Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Missing Communion

Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a friend at the local Roman Catholic church. I went in a tie rather than in collar because this was personal. Besides it was my day off. What's more, I was a visitor in a church other than my own, not serving a liturgical function. It seemed better to simply go as a friend.

Sitting in the back – I know, I was doing exactly what I grouse about – I got a chance to watch the service from a let's-compare-notes point of view. Must be an occupational hazard. Can't just go to church anymore, now I always have to see how others do it.

I came away with a couple of observations. First, it's striking how similar our liturgies are. I knew that all along, of course, but to sit there and listen to the words I normally say myself, well, it felt very much like home.

But, second, it did not feel at all like home. If anything, the similarities between the liturgies underscored the feeling of alienation. Imagine coming to your aunt and uncle's home. Your uncle looks just like your dad, and the house is very much like your own. They welcome you graciously but also make it clear that you really don't belong. When mealtime comes around, they say the exact same grace you grew up saying – but then they say, "You understand because you're not part of this family, it's impossible for us to let you eat this food." It's a kick in the stomach.

Now, I have many Roman Catholic friends and relatives. We've had this conversation before, and I know their response. There's a rift between the churches, and in fact, Rome doesn't really consider Reformation churches to be churches at all. Yada, yada, yada.

In the front of the missal there was a note of welcome to non-Roman Catholics as well as non-Christians stating that because of the sad divisions between Christians, others could not receive Holy Communion. Regrettable, to be sure, but what can one do?

Then something caught my eye. Members of the Orthodox Church could indeed received communion here – as long as it was okay with their own church leadership. Now, that was strange. You may remember that there was a split between East and West that became final in 1054, largely over Papal authority and the Filioque ("and the Son" in the Nicene Creed, added in around 589).

Now, as an Anglican, it distresses me to go to church and be refused communion. And what are the differences that separate us? Papal authority mostly (just like the Orthodox). And the fact that our split with Rome happened five hundred years later than the East's. Think about it. We use the exact same Creeds (we have no Filioque issues). We pray the same prayers for the most part. We have always shared apostolic succession (where each bishop is consecrated by three other bishops who in turn were consecrated by three other each in an unbroken line back to the apostles). We believe in the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion.

So what is the grievance breach that makes it impossible for us to share the Body and Blood of Christ?

There was a moment when I considered presenting myself for communion anyway. Only, the priest and I know each other, and he would have been required to turn me away. Was that something I really wanted to do at a friend's funeral. Besides, if someone doesn't want me at their table, I will oblige.

But I do so with sadness and a certainty that this is not how Christ intended us to address our relatively minor differences. It's not going to change in my lifetime, I'm sure. On the other hand, it is very much part of our church's teaching to welcome all baptized Christians to the altar to receive the Body and the Blood of Christ. Regardless what any other Christian thinks of the meal we share, it is open and available like Christ's love itself.