Saturday, March 8, 2014

On Not Taking Offence When I Am Not Invited to Communion

Since I soon won’t get many chances to check out non-Episcopal churches I decided to attend two neighborhood churches a couple of weekends ago. On Saturday evening I attended the Roman Catholic church that is literally around the corner from where I live now. On Sunday I attended a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Church a few blocks down the street from the Catholic church. If you don’t know much about the WELS, neither do I, except that they have a reputation for being even more conservative than the Missouri Synod Lutherans (e.g., while, like the Missouri Synod, they do not recognize women’s ordination, unlike the Missouri Synod, women are not able even to vote on church matters in the WELS.)

I knew going in that neither of these churches would be OK with my partaking of the Eucharist/Communion. And that was OK with me. I want to explain why since it seems to irritate or offend a lot of people when they attend churches whose understanding of the Eucharist, communion, and belonging don’t fully include them.


Whether I agree with the limits this or that church puts on who is welcome to receive Communion, it is respectful to abide by their understanding when I am in their place – their house, their rules. Just as I take my shoes of when I visit a mosque and am not offended by their expectation that I do so, I am not offended by the expectation that I not receive communion when visiting the RC or the WELS. Abiding by their rules allows for and respects their otherness.

It also respects the reality that the Church is divided. That we are not one is a scandal, but we ought not to pretend the scandal away by ignoring it. It would be presumptuous and dishonest for me to partake as if those divisions did not matter – even if I did not think they mattered or understand why they mattered. Nor will I presume that the fault for our lack of unity lies alone in those with whom I disagree. So, rather than being put out when I attend churches whose Eucharistic discipline is less open than mine, I am inclined to pray God’s forgiveness for us all for the mutual pride, ignorance, and willfulness that has led to our divisions.


It is important to note that the communion we are about in Communion or the Eucharist is not merely a personal communion with God. It is communion with God in Christ, but it is also communion with the body of Christ, i.e., members of the Church. It is not an exercise in individualistic piety. It is not just about me and my time with God on my terms. I disagree with both the RC and the WELS about the terms of that communion. But, I agree with them that Communion is not just about me and what I think or want. Or what I think God thinks or wants.

I am persuaded that the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition have it right that baptism is the sufficient (and essential) threshold for entering the body of Christ and communing with that body. But, the RC expect more in this regard. They expect one to belong to (be in communion with) the Church of Rome. I get that. And since I am not in communion with the Pope, I am OK with not pretending otherwise. I am also not in communion with every doctrine and discipline of the RC. If their understanding of participating in communion is that it suggests that I am or aspire to be, it would be false of me to do so. And it would be an assertion of my own willfulness.

The WELS expects an even more precise doctrinal conformity of those who commune together. I do not think I would meet those expectations. And, in any event, I have reservations of my own about a church that feels free to edit the Nicene Creed as they do (changing “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” to “one, holy, Christian church”) and I profoundly disagree with their teaching on the place of women in church. So, again, it would be false and willful of me to commune with them given their understanding of what that means.

[A bit of an aside – though I was not invited to take communion, I was invited to contribute money to both churches. It seems to me that if one of our concerns is to be more hospitable, a good place to start would be to stop hitting up visitors for cash. I would start there rather than changing church doctrine or discipline, or disregarding church canons. We did not pass the plate at St. Barnabas, Glen Ellyn. Rather, members know that belonging – communing – includes financial commitments and know where and how to give.]

I am glad that members of the RC and the WELS would be welcome to commune at an Episcopal church. We recognize their baptisms and that is sufficient. But, humility requires the acknowledgment that THEY MIGHT BE RIGHT. So, I took the opportunity, while others were communing, to contemplate what it means to belong and the cost of discipleship and community.


I do not share our cultural allergy to boundaries. Any body, whether biological or social, needs boundaries to flourish. Boundaries are what enable a sense of identity and integrity. They give definition to expectations and obligations. Denial of this on the biological/personal level wreaks all sorts of havoc – co-dependence, borderline personalty disorder, disregard for otherness, etc. There are similar problems with the denial of boundaries in social bodies. And it blinds us to what bodies (powers and principalities) we might actually belong to or into which we have been subsumed. 

While I disagree with the boundaries the RC and WELS set for Communion, I do not disagree that boundaries are good. So, when they name a boundary and ask me not to cross it, I am not offended. It’s not about me anyway.

I know that there are folk who have experienced painful exclusion. And I have heard of examples of priests, pastors, and lay people in both of these traditions being obnoxious about their boundaries. That does offend and grieve me. But, I do not think that acknowledging boundaries is necessarily obnoxious. It can be done in ways that are not so. 

Actually, in neither of the churches I attended was there in any instruction one way or another, written or verbal, as to who was invited to participate in Communion. As a visitor, I actually found this rather confusing and thus inhospitable. This was especially so in the WELS church. Toward the end of the service, but before the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper as printed in the bulletin, and with no instruction as to what was happening, the ushers dismissed folk pew by pew. But not everyone left and some appeared to come back in or move toward the front for what was a rather perfunctory reciting of the words of institution followed by Communion. Had I been an uninformed visitor I would have had no idea what was going on or what might be expected of me. In any event, I chose to abide by their discipline as I knew it, remained seated where I was, and did not commune.

I will likely attend the neighborhood RC church again. I am less likely to go back to the WELS. But, when I attend the RC, I will refrain from partaking of Communion though I could probably do so without anyone knowing I am not RC. It just seems the respectful thing for a guest to abide by their understanding in their place.


Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

Well said, Matt. I am curious about not passing the plate. I was taught at VTS that putting something in the plate and then having it elevated at the altar represents our dedication of ourselves to Christ's service. Bishop Greg Rickel even says that there should *always* be an opportunity for people to give, without any sort of coercion to do so. Perhaps a topic for a future blog post.

Matt Gunter said...


The practice at St. Barnabas is to have a plate at the back of the worship space where most folk come in. Members know to put the offering there. That is then brought up with the bread and wine at the offertory.

Though we didn't do this, it might be a good idea to put something in the bulletin saying something like, "We do not pass a plate at ____ and do not expect visitors to offer anything but your presence. If, however, you would like to make a donation, you can do so in the plate by the doors as you leave."

As I alluded in this piece, I do find it odd that people who disregard the canonical expectation of baptism before Communion in the name of hospitality still hit up their guests for cash.

Paul said...

As a former LCMS Lutheran (now TEC Anglican) I can attest that confessional Protestants can unfortunately be picky as to who is allowed access to the Lord's Supper/Eucharist. In my view it grieves the Holy Spirit, but I understand why they do it. (You have to be in full doctrinal agreement with them in order to take communion)