Why Orthodox don’t practice Open Communion

During an ecumenical service held in the Protestant Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on 7th December 1997, Ireland’s recently elected President, Mary McAleese, her husband and two daughters, all received communion from the hands of a Protestant Church of Ireland priest.

This apparently gracious action immediately provoked strong reactions from Ireland’s leading churchmen. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Desmond Connell, in an interview on Radio Ireland, found it necessary to remind his flock that “under no circumstances” was it permissable for a Roman Catholic to receive communion from a Protestant. In response Robin Eames, the Primate of the Protestant Church of Ireland, stated that he “deeply regretted” that something “as sacred as the Eucharist or Holy Communion should become the source of remarks or speculation which could be divisive”.

The Church of Ireland has a relaxed eucharistic discipline, welcoming to communion “baptised and practising members of any Christian tradition” who feel “in conscience that they wish to do so”. The Roman Catholic Church, however, in section 1 of Canon 844 states: “Catholic ministers may lawfully administer the sacraments only to catholic members of Christ’s faithful, who equally may lawfully receive them only from Catholic ministers.”

These divergent positions concerning eucharistic discipline are a source of much pain to Christians of diverse traditions who often live and work closely together. It often reaches to the very heart of human relationships in  ‘mixed marriages’ between Catholics and Protestants; whilst the revelation that the Prime Minister, a devout Anglican, had been in the habit of receiving the sacrament in company with his wife and children, who are Roman Catholics, is merely one among many similar responses to this dilemma.

Many Western Christians, both committed and nominal, are scandalised by what they see as an uncharitable and exclusive position out of harmony with the spirit of modern ecumenism. The words commonly used to describe their reactions: “hurt”, “spurned”, “humiliated” all point to deep, but essentially subjective feelings of rejection.

The problem is not simply that Roman Catholics practice ‘closed’ communion, whilst Protestants all follow a policy of ‘open’ communion, as there are several Protestant churches (such as the Brethren and some Lutheran churches) who have a very strict ‘closed’ discipline, whilst Rome herself opens her altars to Orthodox, Assyrians Christians and members of the Polish National Catholic Church. In recent years participants at large ecumenical gatherings have found themselves offered ‘eucharistic hospitality’ at Catholic altars, a form of once-off gesture to those not normally permitted to receive communion.

Orthodox Christians, who all follow the ancient tradition of ‘closed’ communion, find this latest development quite puzzling. The late Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church expressed the Orthodox understanding of the issue:

“The eucharist … is the sacrifice of thanksgiving offered up to God, by the Church, in Christ, on behalf of the whole creation. Since the Church is offering it to God, the question of hospitality does not arise at that point. As far as offering communion to those who are not in communion, we do not think of the eucharist as a kind of feast for the invited, to which the Church can hospitably invite some more people. It is the Church which offers itself to God through the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ … The question of hospitality does not arise anywhere in that process. The Church is not withholding something from other people, which it then gives to them in a gesture of hospitality. In fact the term hospitality is quite offensive to us in this context, since it implies that those who do not do what some Western churches are now doing are being downright inhospitable …” [1]

At root the problem is ecclesial,  not personal. We must not permit our individual feelings to cloud the deeper issues. Following the VIIth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canberra in 1991, many members expressed the view that the Orthodox delegates had been “unjustifiably insisting upon abstinence from eucharistic communion”. In a joint statement, the Orthodox participants explained that “it is a matter of unity in Faith and fundamental Orthodox ecclesiology, and not a question of a triumphalistic stance. For the Orthodox, the Eucharist is the supreme expression of unity and not a means towards unity.” [2] When the Apostle Paul encourages the Ephesians to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, he goes on to remind them:

“There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism”.

