Why Offering Me Communion Doesn’t Make Me Feel More Welcome at Your Church

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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22 thoughts on “Why Offering Me Communion Doesn’t Make Me Feel More Welcome at Your Church

  1. I find a number of statements in this post problematic.

    One does have a deep relationship with all other Christians via baptism.

    Catholic canon law does give the faithful the right to the sacraments.

    To refuse an invitation to receive can also cause deep offense and further divide the body of Christ.

    To exclude other Christians from the central Sunday sacrament is exclusionary.

    God bless

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective. I agree with your statement that one does have a relationship to all Christians via baptism. I am a former Catholic but now belong to a different tradition, and I assume you are referring to Catholic canon law here. If that is correct, canon law does not give the faithful an entitlement to the sacraments. Denial of the sacraments is permitted if there is a good reason for the denial. Again, assuming that you are speaking from a Catholic perspective, the Catholic Church doesn’t permit communion with other denominations. As far as your comment about causing offense, that goes both ways. Coercing someone to receive when he or she isn’t comfortable is not only offensive but is also divisive. Regarding your last statement, you are entitled to your opinion there. I don’t advocate for limitations to be placed around the Eucharist for reasons that are not good, but there are some good reasons for doing so. Priests make those determinations. I am not a priest, so that is not my job, thank God. -Sarah

    • “To refuse an invitation to receive can also cause deep offense and further divide the body of Christ.”

      Speaking from an Orthodox perspective, I don’t understand how a person can be offended that I would refuse an invitation to the chalice. There are sooooooooo many reasons not to approach the chalice, most of them are TMI. For example: Menstruation. Even if it is not your tradition (little t) to avoid the chalice while you are menstruating, there are so many things happening to your body (feeling pukey, dizziness, headaches, bloating, ect) even if you actually manage the pre-communion fast, you may not be able to pay attention to the whole Liturgy. Does someone really want to hear “I’m on my period, let me tell you all of the awful and gross things that are happening with my body right now.”

      That applies to almost every reason I would not approach the chalice. If you actually ask (I’m an open book, I will take that invitation to tell you everything) you are probably going to be uncomfortable when I tell you the gross details of my menstruation, health problems, sins, ect- or worse, you are going to have your own passions/vices inflamed right after you take the Eucharist! Imagine, not 5 mins after you take the Eucharist, asking to hear my sins, and then judging me for them! What a terrible thing to have inflicted on your soul.

      I don’t think it’s a good idea to ask or guess at why a person didn’t approach the chalice. Why not focus on ridding yourself of passions/vices and making room for grace to dwell in your heart?

  2. Thank you for this very helpful reflection, Sarah.

    We recently had a situation in my (Protestant) church that may illustrate a more positive side to the issue. We in the leadership noticed that one of our ladies had started declining to take the bread and wine every week, and after some discussion and prayer, our pastor approached her privately to ask whether this was because of concerns that he could address. She shared with him that she felt that her relationship with others in the congregation was broken and that therefore she could not commune. After some relational work over the next few weeks, this ended up being restored and the lady returned to participating in Communion.

    • Thank you for offering this great example of how a pastor or priest (or lay member in some cases) could approach a situation where someone is not receiving communion. I love this example because it shows that the pastor’s level of respect for this member of his church. -Sarah

  3. Your refection, Sarah, makes me think of the problems related to the notion of “mixed-worship” itself. While a very appealing ideal, I think it overlooks the depest meaning of community as related to faith and religion. I can see attending a service that celebrates Jesus’ life and teaching in general, or one that blesses a marriage or prays over loss and death, but I cannot imagine participating in such a ritual, if that term fits, with the kind of meaning and intensity that happens for me “at home,” my community, where I often invite fiends and dear ones without expecting them to pretend to be part of the family. This is the opposite of exclusionary. It includes anyone who understands the difference between family and social or political or religious network. It also honors and respects the whole area of faith, which is personal.

    Thank you for your work here.

    • I should have said, ” . . . faith, which in my case is a personal response, whether to an experience of God or to an innate longing, both of which being submitted to the review and guidance of the universal, traditional, “holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”

      • I agree that mixed worship as an idea poses problems that many people don’t consider deeply enough. As much as I desire that divides amongst Christians be healed, I cannot support any efforts to do so that so not involve acknowledging our differences and treating those with respect. Thanks once again for your thoughtful comment. -Sarah

  4. Dear Sarah,

    I am 100% behind you on this. You said above, “the Catholic Church does not permit communion with other denominations.” I take this to mean that the Catholic person
    is not permitted to receive communion in any non-Catholic church.

    What about your current faith tradition? Does it Permit you to receive Communion in any other faith tradition or any other church? If not, could you just tell your friend in the ‘other’ faith tradition that you are simply forbidden to do so by your priest or bishop? That you might get into trouble with your church if you receive Communion elsewhere?

    Although I am not explaining this well, this is where I am coming from:
    I belong to a liturgical, sacramental Church which has closed Communion.
    We are forbidden to receive Communion in any other Christian Church.
    No exceptions.
    If we do so, we are instantly and automatically banned from Communion in our OWN
    Church. This lasts until we sacramentally confess it as a sin to the priest and receive absolution, and promise not to do it again. One lay mentor in my parish suggested it might, in some cases, be necessary for the priest to discuss it with the bishop before giving absolution.

