I’ve been reading Jeffrey VanderWilt’s Communion with Non-Catholic Christians (The Liturgical Press, 2003). It is shaping up to be a gentle encouragement for the Catholic Church to liberalize its policies regarding how and under what circumstances Catholics and non-Catholics can celebrate Holy Communion together.
I applaud the effort, in some part because of my personal history. I grew up in a church heavily influenced by the Landmark movement. This means that for us, it wasn’t enough that you were a fellow Baptist. For you to partake of the Lord’s Supper with us, you had to be a member of our local church body.
I grew to despise this policy shortly after I was old enough to understand it, and I was pleasantly surprised when I went to college to find out that this was not the rule in most Baptist churches. I knew that participants in the Lord’s Supper were supposed to be Christians and I was still uneasy about the thought of receiving Communion in a church of a different denomination. (Does that mean I endorse everything about them? You don’t receive Communion with just anybody, do you?). Still, I couldn’t for the life of me find the passages in the Bible that were supposed to limit my participation to Middlebelt Baptist Church, or that were supposed to prevent folks from Merriman Road Baptist from joining with us whenever they came by to visit.
Then there was the time Connie and I visited a Lutheran church in Louisville. It was during a difficult time for us due to some personal crises. We wanted to be in church–we needed to be in church–but our regular local church was not an option that Sunday. (Long story, maybe I’ll tell you some day.) Anyway, something about their website attracted us and so off we went to worship with the Lutherans. We were treated to an adorable children’s Christmas pageant, some hearty Lutheran hymn-singing, … and Holy Communion! All three things helped heal our souls. It was around that time that I was just beginning to understand the power of ritual action and especially the healing power of the Eucharist.
From then on, my policy has been that I will almost certainly receive the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper in any church where I am invited to do so. As a Baptist, I have the freedom to make that decision. There are no rules on my end that would prevent me from receiving what ministers in other denominations offer.
I realize that is not the case with everyone. I enjoy traditional liturgies and have sometimes slipped off to Catholic Mass (“just to see if you changed anything since last time,” I once told a priest friend). I won’t receive Communion in the Catholic Church because, although I don’t agree with their restrictive rules about who may communicate, I want to respect them. “Our house, our rules” is just a basic matter of civility as far as I’m concerned.
It strikes me as a different thing entirely, however, to excommunicate oneself because one’s theology or one’s church’s rules of discipline require it. Once at a ministers retreat, our guest speaker wanted to conclude the day with a simple Communion service. For most of us, this was no problem, but two of the ministers belonged to (very different) groups that frowned on open Communion. One of the two excused himself from the meeting early, explaining that he had “other obligations this afternoon.” The other stayed and participated, although he made a quip about us not informing his denominational superiors. He later confided in me that the entire thing made him very uncomfortable.
I felt sad for both of them, and more so because I consider both of them to be genuine Christian brothers. But that is not to say I don’t understand their reservations. I used to be a Landmarkist, remember? Sharing Communion with other kinds of Christians raises all kinds of thorny issues, some of which I’ll try to spell out over the next few days.