What should I do at churches offering open communion?

What should I do at churches offering open communion? September 20, 2010


Over the summer, while I was working in DC, I decided to visit every church within walking distance of the place I was living, so I saw a wider variety of services that the Catholic Mass I attend every week with my boyfriend.  This led to a whole new range of stresses for me.

Whenever I enter a new religious ceremony, especially if unescorted by an initiate, I immediately become convinced that there is a giant blinking sign above my head that says ATHEIST, and that I will somehow manage to do something incredibly disrespectful out of ignorance.  This problem was probably at its worst when I stared attending Mass with my boyfriend last January.  I had never been to religious ceremonies before, and I still had a room-shaking cough from my bout with pneumonia, and I didn’t even know which parts were most acceptable to time my coughs for.

But in DC, I had a new problem.  Once I was at non-Catholic ceremonies, I had to make a choice about open communion.  Catholics restrict the Eucharist to people in communion with the Catholic Church whose souls are in a state of grace, so I’m disqualified on a variety of levels, naturally.  Even more ecumenical traditions often limit the Eucharist to baptized Christians, so, again, I’m out.  However, over the summer, I was in several churches where I was both allowed and encouraged to receive communion if I wanted.  I declined every time, but I was torn, and I’m still not sure what the appropriate choice would have been.

I certainly wouldn’t go up to the rail if my presence would be disruptive or disrespectful.  I declined to participate because I didn’t think I was capable of participating respectfully.  Even if I were outwardly respectful, I’d still be participating in a ceremony I didn’t believe in.  I’d still be receiving a cracker, not the Host.  It seems wrong for me to go through the motions when that’s not how the ceremony is meant to be treated.

On the other hand, [caveat: I have an extremely imperfect knowledge of the theology of the various Christianities that practice open communion] I am under the impression that some groups believe that Communion can have a salutary effect, even if it is taken by non-Christians.  In that case, my decision to hang back is a choice to withdraw from the possible influence of their God and in conflict with whatever attitude of openness I was supposed to be cultivating by attending in the first place.

After all, the church that offered me communion (even after I stated I was an unbaptized unbeliever) was Episcopal.  The official position of the Episcopal church is closed communion, as far as I can tell.  So this parish like some others in America had made a deliberate choice to open their communion.  I was opting out of what is, from their perspective, a gift they wished to give me.


I’d be very curious what any of you think is appropriate in these situations.

Does my unbelief (and implicit disrespect) trump their desire to offer me fellowship?

Am I being too closed off by refusing to participate, since I don’t believe it will do me any harm?

Does your answer to the dillema change if I am invited to come to the rail to ‘receive a blessing’ instead of partaking in the Eucharist?  This is the practice of the campus ecumenical service.  I opt out there as well.

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  • Anonymous

    Well, this might not be helpful because it is partially informed by my Catholic upbringing, but after I decided to forgo confirmation, I stopped taking communion, which was fine in my parish because everyone knew why but once I left home and started going to other parishes or even other denominations I still refused communion. I do think there is something inherently disrespectful about eating a cracker instead of the Host. It is somewhat tantamount to lying in my mind because the act itself shows an openness to letting the lord into your heart of hearts. If you were actually open to sharing in their faith, rather than just learning about it, then I think it would be fine to take open communion, but becoming a theist does not seem like something you are even slightly considering.Just my two cents.Joe

  • NFQ

    Maybe the best thing to do is to ask the pastor / minister / priest / leader in each situation. Not only does each denomination have its own opinions on each things, individual churches and individual people have their own interpretations. If what you're worried about is whether what they're offering is something you want to or should accept, the only way to find out is to ask them what exactly they're offering.

  • Leah, my own view is that churches which practice "open communion" as a matter of policy are so deficient in their understanding of the Eucharist that it hardly matters whether one eats their "cracker" or not.

  • Thanks for the comments!@NFQ: Asking what the pastor would prefer is certainly an option, but I'm still not sure what I ought to do when they would like me to participate. My objection to participating in what feels like false ritual still stands.@Joe: Thanks for sharing your experience. I wouldn't say that I'm opposed to being open, just that I see no sufficiently convincing evidence of something to be open to.@Mike L: I'm not surprised to hear you feel that way. Do you have any opinion on churches that offer closed Eucharist, but invite non-Christians up for a blessing at the rail?

