Fifty years ago, most denominations had some degree of closed communion — people were generally nice about it, but the denomination was the gatekeeper. Since the 1950’s this rather Brethren way of doing Church has largely broken down in the West.
People who are not personally excommunicated are admitted on the basis of baptism, and the whole Church, not the denomination is the medium of the Sacrament. The institutional denomination is only trustee for the Lord, to whom the Sacrament belongs.
Bishop Alan is a Church of England bishop, and writes about attending a Kirchentag in Germany, and notes that in Germany they seem to have advanced further along this path than the English, and asks whether some of the statements of German theologians on the topic are “liturgical terrorism”.
It made me think of some of my own experiences of intercommunion, good and bad.
In 1967 I was an Anglican ordinand, studying in England (St Chad’s College, Durham), and I went to spend the Christmas vac with some Dutch Augustinians at Breda and Nijmegen. The Dutch Roman Catholics were then reputed to be very avant garde, and I wanted to learn something about that. After I attended Mass the first couple of days they asked why I did not receive communion. I said it was because Anglicans and Roman Catholics were not in communion. They said, in effect, “While you are staying with us you are part of our community, therefore you ought to receive communion.” So I did.
In 1974 I was back in South Africa, in an Anglican parish in Durban North, and the Church Unity Commission (CUC – Anglican, Congregationalist, Methodist, Presbyterian) had designated a day when we should all get together to commit unity, and had published a text for the service. The clergy of the participating denominations got together to plan this service, and it was pretty clear that there was very little unity. There were huge and unreconciled divergences of Eucharistic theology. First we had to decide who did what in the service. We pulled the names out of a hat. The Eucharistic celebrant would be the Anglican rector. The Methodist minister would preach. The Presbyterian would do the intercessions and so on. But the Methodists and Congregationalists objected to the Presbyterian doing the intercessions, because he was charismatic, and might do something unseemly and indecorous, like speaking in tongues. The Presbyterian minister wasn’t present at that meeting, but we Anglicans stood up for him, and said we’d agreed to draw the names out of a hat, and if he was drawn, he should do it.
Next, the Congregationalist minister objected that the CUC had issued a fixed form of prayers, and that the confession of sins, for example, should be ad libbed (the term he used was extemporary) by the minister leading it. It was my turn to object — may sins were also being confessed there, so I didn’t think someone else could ad lib about my sins. For the elements of communion we agreed to use Anglican blotting paper and chalices instead of the dinky little Methodist cups (for convenience) and Methodist furniture polish (for the sake of those who had conscientious objections to alcoholic liquor). Then the Anglicans wanted to know who would do the offertory procession (roughly equivalent to the Orthodox Great Entrance). The others looked blank. What do you want to do that for? Just have all the stuff on the table from the beginning of the service.
Well, we had the service, and about 800 people were there and received communion, but we were no more in communion after it than we had been before, and in his sermon the Methodist minister made sarky remarks about the others, such as the Presbyterian minister in his American white pastor suit. The Anglicans had to consume the leftovers afterwards, because nobody else saw the need to, and thought we were silly not to just pour it down the drain.
The following week I went to a charismatic rally at the Roman Catholic cathedral. It was attended by all sorts of people the Church Unity Commission weren’t talking to, like the Roman Catholics themselves, Lutherans and Pentecostals. The choir of the Full Gospel Church sang in the Catholic cathedral, and there was far more of a spirit of unity there than there had been the previous week, though there was no “communion”.
A few months later, also in Durban North, I accompanied the Anglican youth group to the local Roman Catholic Church. The priest there welcomed the visitors, but reminded them that they should not receive communion. As we were leaving some members of the Anglican youth group were a bit upset by that, and asked me about it, and I said I was quite happy about it, and found it perfectly logical. It would be a bit silly to pretend we were united and in communion on Sunday, and then on Monday go back to being as divided as we were before. It would make a mockery of the sacrament.
In 1979 there was the South African Christian Leadership Assembly (SACLA) in Pretoria. The organisers, or some of them, wanted to end with a Eucharist, but how? There were 5000 people there, representing most of the different Christian traditions in South Africa, including many of the people the Church Unity Commission were not talking to — Lutherans, Pentecostals, Dutch Reformed. The Dutch Reformed people said that they could only receive communion in a church if they were invited by the minister to do so, but who could isssue such an invitation in a gathering such as that? They decided that the only one who could do so was the Anglican bishop of Pretoria, Michael Nuttall, so he presided at the Eucharist. It was better than the CUC one five years before.
