A reflection by Sarah
Over time, I’ve talked to a lot of people who are concerned about welcoming members of the LGBTQ community in churches. More broadly, I’ve noticed that every few months there is some internet discussion about helping many different groups feel more welcome. Questions arise: how can the church better welcome LGBTQ people, celibate people, disabled people, parents with small children, or (insert group here)? I’ve seen various kinds of prescriptions offered where to welcome x group, churches should be doing y and z. I’ve noticed a trend that many of these prescriptions focus on making sure that all these different groups feel welcome at the Eucharistic table. It troubles me that often, churches see the Eucharistic table as the baseline for welcome. Today I’d like to reflect on why I don’t associate receiving communion with being welcomed at church.
Before I dive into my reflection, I’d like to clarify a few things up front. First, I’m not going to be making a theological case for open or closed communion practices. I respect that Christian traditions have differing norms, and I’m not going to tell anyone what to believe on this matter. Second, I believe that decisions regarding whether or not an individual participates in the Eucharist within the context of a particular community should involve that person and the priest or pastor of the church. I do not support the practice of denying people communion without offering any sort of explanation. I do not support using the Eucharist as a way to humiliate people publicly. Furthermore, I do not support denying a person the Eucharist simply because of known or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, ability level, class, race, or other factors that I’m forgetting to name off the top of my head. Priests and pastors should not surprise people by denying them communion when they approach the chalice. If at all possible, any issues regarding reception should be sorted privately before the service has begun.
Throughout my life, I’ve always belonged to Christian traditions that practice closed communion, meaning that only duly prepared members of that particular tradition are able to receive at the Eucharistic table. In my current tradition, I’m grateful for the fact that it is common practice for parishes to offer an unconsecrated bread of hospitality in addition to the Eucharist. This unconsecrated bread can be consumed by anyone in attendance, including visitors and members who have chosen not to commune regardless of reason. I’m also grateful for the fact that I’ve never belonged to a parish where I have felt obligated to receive the Eucharist at every service. I have always seen the decision to receive or abstain from the Eucharist and the process that leads to that decision as an essential part of my spiritual formation. All of these factors probably play a role in why it is so jarring for me to encounter very different attitudes when I’m visiting church with a friend from a different Christian tradition or when I’m in an environment where communion is offered to every person present regardless of whether he or she is even a Christian.
Not long ago, I attended an event that involved Christians from multiple traditions and people who did not identify as Christian at all. I knew that as part of this event, communion would be offered. I didn’t even need to consider the question of whether I would receive because I’m committed to following the practice of my tradition: communing only at parishes within that tradition and only on days when I’ve prepared myself properly to receive communion. At this event, one of my friends introduced me to another friend of hers. I don’t remember our initial conversation topic, but within less than five minutes this new acquaintance wanted to know my Christian tradition. I responded. Without a moment’s delay, he asked me, “Are you going to take communion with the rest of us on Sunday?” Taken aback, I responded with a very timid “No.” He proceeded to fire questions at me one after another in an attempt to figure out why my response was not “yes.” I can’t think of too many situations in my life where I’ve felt more awkward with a person attempting to help me feel more welcome. As I responded to each of his questions, it became obvious that none of my answers were satisfactory to him:
“My tradition doesn’t practice open communion, and I’m not comfortable receiving at this event.”
“But closed communion is a tradition of man; at God’s table, everyone is welcome. Don’t you feel welcome?”
“I do feel welcome here, but I’m not comfortable with participating in a Eucharist outside of my own tradition.”
“Don’t you know that God loves you and wants to embrace you?”
“Yes, and I don’t need to receive communion in order to know that.”
“Why don’t you challenge yourself this weekend to let go of everything that’s holding you back so that you can be welcome at God’s table?”
Though this example is an isolated incident, it is not the only time in my life when I’ve ever been asked to defend my decision to abstain from receiving communion. Again, I understand and respect that Eucharistic theologies differ from tradition to tradition. I don’t see it as self-evident that people from other traditions will be aware automatically of the norms present in mine. Nonetheless, I’m troubled by my observation that most attempts to make me feel welcome at the Eucharistic table have actually caused me to experience shame and alienation.
