December 18, 2009

Different Perspectives on Communion

The Role of Communion: Denominations Wrestle With Who Should Receive Bread and Wine

Dec 17, 2009

KANSAS CITY, Mo. Marialice Searcy, 83, of Kansas City, Mo., has attended Mass all her life and couldn't imagine not receiving Holy Communion.

"I can go to Mass and pray, but the Eucharist (Communion) is the focal point of my spiritual life," she said. "Without the Eucharist, I feel I would be missing an important nourishment for my soul."

But some Catholics are sometimes asked to forgo this expression of faith.

Most recently, U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy said his Rhode Island bishop asked him to abstain from receiving Holy Communion.

Other bishops have made similar requests to other Catholic politicians such as Vice President Joseph Biden and then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, and a few have said they would deny Communion to Catholic politicians whose positions, especially on abortion, go against church teachings.

How serious is such a stance for Catholics? And how do other churches view Communion?

"Of all the symbols of our faith, none invites more intimacy with God and identification with other baptized Catholics than the act of receiving consecrated bread and wine," said Edward Foley, professor of liturgy and music at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

"Conversely, preventing someone from receiving Communion is a very serious act, for it announces a rupture in their communion with the church, which is also thought of as Christ's body," he said. "Furthermore, it withholds what the church believes to be a most intimate and gracious encounter with the God of Jesus Christ."

In the final meal with his disciples, Jesus invited them to eat of his body and drink of his blood. Therefore, Roman Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is actually present in the bread and wine, and the practice is to receive Communion at each Mass.

"The Orthodox and Catholic churches understand Communion as a means of grace, a way by which God's grace comes to us," said James Brandt, associate professor of historical theology at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City.

"That is also the view of the Anglican tradition and the Lutheran tradition. The Baptist and Disciples traditions would tend to see Holy Communion more as the expression of the faith of the people than as a means of grace. Typically for them, they do Communion because Jesus said to, and it is more of a memorial."

The Methodists, Presbyterians and United Church of Christ are more in the middle, he said.

"They tend to be sacramental but not as much as the Lutherans, Catholics and Orthodox. For example, John Calvin, founder of the Presbyterian tradition, said Communion is a means of grace and a testimony of our faith, so he combined the two."

Brandt said that from the Middle Ages to the 1960s, Communion was seen as a somber penitential rite because it was a way of asking forgiveness for sins.

"With the liturgical renewal movement from the 1970s, Communion for a lot of people came to be seen as a celebration of Christ's resurrection and took on a tone of celebration and joy," he said. "A lot of time, the language is that it is a foretaste of the feast to come in heaven."

The Rev. Nicholas Papedo of St. Dionysios Greek Orthodox Church in Overland Park said he applauds the Catholic bishops who are saying, "If you are not going to support the teachings of the church, you should not take Communion."

The Eastern Orthodox tradition views the wine and bread as mystically changed into the body and blood of Christ, he said.

"Orthodox Christians are coming forward asking for the forgiveness of God and the mercy of God," he said. "They are standing before the altar of God asking for their sins to be cleansed.

"If they separate themselves, there is not mercy at this time, so there needs to be repentance so they can be in communion with God. If they are not repentant, instead of receiving the mercy of God, they are receiving God's judgment. Therefore, asking them not to receive Communion is for their own protection."

As with Roman Catholics, Holy Communion is closed, only for members of that denomination. And it is received at every divine liturgy and the major observances of saints.

Anglicans observe Communion as the "real presence of the Lord, but this can look a little different from parish to parish," said the Rev. Andrew Grosso, canon theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas. "They would say this is the real body and real blood of Christ.

"But it is not the same as Roman Catholics. We say the Lord is present in the Eucharist. When we participate in Communion we are joined to God through Christ and through the Holy Spirit."

Another difference from the Roman Catholics is that Anglicans celebrate an open communion, said Grosso, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Atchison, Kan.

"Anyone who is baptized is welcome to participate with us in the celebration of the Eucharist," he said. "But we do recommend, practiced to varying degrees, that persons be living an active life of faith before participating."

The African Methodist Episcopal Church observes two sacraments, baptism and Communion, said the Rev. Stacy Evans, pastor of Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church in Kansas City, Kan. If a person is holding a grievance against anyone or doing unholy things without repenting, that person should not take Communion, she said.

"But if you have truly repented of your sins and intend to go forward with that, you could come for Communion," she said. "Most of us do it every first Sunday. The meaning to eating the bread and drinking the juice is symbolic. Christ said to, 'Do this in remembrance of me.'"

Baptist practice can vary, but the emphasis for all is the biblical command to examine oneself before taking Communion, said Jerry A. Johnson, professor of ethics and theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. Some individual Baptist churches historically have practiced "church discipline" toward church members who sin in a public way, he said.

"One mode of church discipline has been to bar the erring member from the Lord's Table until there is repentance and restoration," he said. "For Baptists, this would be a matter for the entire congregation to decide, but the recommendation of the leadership would be important."

Baptist churches practice both open and closed Communion, depending on the heritage and conviction of each local congregation, Johnson said.

The significance of Communion for Baptists is to remember "that Jesus offered his blood and body as a sacrificial substitute to atone for our sins," he said. "By taking the elements we also show that we have received Jesus as Savior and Lord by believing personally in this atoning sacrifice."

For Pentecostals, Communion is a memorial service, said Elder Judson Davis, assistant pastor at Greater Pentecostal Temple in Kansas City, Kan.

"Only members of the individual church who are saved according to the Word of God can take Communion," he said.

It is up to each person to examine himself or herself before taking Communion, or as the Bible says, that person would be eating and drinking unworthily, Davis said.

The church leadership would not tell a politician or any other member not to take Communion, Davis said. "That is up to the individual."


Every religion includes sacramental acts like Communion that convey transcendent meaning through tangible forms. Here are three examples.

American Indians practice a kind of communion by sharing a calumet, a smoking pipe. The intentions of the community are carried by the smoke to the sacred powers. The sanctified unity of the Indian participants is solemnized through the shared pipe, just as for some Christians the church is the body of Christ realized through the Eucharist. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has several examples of the pipe.

Hindu worship includes prasad, food offered to a deity, then returned, blessed and empowered, and then consumed by the worshipper. Eating someone's leftovers is ordinarily offensive, but accepting the leftovers from a god expresses the worshipper's veneration. Commonly the food is a fruit, a sweet or a dollop of milk, sugar, flour and butter mixed together. Anyone may partake.

A Sikh building for worship includes a langar, a kitchen-dining hall where a communal meal is offered without charge by volunteers, not clergy. Often, those who are able sit on the floor to emphasize the equality of all people under God, regardless of earthly status or faith, important in the historical context of the caste system and the different religions of India. The langar thus expresses sharing with a sense of the unity of all humanity in contrast to other faiths whose sacramental practices are restricted to their members.