The next memorable experience of intercommunion was when I was Orthodox, at a church history and missiology conference in Rome, in 2002. It was attended by church historians, archivists and missiologists from all kinds of Christian traditions from 40 different countries. Two of us were Orthodox, a priest from Russia and me. We were taken on a tour of various archives in the city, including the Vatican “secret” archives, much beloved by conspiracy novelists. At the end we were invited to attend Vespers at a church in the suburb of Trastevere. I quote from my diary at the time, to save typing:
Kwame Bediako gave the final address, which I thought was excellent, and the conference ended, rather abruptly. Some people had already left. Others were going to dinner at a restaurant tonight. I hastily typed a letter on a stiffy disk, and went
down to the Internet cafe in Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II to send it… there was a message from Metropolitan Seraphim, giving his blessing to the proposed Association of Orthodox Missiologists, and saying that we could say that we had the blessing of the Patriarch as well. I rushed back across the river, and caught the tail end of people going down to the restaurant, and walked behind them down to Trastevere, talking to Herbert Swanson, and told him about the good news of the Archbishop’s blessing, not that he could really appreciate it.
Trastevere was full of restaurants, a bit like Hatfield Square in Pretoria, but much older and more romantic, more like the Plaka in Athens, in fact. We went to the restaurant, where I sat with Fr Sergei and Fr John Gorski, and told them about Metropolitan Seraphim’s message, and agreed that Fr Sergei would translate the proposal into Russian, and distribute it in Russia and Eastern Europe.
Afterwards we went to a nearby church, Santa Maria, where they had Mass for the Community of Sant’Egidio, beginning at 8:00 pm. The church was packed, and quite beautiful, built in basilica style, with a gold embossed roof, and mosaic ikons in the apse, some of which, the Nativity and Dormition, looked quite Orthodox. The music sounded similar to the Russian music, and they sang the Cherubic Hymn, in Italian, at the Offertory. Fr John Gorski said that we could receive communion if we wanted, and many of the Protestants in the group did so. Herbert Swanson and Martha Smalley asked afterwards why Fr Sergei and I did not receive communion, and I said it was because our bishops were not in communion with their bishop (presumably the Roman pope), and also because we would fast before receiving communion, and had just come from a rather big dinner at a restaurant.
The Protestants remarked that they did not know that the Roman Catholics practised “open communion”, but I knew from my experience of 35 years before with the Dutch Augustinians that they did in certain circ umstances. But the Orthodox do not, and it is largely a question of ecclesiology.
One of the things that has interested me about the emerging church movement within Western Protestantism is that some of those involved in it have expressed a distrust of consumerism. And Orthodoxy shares this mistrust. Consumerism is based on the modern Western worldview of individualism, and consumerism is in many ways an outgrowth of this modernity. Bishop Alan asks if the things the people he quotes are saying are “Liturgical terrorism”, and I would say no, they are not. But they are clearly liturgical consumerism, which is a contradiction in terms, because liturgy is “the work of the people”, and so is not a commodity that can be “consumed”.
Look at the things they say:
The basis of Communion is the mercy, gift and call of God, not what he scathingly called “die Einheitlichkeit in einigen Sätzendes Bekentnisses. (loosely, “the oneness of a sit-down of acquaintances”) It was pointless for ecclesiastical authorities to say the Church wasn’t ready for such a thing, if all they meant was that they weren’t.
But a “oneness of a sitdown of acquaintances” is precisely what “communion” means. What the adcocates of “open communion” want is commodity without community. Communion (Greek kinonia) means sharing together.
But from the the individualistic viewpoint of Western modernity we are consumers. We can go into a restaurant and order a meal, and get annoyed if they won’t serve us because we are not a “oneness of sit-down acquaintances” with the restaurant owner and the other diners. And if we don’t like the food or the service, we can take ourselves off to another restaurant. And in much Western Protestant ecclesiology the church is treated in the same way. People leave one church for another, and if asked why, sometimes say things like “Because we were not being fed there”. It is the consumerist mentality.
But in Orthodox ecclesiology the church is not a factory, producing goods for consumers to consume. It is a communion, a fellowship, a kinonia, a “oneness of sit-down acquaintances” in fact. Communion is not just something we receive as consumers, it is something we are in. In the Orthodox Church, when the priest gives the holy communion, he says the name of the person, “The servant of God Joe Bloggs partakes of the precious and holy Body and Blood of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins and unto life everlasting”. We cannot just casually walk into and out of communion like anonymous consumers at a supermarket.