Archbishop Eames’ requirement that communicants should be “baptised and practising members of any Christian tradition” can give us little assurance that we are able to share in “One Faith”. Which are the doctrines where there is complete agreement between Christian traditions ? Trinitarian ? Christological ? Biblical ? Soteriological ? Ecclesiological ? Ministerial ? Sacramental ?  We can certainly find many areas of convergence, but unless we adopt a severely reductionist approach, we cannot be said to share “One Faith”. Gennadios Limouris, a Greek Orthodox theologian, rightly warns that by dissociating the witness of faith and the sacrament in the eucharistic action that is the hallmark of ecclesial unity, one tends either to devalue the witness of faith as an essential factor in unity or to devalue the sacramental action of the eucharist so that it loses its specific meaning which is essentially governed by the requirements of ecclesial unity:

“Some will say that, if we can pray together and share communal love in joint prayer which is the communication between brothers and sisters, why could we not communicate sacramentally together? However, one wonders in this case why people are seeking to make the eucharist, which is the sign and the pledge of eschatological unity, into a mere symbol of ecumenical good will … The eucharist is not merely an individual act separate from the overall life in the church. It must be viewed in the wider setting of full, global and total communion which is the very nature of the church. Thinking members of the Orthodox Church cannot imagine a eucharist dissociated from the totality of the Orthodox Church, i.e. that one could receive the Body and Blood without fully accepting the community celebrating the mysteries and without total commitment to it, in the first place by faith.” [3]

Western Christians sometimes fail to understand that the relations between the different local Orthodox churches, whether within the Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox families, is not “intercommunion”. Within each family, whilst there are many differing customs and practices, there is full unity of faith and it is because of this that they enjoy full communion together. Western Christians often seek to establish communion first and trust that full unity will grow from that, but this is a concept totally alien to Orthodox ecclesiology:

“The Eucharist is the supreme expression of the unity of the Church and not a means towards Christian unity. Shared belief, shared ecclesial order, shared ecclesial identity are manifested and expressed in their fulness through the Eucharist. Given this understanding of the Eucharist there is only Eucharistic Communion, and there cannot be something called ‘Inter-communion’ since the term together with the practice it designates is a contradiction. To share the common cup while still maintaining fundamental differences in faith, order and ministry does not make sense to the Orthodox, because it violates a major element of the meaning and significant of the Eucharist.” [4]

The pain which this separation causes, the “experience of the cross of Christian division”, is not something which should merely be suppressed or ignored, nor should it be thought of as something which is only experienced by the non-Orthodox:

“We genuinely suffer about the fact that sharing the chalice is not yet possible in our eucharistic striving and regret misunderstandings on this matter which may have occurred during our ecumenical pilgrimage in the WCC.” [5]

A more powerful expression of the same feelings is made by the Dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in New York:

“The issue has divided us and pains us. It is commonplace to speak of our divisions as we gather in prayer, mutual support, study and mission. At the point of the core ‘mystery’ we are truly scandalized. Our separation at the Lord’s table is a sign of our spiritual alienation and of its tragic aftermaths”. [6]

It is to be hoped that by remaining faithful to the apostolic tradition, the Orthodox Church may offer a valuable witness to other Christian communities to the extent that they will realise the priority of earnestly contending for the ‘faith which was once delivered unto the saints’ (Jude 3) “till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”. (Ephesians IV: 13)

Abba Seraphim

Glastonbury Bulletin No. 97 (February 1997)

[1] Paulos Mar Gregorios, “Eucharistic Hospitality: Not a Question of Hospitality. A Comment.” The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 44, No. 1, January 1992, pp. 46-47.

[2] “Reflections of Orthodox Participants: Addressed to the Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Canberra, Australia, 7-20 February 1991”, quoted in Orthodox Visions of Ecumenism: Statements, Messages and Reports on the Ecumenical Movement 1902-1992, compiled by G. Limouris, (WCC, Geneva: 1994), pp. 177-178.

[3] Gennadios Limouris, “The Eucharist as the Sacrament of Sharing: An Orthodox Point of View”, The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 38, No. 4, October 1986, pp. 401-415.

[4] Report of an Inter-Orthodox Consultation of Orthodox WCC Member Churches “The Orthodox Churches and the World Council of Churches”, Chambésy, Switzerland, 12-16 September 1991, quoted in Orthodox Visions …, op.cit. pp. 189-194.

[5] Report of an Inter-Orthodox Consultation, op. cit.

[6] Robert G. Stephanopoulos, “Eucharistic Hospitality: Implications for the Ecumenical Movement”, The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 44, No. 1, January 1992.

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