A Tough One: “Closed Communion”

The Mystical Feast
This excerpt is taken from an interview with Met. Kallistos Ware on the topic of living the sacramental life. One of the most challenging things to understand about Orthodoxy (and Roman Catholicism for that matter) is the concept of “closed communion.” Met. Kallistos does a good job of gently pointing out why the Orthodox guard the sacrament as they do. If you’ve ever felt the sting of being denied the cup somewhere, hopefully this will be helpful in one way or another, even if you don’t agree with his point of view. Interesting to note: exclusivity in the Eucharist was the norm for nearly all Christian traditions (yes, even Protestants), to one degree or another, until the late 20th Century.

Fr. Steve Tsichlis:

Your Eminence, the sacrament of the Eucharist – the Divine Liturgy – is the heart and core of our worship as Orthodox Christians. What are some of the differences in our understanding of the Eucharist as Orthodox Christians from the many other Christian confessions that exist, and why are Christians of other confessions not able to receive Communion when they attend the celebration of the Eucharist in our church, the Orthodox church?

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware:

There are two questions there.

So let’s take the first of them. In the Orthodox Church, we believe that the bread and wine, through the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become the true body and blood of Christ. So we believe that the Eucharist is not simply a commemorative meal in which we recall the Last Supper. We believe Christ is objectively and immediately present in the consecrated elements. So here there is a clear difference between Orthodoxy and Protestantism, not just a recollection. In the Divine Liturgy, recollection becomes reality. So, we receive the true body and blood of Christ.

But this is mystery. We do not understand how, but we do regard the reception of the consecrated elements as the supreme moment of our personal encounter with the Saviour. Now many Anglicans [and] Episcopalians, though not all, would likewise say that the Sacrament is the true body and blood of Christ. So on this point some Anglicans differ from us but others agree with us. The Romans Catholics firmly believe that the Sacrament is Christ’s body and blood. They use to describe the change in the elements the word “trans-substantiation.” In the past from the 17th century onwards Orthodox often used that same word. I prefer to avoid because it is not a word used by the early fathers; it is a word bound up with a particular philosophical system – Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy – which we Orthodox on the whole do not employ.

But I do not see a difference here fundamentally between ourselves and the Roman Catholics. We both believe in the real presence. We Orthodox perhaps put greater emphasis on the involvement of the Holy Spirit in the consecration, but in the last 30 years, Roman Catholics have also begun to stress much more the work of the Spirit in effecting the consecration. So I would not think that is a primary difference here between us and the Roman Catholics.

If the Roman Catholics share with us essentially the same faith in the Eucharist, and if many Anglicans do as well, why can we not have Communion together? That is your second question.

I long for the day when all Christians can receive Communion together. It causes me deep sorrow that I cannot offer the Holy Communion to non-Orthodox. At the same time I believe that the Orthodox discipline here rests on important theological principles. When we come to Holy Communion, this is not simply an isolated act – me personally coming to my Saviour – I come to Communion as a member of the Church – as a member of the family of believers, not alone but with others. And when I come to Communion, I am summing up and expressing the totality of my whole Christian faith, of my entire church membership.

It is a painful reality but nonetheless a fact, that at this moment Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Protestants, we are divided; we belong to separated ecclesial bodies. We are seeking unity but we still have a long way to go. So long as we are separated as ecclesial communities, it is not realistic for us to have Communion together. Communion expresses our total unity in faith, our solidarity as members of one ecclesial family. If our faith is different and if we belong to separated ecclesial families, it is somehow untruthful for us to have Communion together. The reception of Communion should not be seen as a means towards an end, not as a means towards greater unity. It should be seen as the expression of the unity that we possess. It is a gift from God, and until that unity is fully expressed, we have to accept that we cannot receive Communion together. It would not be truthful. It would not be realistic to the facts of our separated church membership.

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2 responses to “A Tough One: “Closed Communion”

  1. In reading this I am struck by the profound tragedy of our broken communion as Christians. I earnestly pray for the day in which Christ’s church will be fully united and restored.

  2. Tripp, I feel the same, as I’m sure you know. And it was comforting, somehow, to hear that Met. Kallistos also feels the pain of that separation. It’s good to understand the full scope of these types of things and be honest about them. Otherwise how will anything get better, healed?

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