The decision to partake in or abstain from the Eucharist in any Christian service is a deeply personal choice that should be far more complicated than asking oneself, “Is anyone going to stop me from receiving? No… Okay, then. I guess I’ll be taking communion.” I consider questions of Eucharistic reception to be on the same level of intimacy and privacy as questions about one’s sex life. I have no more business wondering why someone else isn’t receiving the Eucharist when I am than I have in wondering why (or if) someone else is having sex while I’ve chosen celibacy. Conversations about these matters should take place in the context of meaningful relationships where it is safe to be vulnerable. I cannot imagine myself discussing all the particulars of how I decide to receive (or not receive) the Eucharist with anyone other than my confessor, Lindsey, or my closest friends. I don’t discuss the depths of my spirituality with just anyone. It strikes me as entirely disrespectful for any other person to be asking me to justify in detail why I’ve decided to abstain from communion.
It is my opinion that using the Eucharist as the primary means of showing welcome is one of the most theologically detrimental aspects of life in modern churches. Holding that “welcome” necessarily means “Eucharistic participation” confuses the life we share with God and the life we share with each other. It minimizes the significance of community hospitality by implying that any church following a closed communion practice is, by nature, inhospitable. Historically, baptism has been the way we connect our life in Christian community with our life in God. Until the past couple of centuries, the Eucharist has never been understood as first and foremost a showing of hospitality. While the Eucharist is indeed a community act, it seems to me that many churches today neglect to consider how this sacrament relates to one’s individual life with God and to theological unity within the community. When a new acquaintance is telling me constantly, “You are welcome at God’s table,” this person is not communicating any sense of care about my relationship with God or the faith I confess personally. Instead, this person is trying to reassure me that there is no rupture in the relationship between me and the people gathered in that space. It leads me to wonder, how could a relationship that does not yet exist be ruptured? Does this community believe that the only way to build a relationship with me is to invite me to their Eucharistic table first and then get to know me and my faith later?
Such practice can lead to an even more detrimental belief: that we are all entitled to the Eucharist. I empathize deeply with people, particularly LGBTQ Christians, who have been denied communion unjustly and have perhaps been publicly humiliated in the process. It’s wrong to weaponize the Eucharist. On more than one occasion, I have been denied the Eucharist simply for being a lesbian, so I can relate to the spiritual agony of being unjustly barred from communion. However, telling Christians that they have the right to demand the Eucharist because it is an entitlement only exacerbates this problem. I know people who choose what churches to attend based solely upon which priests or pastors will allow them to commune without asking any questions about their spiritual lives because from their vantage point, they are entitled to the Body and Blood of Christ on account of their baptism. I believe that all Christians should have access to communities where they feel safe among members of the parish and with the clergy. All Christians should have access to communities where it is safe to commune.
Paradoxically, the only way it can be safe to commune within a particular church is if abstaining from communion is also safe. Grilling a person with a thousand questions about why he or she chose to abstain from receiving the Eucharist does not create an atmosphere of safety. Gossiping about why a person has abstained (and what sins he or she is certainly committing…because why else would anyone abstain?) does not create an atmosphere of safety. It seems that very few churches today have any space whatsoever for the person who has decided to abstain from communion, regardless of the reason. It doesn’t matter if a person abstains for a day, a month, a year, or more. Many church communities opt either to flood that person with welcome so he or she feels okay to take communion or to humiliate the person publicly in order to encourage “repentance.” These communities have lost sight of how baptism welcomes us into God’s family and have replaced baptism with Eucharistic participation in terms of its implications for hospitality and love. In many cases, both open and closed communion churches have made Eucharistic participation the baseline for welcome. As long as this remains true, discussing communion with me as a visitor in your church is not going to increase my sense of comfort in worshiping with your community.
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