  • My instinctual reaction is to say your take on it–"I declined to participate because I didn't think I was capable of participating respectfully" is a good one to go by.I found where I once referred to communion as a way a person and God can remind each other, reaffirm, that they are not giving up on each other. It's a statement of both reality (the person is known by and knows God), and intention (for the person to become more fully in the image of God). If neither of these are realities you want to espouse, that you're drawn to, then there's no need to take communion.I understand churches that have lowered the barriers to offering communion. I remember being 16 years old, a believing Christian but not baptized, and at a rare visit to a real church. (For various reasons, I couldn't get to one at home.) The church–Methodist, I believe–had a note in the bulletin that all who were baptized were welcome to receive. I quietly went to pieces, thinking here I believed with all my heart and I wouldn't get the chance to take communion. (Happy ending: I went up to the rail anyway, whispered my situation, and they had no problem giving me communion). Stories like that–of people who believe but haven't been officially made part of a congregation; or even who are moving toward belief, who have a desire to know God, but aren't at the stage of making a firm declaration yet–I think offer a good reason for allowing communion to be less restricted. But if your will and heart are at odds with the meaning of communion, then there's no reason to take it. Someday, should you find yourself wanting to, even though to your knowledge you still do not believe in God at all–that in itself could be a good reason to take communion. But if you steadfastly affirm that it is only a cracker–why then symbolically affirm yourself to be part of the Body of Christ? If God is suddenly going to strike you full force with a revelation, I think God can do it without your taking part in a communion you don't believe in, whatever powers the bread and wine may have!Oh, and you mentioned the practice of a blessing. (Side note: I once went to a Catholic service that offered blessings as well as communion. Being a Protestant, I went up and asked for a blessing. The priest wasn't quite sure what to say!) I think the point of a blessing is that they are specifically offered for those who do not feel, for whatever reason, that they can take communion. (They are also given to, say, babies too young to have the solid food.) I do not think it would be disrespectful of you to go up for one, as no belief–only a desire to receive a blessing–is assumed. But you are not being disrespectful by staying in your pew, either.

  • NFQ

    Hmm. What's true about communion that isn't true about the service as a whole, as far as your determination of "false ritual" is concerned? (Do you stay seated the whole time instead of standing or kneeling as instructed? Do you sing hymns? Do you recite things when appropriate?)

  • I would have to say that communion is for believers only. The fundamental idea of communion is to create a community of believers; it would be odd to allow non-believers into the ritual, to say the least. I can understand why you would want to do that as a church, but I don't think it's a wise course of action.Receiving a blessing seems fine to me, though. In general, I don't think it matters an awful lot whether you think the blessing is effective or not. That ritual is not about in-group solidarity but rather about an act of generosity from one person to another. To my mind there would be no disrespect, so long as you were outwardly respectful, as you put it.

  • Taking the Eucharist is a statement of sorts – a memorial of Christ's death for our sins ("do this in memory of me"), as well as a gesture of communion and unity in faith ("we are all one body, for we eat of the one bread"). I think it's not good to make such a statement unless you mean it, just on general principles of honesty and sincerity – which is to say, what you said about going through the motions being wrong in such a case.It is (usually) considered disrespectful to partake lightly of the Eucharist (St. Paul referred to "eating and drinking judgement on yourself" if you partake unworthily or without recognising the body and blood of Christ). Contra Mike, as a Catholic and ex-Protestant I don't regard a typical Protestant Eucharist as necessarily being sacramentally valid, but I wouldn't disrespect it: it's done in obedience to Christ, which is worth something.The willingness of (some) Episcopalians to be so open as to offer communion to everyone and their dog (…literally, in one case I heard of) baffles me. I think it's done in an "everyone's welcome" spirit, but to me that seems to make inclusiveness synonymous with indifference. Ask an Anglican for their take on this one, I guess… (Anglicans can be pretty lax about their own rules. Anglican priests are supposed to believe in the 39 Articles; I'd be surprised if I ever met one who did, though.)A blessing is a different thing – before becoming a Catholic I'd sometimes avail myself of it at Mass; I appreciated it as a way of being inclusive without pretending that it doesn't matter who receives communion, or what our divisions are."Am I being too closed off by refusing to participate?" – well, being open/closed is one consideration; depends on the others. I think you did the right thing regarding taking the Eucharist, and appreciate it (thanks!) whether or not your reasons match mine. Openness can be shown well enough by receiving a blessing – openness to the goodwill of the congregation expressed in that way, and to the grace of God (should He exist), and there's no disrespect involved – it requires an openness to be blessed, rather than definite faith. The main reason not to be blessed would be an objection against invoking the Trinitarian God – a Muslim or Jew would find this problematic, and an atheist might consider participation in something superstitious, futile, &c.; to be a downside and weigh it against the benefit of accepting people's goodwill. (I avoid being blessed in the name of pagan deities myself, not sure I can pin down why, so I respect it.)(Also, on having a blinking ATHEIST sign above the head, I've sometimes had a similar experience on going to a new church – usually not as bad, but last sunday I went to a Melkite Catholic church out of curiosity, not realising the service was for middle-eastern immigrants and would be mostly in Arabic. Being obviously the only caucasian there (6ft tall and bright blond), and unable to guess from the liturgy when to stand, when to sit, what the responses were, and what on earth was going on, I felt… awkward.)

  • Walhon

    I’m glad you had a good Methodist experience. Our current stance (which I do not see changing) is stated at every communion service “this table does not belong to the united Methodist Church, it belongs to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and all are welcome at this meal!”