There are two separate issues in Jonah Wilders’ first email. First is the objective reality of what Jonah describes about inter-communion in a small Orthodox parish with a number of mixed marriages. Second is the fact that as Jonah later remarks, it appears his fear was, for the moment at least, unfounded. Let us dispose of the second issue first.
There is a special kind of temptation that sneaks up on recent converts. It is a temptation that something is happening that is not according to the rules. That is not to say that the rules are unimportant; quite the contrary, the temptation works because the rules are important. In such a case where a recent convert feels that something might not be happening according to the rules they should discuss it with the parish priest, with whom they presumably have a trust relationship since otherwise why did they join that parish? If necessary they should also discuss it with older trusted members of the parish and even with the Bishop. In other words in such a case a person should establish the objective reality of the situation in such a way as to send the temptation running through shining the light of reality on the situation.
Now let us look at the first issue, the objective issue of inter-communion in an Orthodox setting. We would like our readers to reread Some ranting and some questions 2 before continuing since we will be treating this post as a continuation of that one: the underlying issues are closely related.
In the classical understanding of the Orthodox Church, one becomes Orthodox by baptism, as discussed in Some ranting … 2. Of course the Orthodox Church chrismates immediately after baptism so that the mystery that corresponds to the laying on of hands by the Apostles for the reception of the Holy Spirit is performed right after baptism. The Orthodox believer, even the infant, is a full member of the Orthodox Church at this stage. The next stage, performed immediately after baptism and chrismation even for infants, is for the newly received member of the Orthodox Church to be communicated with the Body and Blood of Christ. It is the communion in the Body and Blood of Christ that perfects the joining of the newly received member of the Orthodox Church to Christ. As Christ himself says:
I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat? Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever. (John 6, 51–59, KJV)
In the classical self-understanding of the Orthodox Church, communion is received after baptism and chrismation. It is never received before. Moreover, the Apostle Paul writes the following:
For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the [same] night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake [it,] and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also [he took] the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink [it,] in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink [this] cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of [that] bread, and drink of [that] cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many [are] weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. (1 Corinthians 11, 23–30, KJV)
So on the one hand the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ joins us to Christ and to the other members of the Orthodox Church; on the other hand it is extremely dangerous for someone to receive the Body and Blood of Christ who is not a member of the Orthodox Church, or even a member of the Orthodox Church but unworthy. This is not merely a matter of ‘obeying the rules’ but clearly a matter of the danger of ‘eating and drinking damnation’ with the possible result that the person become ‘weak and sickly’ or even die. There’s a downside risk to the person doing this. However, it should be pointed out that confession before each communion is not a dogmatic requirement. What is a dogmatic requirement is that there should not be serious unforgiven sin before communion.
Now Jonah describes a situation of a struggling parish in a country where the Orthodox are in a small minority, and where many of the parishioners are married to non-Orthodox and where the children of such marriages might not even be raised Orthodox. It so happens that Jonah’s country is very secularized with a very small minority of practising Christians of any denomination.
Now some very liberal priests and even Bishops of the Orthodox Church are willing to give communion to non-members of the Orthodox Church. This is completely separate from the issue we discussed in Some ranting … 2 concerning how non-Orthodox Christians are to be received into the Orthodox Church. In other words it might be quite easy to become Orthodox in these circumstances but the person approaching for Orthodox communion might not want to become Orthodox. But since they are Christian they are communicated anyway. We have not studied the reasoning of these priests and Bishops but we suspect that what is involved is an extreme form of the ‘Branch Theory’. They believe, we think, that the non-Orthodox Christian is equally Christian with the Orthodox and is fully entitled to receive Orthodox communion. These people seem to believe that divisions among Christians are a matter of unimportant ecclesiastical politics which can be dispensed with in the interests of higher spiritual practice.
The Roman Catholic position is a little better thought out. The Roman Catholic Church permits members of the Roman Catholic Church to receive Orthodox Communion if a Roman Catholic church and communion are unavailable (we don’t think that there has to be a serious situation such as a danger of death). This is consistent with Roman Catholic ecclesiology. However, the Roman Curia didn’t bother to get permission from the Orthodox Church for this practice before promulgating it, so we have a situation in majority Orthodox countries where Roman Catholics approach the Orthodox chalice with a good Roman Catholic conscience only to be turned away because they are not permitted by the Orthodox Church to receive communion.
