The Common Good

Closed Communion and Hindrances to Christian Unity

A young woman who attends Church of the Holy Redeemer is headed back to university this week, as have many of the young people who worship with us.

Close up of communion wafers and chalice, Ron Koeberer / Getty Images
Close up of communion wafers and chalice, Ron Koeberer / Getty Images

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She came to me this summer burdened by the chapel services at her school. When she approaches the altar for Communion, she is instructed to cross her arms for a blessing. As she is not confirmed in the church that celebrates the Eucharists at her university, she is not allowed to partake.

Of course, this is troubling to her, a serious Christ follower, bringing her to doubt her position in Jesus. She faces this grief many times a week, which compounds the problem.

I understand her struggle. I’ve worshipped with other believers for decades and have been confronted often by the disturbing reality of our ongoing divisions, particularly as a participant in many ecumenical dialogues.

As an ecumenist I listened to (and largely bought) the notion that taking Communion with other Christians in the absence of institutional unity was tantamount to premarital sex, to an intimacy that should not be attempted because we were not — as disagreeing Christians — properly wed to each other yet.

But the more time I spend as a day-to-day trenches brand of pastor living out the faith in the real world, I find this argument holds less and less water.

A reality I have come to grips with after decades of personal ecumenical involvement is the same reality that leaders at the highest levels of churches have been wrestling with for centuries: The age-old pursuit of doctrinal unity under an authoritative “true church” will likely never occur before the Second Coming.

Another reality — a more personal one — has hit me with full force. This division at our Eucharists inflicts pain upon those of tender conscience and deep love for Christ and his bride. They are broken upon the rocks of our divisions and it is a scandal.

Yet, protest is not the right response. Neither is bypassing the teachings of any of the churches by thwarting their rules or leaders. Instead, I encourage this young woman and any believer who finds themselves unwelcome at the Eucharist of a Christian body that observes closed Communion to take on this spiritual practice.

When you approach the Table with your arms crossed, ask the Lord to grant you a participation by grace in the pain he must feel at the horrendous divisions of his church. After all, divided Christianity must grieve the heart of our God as much as anything else in our sad history as free creatures. Allow his heart to become your heart and meditate on his suffering.

This transforms the experience of alienation from Christ and his body to one of drawing even closer to him precisely by our exclusion. This also draws us into Jesus’ heart for all and frees us from any rejection of those who bar us from Communion.

When we ask Jesus for a participation in his Cross, Jesus can lift our burden and give us the unique joy that comes from participating in his sufferings. Our minds and hearts are then prepared to join his high priestly prayer with greater confidence:

“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one — as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.” John 17:20-21

Disagreements will persist, but this Blessed Sacrament ought to be what brings together all who are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I can think of no greater catalyst for Christian unity than the shared practice of Eucharist. One shared Eucharist is more powerful than any synod of bishops, theological consultation, or ecumenical merger.

The bread and cup are, after all, Jesus himself with us, and this is so whether or not any one participant (or many) understands this great mystery or acknowledges it. Not only this great mystery but another still: this bread and this cup constitute our participation in his body and blood (1 Corinthians 10:16-17, John 6:53-58). The Eucharist makes us one body in Christ.

The pastoral practice I suggest makes no protest, encourages humility not admittance to any Eucharist — worse yet “rights” or “justice” — does not beg for a change in the practice of others (though it does pray to God for this) and is not ultimately about the young woman or her feelings, but about the sorrow of God at our unnecessary divisions at his Table. The practice centers us on Christ’s prayer to the Father for our collective unity as God-fearers. 

May he make us one even as he and Jesus the Christ are one.

“Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father, who is over all and in all and living through all.” Ephesians 4:3-6

The Rev. Kenneth Tanner is pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan.

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