Glad to hear that you are using some of these summer Sundays to visit churches of other traditions. It is the best way to broaden your real knowledge of what worship is, and to sense first hand the diversity of the Body of Christ.
(And do it now or you’ll lose your chance — if you take a call as a pastor they are going to want you to show up on Sundays.)
But now you’ve stumbled on an uncomfortable fact: closed communion. When you travel across the boundaries of global Christianity into a Catholic or Orthodox congregation, or even within some branches of Protestantism, you find you are not invited to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
You are not the first Protestant to feel hurt or insulted or enraged or all three. After all, our typical stance is that the Table is open to all who trust Christ as Lord and Savior — or more technically, for all baptized believers.
I’m doing a bit of visiting around too just now: I recently worshipped with a Coptic Orthodox Church for the first time. That’s the branch of Orthodoxy centered in Alexandria — the home of such greats as St. Athanasius, St. Cyril, and the Desert Fathers and Mothers.
I found it totally cool to get completely lost (since most of the liturgy was in Coptic and Arabic) even though we were all turning our hearts in worship to the same God and Christ. I could still let the ancient and unfamiliar music draw my heart to God in praise.
And a kind man gave me a English-Coptic-Arabic copy of the Liturgy so I could fumble my way forward.
Turns out the music in Coptic worship rocks. The congregation’s chanting of prayers and hymns moved me, body and soul. I’ve never before encountered any instrumental music in an Orthodox congregation, so was amazed to hear them use these cool little cymbals for polyrhythmic accompaniment.
Anyway, I knew going in that the Liturgy would be a celebration of the Eucharist. And I knew I would not be able to participate. But I knew it wasn’t about me.
It’s Not About You
Closed communion is hard to understand for North Americans because our culture is so passionately individualistic.
We want to be judged on our own personal commitment to Jesus — so we feel like we are being told we aren’t Christian enough.
And we know the unity of his followers was a huge issue for Jesus. It is what he prayed about the last night before his death. (Check out John 17 sometime.)
So there is a tragic irony when the Sacrament that communicates the deep reality of our unity as Christ’s Body becomes something that sheds light on our divisions.
- The Coptic Orthodox Church has not been in communion with the larger part of Orthodoxy since about the year 451.
- And Orthodoxy as a whole has not been in communion with the Western Church since the year 1054.
- And Protestant Churches have not been in communion with the Catholic Church since the decades following 1517 when Luther’s 95 Theses kicked off the Reformation.
So Christians not being welcome at other Christians’ tables is nothing new.
What About My Faith?
People try to resolve the offense sometimes by saying “It’s because you don’t believe the same things we do about the Eucharist.”
- But that still assumes it is a problem of individual faith. It isn’t.
- It is because that our Churches are not in communion with each other. It is about our corporate life — the faith of our denominations.
- And here’s the kicker: it is because the larger Church you belong to really does matter.
Christ has put his Sacraments in the hands of his Body. The Churches to which we belong, faulty as they are, are the expression of that Body, and are responsible to administer his Sacraments faithfully to the members of the Body.
When the Body is divided, our sacramental life is divided. The ability, or inability, of the Churches to grow into unity shapes the way the members of the Churches can encounter other Churches.
That is, if my Church is not in communion with the Church I visit, I am not personally excluded. My denomination is excluded — and I am part of it.
It is not about me. It is about the relationships between the parts of the Body to which we belong.
A Call to Prayer
Instead of offense, it should bring a call to prayer for healing.
Every time you encounter a Christian from a tradition that is not in communion with your own, join in Jesus’ own prayer:
… that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:22-23 NRSV)
So keep visiting. Keep learning — there is so much to learn from Christians from other traditions.
And keep praying for healing of Christ’s broken Body.