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Why Not Open Communion?

Written by the Very Rev. John Breck

Especially at the feast of Pascha (Easter) non-Orthodox Christians ask why they may not receive Holy Communion in Orthodox parishes. As painful as this refusal is, it is based on our understanding of the true meaning of the sacrament as revealed in Scripture and ecclesial experience.

A few months ago someone sent me a posting from an Internet site that spoke to the issue of communion among various Christian confessions. In answer to the question why a Protestant believer was refused the sacrament at Easter in her boyfriend's Catholic parish, the writer declared that non-Catholics do not believe in "the presence of God's body in the transubstantiated host." Therefore, "they cannot take communion."

Then the writer added: "There is just one exception to this rule. Orthodox Christians (such as Greek Orthodox Christians) may take communion in all Roman Catholic Churches. The reason for this is that Orthodox Christianity also teaches the actual presence of God in the host."

This widespread understanding of the matter is not accurate and needs to be corrected on several counts, theological as well as pastoral. An entire tome could be written by way of explanation, but here are a few of the most important elements. In the next two columns we'll explore some others.

In the first place, we need to acknowledge that many Protestant Christians (including many Anglicans) do believe that Holy Communion offers them a true participation in Christ.s Body and Blood. They may not articulate that belief as Catholics or Orthodox would like; but their faith in Christ's "real presence in the Eucharist" is genuine and should not be disparaged or denied.

Then again, Orthodox Eucharistic theology does not explain the change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ as a result of "transubstantiation," the teaching that the "accidents" (visible properties) of the elements remain unaltered, while their "substance" or inner essence becomes the actual Body and Blood. Orthodox tradition speaks of "change" or "transformation," (metamorphôsis; in the Eucharistic Divine Liturgy metabalôn, "making the change") but always with a concern to preserve the mystery from the probings of human reason. It also speaks of the Body and Blood of the glorified Christ, making the point that our communion is in the personal being of the Resurrected and Exalted Lord, and not in the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus, torn and shed on the Cross. The incarnate Jesus and the risen Christ are certainly one and the same Person ("Jesus Christ is Lord," the apostle Paul declares in Philippians 2:11). But our communion is in the radically transformed reality of the risen Christ, who ascended into heaven and makes Himself accessible to us through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit within the Church.

Another point needs to be stressed. It is true that Orthodox Christians are considered by some Catholic priests to be eligible to receive communion in their parishes; but this practice is not formally sanctioned by the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Holy Office or Magisterium). On the other hand, the Orthodox Churches, united above all by their Eucharistic faith and practice, accept to communion only baptized Orthodox Christians, and then, theoretically, only when they have prepared themselves by prayer, by appropriate fasting, and -- in most traditions -- by confession of sins. In addition, Orthodox bishops and other teachers make clear to their faithful that they can only properly receive communion from a canonically ordained priest or bishop within the context of the traditional Orthodox Divine Liturgy (which includes communion taken to the sick).

It is hardly enough, though, simply to state that the Orthodox do not teach "transubstantiation" (despite the term's appearance in some of our liturgical books) and, if they are faithful to their tradition, do not receive communion outside of their own Church. There is also the crucial matter of "ecclesial identity." No Orthodox Christian receives Holy Communion in isolation. We are incorporated into a universal community of persons, both living and departed, whose common faith and practice unite them in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Our existence in the Body of Christ, our ecclesial identity as Orthodox Christians, is such that we represent the Church in all that we are and do. If I defy the ordinances of my ecclesial tradition and receive communion in another Church, or as a priest welcome a non-Orthodox believer to receive the Eucharist in my parish, I am acting in violation of my own tradition, to which I have committed myself before God. And because of my solidarity with all other members of the Orthodox Church, I am implicitly involving them in my act of disobedience.

The real issue, however, is not one of obedience or disobedience to rules and regulations. If the Orthodox preserve the sanctity of the Eucharist as a supreme obligation, it is because of the often stated truth that communion in the Body and Blood of Christ is the very end or fulfillment of Christian existence. It can not, for example, be reduced to a means by which to achieve "Christian unity." (In any case, Church history has made it clear that sharing of Communion among Churches of conflicting theological teachings never results in lasting unity.)

The Eucharist is life itself. It is the life of Christ that enables us to live our life in Christ. To participate in the Eucharist as we are called to do requires our acceptance of a doctrinal attitude and commitment that is specifically "orthodox," grounded in the Scriptures and transmitted through the ages under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It requires as well acceptance of an ascetic discipline, which includes personal prayer, liturgical celebration, fasting, confession of sins, and acts of charity: the ingredients of a life of repentance and of an ongoing quest for holiness. And it requires that we honor our particular "ecclesial identity," together with submission to ecclesial authority represented above all by our bishops: persons canonically ordained and established, who are called by their actions and teachings to preserve and transmit the truth of the Orthodox faith while maintaining a bond of unity within the Body of Christ. A unity grounded not in power but in mutual respect and fraternal love, shared by all members of the Church.

From this perspective, "open communion" -- the welcoming of non-Orthodox to share in the Eucharistic celebration -- is simply not possible without undermining the very meaning of the sacrament. This implies no particular judgment on the Eucharistic services of other Churches. It acknowledges rather that for the Orthodox, the Divine Liturgy is what the name implies. It is both the means and the end of Christian existence, an existence which arises from Orthodox faith, ongoing repentance, ascetic discipline, ecclesial identity and works of love. To those who accept this "Orthodox Way," the Eucharist offers a true participation in the very Life of the risen and glorified Christ, just as it offers the forgiveness of sins, the healing of soul and body, and a foretaste of the heavenly Banquet in the eternal presence of God.