t really the church).

    The RC Church at times seems open to acknowledging people outside their body can be Christian, but in other ways it holds to its institution as being the body of Christ. This is I think very arrogant and simply wrong. The body of Christ is not a human institution, although it can incorporate human institutions. If closed communion is out of a spirit of unity, it is unity in an “us vs. them” perspective which is inconsistent with Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity.

    I do respect the rule when in Catholic worship, despite the hurt at being excluded. The only time I did take communion in a Catholic setting was at a wedding of radical Catholics where a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine was passed around. This, of course, is not accepted Church protocol, and my understanding is that everyone was invited to participate. As a matter of fact, it was offered to the FBI agents standing in the back (they thought a fugitive in their eyes might well show up for the wedding, as he was the brother of the groom).

    My own church (unaffiliated) has communion as the center of our weekly worship, like Catholics and other liturgical churches. It is stated that anyone who wants to come closer to Christ is welcome to participate. I sometimes serve communion. What is in my mind as I do it is that Christ died for each person who comes forward to receive the elements. I serve as an ambassador of Christ to those for whom he died. Who am I to judge whether they are in the proper state of mind and heart to receive the elements?

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