Of course the Roman Catholic Church reciprocates, happily communicating Orthodox, something the Orthodox Church considers a serious sin. We know of a case where a member of the Roman Catholic Church was living in Saudi Arabia and attending a ‘secret’ Roman Catholic church—the Saudi authorities knew about it but turned a blind eye to the presence of a practising Roman Catholic priest on their soil. However this person later thought of becoming Orthodox. He told us that he discussed with the local Roman Catholic priest the idea that the company that was sponsoring the ‘secret’ Roman Catholic church—along with the ‘secret’ Protestant church and pastor—could arrange for a ‘secret’ Orthodox church and ‘secret’ Orthodox priest to complete the set of ‘secret’ Christian churches. The Roman Catholic priest, who was happily communicating members of the Greek Orthodox Church, was none too happy with the idea.
Moreover, in more Protestant ecumenical circles there is a tendency to want to use inter-communion as a means of ecumenism, as a means of establishing closer ecclesiastical relations among Christian denominations, rather than to see it as the prize to be attained once the ecumenical movement reaches its goal of the full union of all Christians. Moreover, for obscure reasons, the ‘Holy Grail’ of inter-communion for some of these ecumenists is inter-communion with the Orthodox. We occasionally hear of episodes where a non-Orthodox sneaks up to the Orthodox chalice knowing full well that they are not allowed hoping that the presiding priest or even Bishop will communicate them anyway so as to avoid an embarrassing scene. Sometimes they do.
The Orthodox Church has never accepted that non-members of the Orthodox Church can receive communion in the Orthodox Church. There is no sense that this is an elastic norm that can in certain cases be relaxed by economy.
Now clearly the parish situation that Jonah is describing is even more complicated because of the issue of mixed marriages. However, the fact remains that the Orthodox Church has never sanctioned the communion of non-Orthodox.
Let us look at what Jonah writes:
… If heterodox are admitted to communion is this something we should just accept as being in line with God’s will as revealed to the bishop and priest?
In our opinion, no.
Or should this matter be taken up with the priest and bishop and synod if necessary?
Knowing something about Jonah’s ecclesiastical situation we would recommend discussing it with the Bishop when and if there is a serious issue.
Or would it be better to leave things alone and find another parish which does not have this ‘custom’?
In our opinion, yes. If they are set on doing inter-communion, the best thing is to go elsewhere, although admittedly there may be practical problems in a setting in which the Orthodox are a small minority.
Is it spiritually damaging to partake of communion when we suspect that there may be heterodox partaking of it although we lack certainty?
In our opinion, no. At the point that it becomes objectively clear that the practice is happening, then we think that a member of the parish would have to inquire into what is going on and, if the practice is systematic and intentional, to go elsewhere. If of course there is some confusion and a mistake has been made, that is quite different.
In summary, then, my questions/concerns are:
1a. If we think communion is being given to heterodox in our parish, is this permissible by economy and if so do we have a duty to understand what this economy comprises?
In our opinion no for inter-communion by economy but yes for a duty to understand what this economy is all about. See above.
1b. If communion for heterodox cannot be given ‘by economy’ should we raise this with the parish council, priest, bishop in that order?
In our opinion, yes. See above.
1c. Is this really none of our business as parishioners and if we are properly prepared, through confession prayer and fasting, should we receive the Eucharist with joy and thanks and not concern ourselves with anything else?
In our opinion, it is our business. See above.
2. If we have received communion at the same time as heterodox does this invalidate the sacrament and/or require us to undertake some form of penance even though we did so unknowingly?
In our opinion, no. The mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ can not be invalidated in this sense. It remains the Body and Blood of Christ. But see what St Paul says above about receiving unworthily. If someone who is not Orthodox receives communion without our knowledge, that has nothing to do with us. But if we know and consent then there is an issue with our own conscience.
I sincerely hope that my questions are, and continue to remain, hypothetical. I apologize in advance if it appears that I am judging others or jumping to conclusions. It's not a ‘them’ and ‘us’ situation. Though myself unworthy I am never the less concerned for the spiritual welfare of all in our parish, Orthodox and heterodox.
We did not have the sense that there was any judgement.
Pretty quiet on your blog...
Well, we’ve managed to wake up.
I can't find any evidence of inter-communion in my parish so I've stopped worrying about it.
We were not surprised. It seemed likely to us that this was the temptation spoken of earlier.
Of more concern is legislation to be introduced about same-sex marriage which will have an impact on education and further undermine family values. Trying to raise this in the parish has only been divisive with some concerned that we’re being ‘obsessive’.
In our opinion, this is a serious matter of Orthodox morality. However, there is another temptation, that of joining with hard-right Christian Protestants motivated by a spirit of pride and hatred to engage in unseemly political agitation. As we remarked in Some ranting … 2, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth and Love; it is not a spirit of pride, anger and hatred—or even of unseemly political agitation in the streets.
So not much I can do about this (Orthodox count for very few votes in relation to the population of my country) except pray that God will have mercy on us.
May God help you, your parish and your country.