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29 May 2009

Bishop Alan’s Blog: Liturgical Terrorism or the future?:

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.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. 29 May 2009 3:51 pm

    I’m glad to have discovered this blog– conversations about Orthodoxy and missiology are not easy to come by.

  2. 29 May 2009 8:33 pm

    Thanks for posting this. I read Bishop Alan’s post, thought of responding, but didn’t have time and was unsure that I’d be able to formulate things properly anyway. It seems to me that the perspective he presents, which is widespread in at least part of the Catholic world, could perhaps be labelled “ecclesiological terrorism,” or at least ecclesiological self-destruction – or perhaps it’s simply the evidence of an ecclesiological self-destruction that has been at work for a long time.

    My own perspectives on this issue clarified through seeing the conflict between Orthodox and Protestants and WCC gatherings. While I had previously tended to see it as a case of Roman authoritarianism and resented, or at least regretted, the restrictions, it was illuminating to see how it played out in another context. And, for all the accusations of “exclusiveness” what struck me was the arrogance and in a certain sense the violence involved on the part of those who assumed that they had the “right” to receive communion in an Orthodox (or Catholic) Liturgy. For they are in effect insisting on their right to destroy the very understanding of Church of the other and imposing their own individualist understanding on everyone. And there is a similar dynamic involved in the attitudes of some (not all) Protestants and Anglicans who get offended if others don’t feel able to receive communion at their services. But most westerners – including many Catholics – just don’t seem able to grasp this.

    • 30 May 2009 12:04 am

      On the question of ecclesiology I wrote something here Notes from underground: Emerging church and Orthodoxy revisited, and of course it was an attempt to force a Protestent ecclesiology on the Orthodox that caoused some Oethodox Churches to leave the rorld Council of Churches and others to think of leaving.

      As for “exclusiveness”, one of the things I find very excluding and insensitive is the increasingly common practice of having some kind of Eucharist at ecumenical gatherings. One has the option of hanging around as some kind of spectator or leaving. I usually choose to leave at that point.

      • 5 June 2009 12:16 pm

        One of the funniest depictions of an ecumenical communion I’ve read!

        Steve, can you elaborate on why you find having some kind of Eucharist at ecumenical gatherings excluding and insensitive? I had assumed that the Eucharist was a common uniting practice for all Christians, and although the details differ, the act is one of unity. What you are saying is the opposite – can you help me understand that more?

        • 5 June 2009 1:41 pm


          I think the answer is there in the stories — the narrative theology, if you will. At the thing in Durban North, intended to have a joint communion to bring about greater unity, even planning for it showed that the four denominations preparing to commit unity couldn’t agree on what they were doing and what it meant, and planning for unity revealed how deep their disunity was. And after 35 years of intercommunion those four denominations are no more united than they were in 1974.

          The Roman Catholics and Full Gospel and the rest the following week didn’t try to have communion, they didn’t pretend to a unity they didn’t have, and as a result people present were far more conscious what what unity they did have than the thing the previous week.

  3. sol permalink
    29 May 2009 11:25 pm

    Before I was received into the Orthodox Church, I attended the local Catholic parish where my wife was baptised. Because I believed in transubstantiation and there was not a parish of the denomination of which I was officially a member, the parish priest was happy for me to receive communion. It wasn’t until I was received into the Orthodox Church that I declined to receive communion (on the few occasions I have visited there for Mass, as it is the church that sponsors my childrens’ primary school).

    Even though we never take communion when we are visiting the charismatic church my dad pastors, my parents have never quite gotten their head around why. Your analysis is right that it is viewed as a consumer item.

    However, sometimes I think it might be okay to take it, because as it has never been properly consecrated by a priest, nor do the celebrant or communicants even consider it to be the true body and blood of the Lord. Since it is not actually the body and blood and is mere wine (or grape juice) and bread, can one take it and be considered to be communing outside the Orthodox (or any other) Church? (The only reason I could think to partake would be because it would save my parents some embarrassment. I wouldn’t partake anyway, because it would confuse my small children theologically.)

    • 30 May 2009 12:08 am

      Yes, in many Protestant denominations communion seems to be seen as something similar to the Antidoron in Orthodox Churches. And there seems to be some division of opinion in Orthodox Churches about who can receive the Antidoron. In some churches there seems to be no problem with non-Orthodox visitors receiving it, while others do not allow that.

  4. 30 May 2009 2:48 pm

    Bishop Alan has expanded somewhat on the remarks of Dr Steffensky, which I referred to above, in a new post here, which is worth a read.

  5. 13 June 2009 2:08 pm


    Thanks for visiting my blog. I appreciate it. I have a quick ecclesial question for you. Does one join the Orthodox Church/Tradition or does one join, for example, All Saints Orthodox Church? Do you transfer membership from one congregation to another? How is membership measured?

    Thanks for your time in this.

    • 15 June 2009 5:50 am


      Thanks for visiting, and for linking here too. In the Orthodox understanding baptism is becoming a member of the Church. It is also becoming a citizenm of the Kingdom of God (and renouncing one’s citizenship of the Kingdom of Satan, and several opther things besides. So it is far more than joining a local parish, though it is that too.

      “Membership” of the local parish obviously can be transferred if one moves, but the way in which it is noted varies. Administratively efficient parishes might keep a membership roll while others might not. But the priest should know the name of each person to whom he gives communion. At lone level one could say that the more administratively efficient a parish is, the more “institutional” the church becomes, and some people dislike the “institutional church” and “organised religion”. Orthodox Christians who have previously belonged to Western denominations sometimes joke about this, and say that the Orthodox Church represents disorganised religion.

  6. 13 June 2009 5:02 pm

    On open communion:
    I agree that communion is “oneness of sit-down acquaintances” and that certain conceptions of inter-communion or open communion can have a consumerists sensibility to them. Yet not all. It seems to me that in part open communion among protestants has come about due in part to ecumenical dialogs that have or did create a sort of convergence of faith and doctrine, and thus a loss of a sense of greate divide between Christians of differing denominations, and thus a sense of oneness of acquaintances.
    At Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler, open communion has been our practice by definition as attempting to live out ecumenical convergence. In my experience those who have received communion with us are those with whom I do and did in fact have such oneness. Our practice does not seem to me to be consumerist, but an expression of oneness that exists despite the denominational institutions.
    That being said, there have been times when I have not recieved communion at a church that practiced open communion because I felt there wasn’t this oneness. Also, I have and do respect the Orthodox take and when I attend Orthodox services I feel that it makes sense that I not communion.

    • 15 June 2009 6:03 am


      The intercommunion I described as taking place in the Church Unity Commission churches over 30 years ago showed that, whatever the people who sat on the commission may have thought, there were actually huge differences in eucharistic theology. We may have been receiving the same thing – Anglican wafers and Methodist non-alcoholic wine – but there were still four different things going on.

      You may have developed a common eucharistic theology at Reconciler that people understand and accept, and so it would not be consumerist in the sense that i was talking about in my post (though I would still wonder what happens when people move away and join a different community).

      My point is that a lot of the arguments for intercommunion (and objections to “closed” communion) are based on consumerist assumptions, and a consumerist ecclesiology.

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