    • Hi there! Though it is probably not difficult to figure out our tradition from reading the blog, we don’t state it outright on the blog for a number of reasons. I will say that our Christian tradition doesn’t permit communing with other Christian traditions. The bishops forbid it without exception. However, it doesn’t make much of a difference when I tell people that if they believe in an open table, especially if that means they are offended when others don’t commune. I have no problem standing firm in my position, but it does bother me that there’s so much pressure to do otherwise. It is disrespectful to try and manipulate someone into receiving when they can’t or don’t feel comfortable for whatever reason. -Sarah

  5. Hi, I’ve been an active reader of your blog for a while now. You didn’t really do it in this post, but I’ve noticed on more than one occasion that when talking specifically about sexual orientation, you use the acronym LGBT(Q) when the T really has nothing to do with sexual orientation. You should probably just use LGB in those cases.

    • Hi. There are actually several places where we do use LGB only. We use T and Q when we see it as relevant. In this post and many others, I do think it is relevant to issues surrounding communion and welcome of sexual and gender minorities. I’d be interested in hearing more about why you didn’t think T fit for this post. When we use the letters that we use, it is always because of one of our personal experiences or the personal experience of someone very close to us. We certainly don’t just use the whole set of letters without thinking about it. Interested to hear more of your thoughts. -Sarah

      • I was just reading through some older posts and noticed that but didn’t really know where to comment. The ‘T’ was fine in this post. I did say “You didn’t really do it in this post” in my original comment if you happened to miss that.

        • Ah, okay. Apologies for misreading your original comment. If there’s a particular post where you have a question about this, let one of us know. We can have a look at it again. -Sarah

  6. I’ve been away from your combox for a while, and wouldn’t have guessed that this would be the post that would draw me back in.  I enjoyed your reflection, and yet, honestly, it’s pushing some buttons.  While I try to sort that out, I’d like to share an experience I had related to this topic if I may.

    I am a member, convert, of a church in an open table tradition, although I was baptized into and belonged to a closed communion tradition for many years.  Last year some members of my church were to participate in an ecumenical outdoor liturgy.  I resolved to observe this liturgy if not participate — what I knew of it was on the edge of my comfort zone.  It turns out I was late and only approached the service as people were receiving communion.  I had just walked up to the periphery when a priest caught my eye and beckoned me:
    “You’re welcome at the table, come and partake.”
    “No, I’m not prepared.” (to say the least)
    “It doesn’t matter. Come.”
    “It matters to me.” (slinking away)

    Maybe the exchange looks innocuous on paper, but, to use your word, the experience was absolutely jarring to me.  There was enough chaos surrounding the event that my discomfort wasn’t related to being called out; the exchange actually felt private.  Rather, by the reaction I got, I may as well had said, “if you don’t think it matters whether or not I know myself to be in a state to commune, then we’re probably not on the same page as to just what you’re offering me.”  In a word, awkward.  In a sense I’m grateful that the experience nudged me to better understand some baked-in beliefs I hold.

    • Kacy, thanks for sharing your experience. I can appreciate how that would be jarring. I imagine that I would also feel jarred if the same thing had happened to me. I also agree with you that it’s good when things like this give us the opportunity to reflect more on our deeply held beliefs. -Sarah

  7. The issue for me is that I am a Catholic and the Church makes the rules. And those rules seem to revolve around sexual sins. Certain prelates like Raymond Burke have also used the Eucharist as a weapon to lash out against politicians they don’t like. I’m fine with only providing Communion to members who believe in the church’s beliefs but I think that my issue is the Church’s blanket condemnation of certain groups.. remarried people for one and the newer trendier one is people in gay relationships. I would like it to be up to people and perhaps their confessors than a blanket condemnation of groups by type. The Orthodox tradition strikes me as better.

    • When I was Catholic, that always bothered me too. Sacraments should not be used as weapons, and I believe firmly that decisions regarding reception of the Eucharist should be made in private with one’s confessor, or in certain cases, the priest at a parish one is visiting. It isn’t my job to say who should or shouldn’t receive, and I’m very glad that it’s not my job. Speaking of Cardinal Burke, I wrote an open letter to him in another post. It wasn’t on the topic of sacraments, but you might find it interesting. I can’t find the link at the moment, but it’s listed on our index page. -Sarah

      • When people try and subvert the teachings of the Church by proclaiming their behavior as consistent with being a Catholic, the Church has the obligation to say “NO, that is NOT the case.” That is what happened to the brazen subversives in Nebtraska who belonged to Call To Inaction.

        They got the boot.

  8. I’m a first-time reader. Thanks for your blog! I look forward to reading more.

    1 Cor 11 talks about not receiving the Lord’s supper together because of divisions and other reasons (including drunkenness and hunger). I don’t see that in your decision; you are not refusing to partake because of protest or other divisive reason; you merely feel more comfortable in your own traditions. I certainly respect that.

    I liked the previous comment about the pastor who privately approached a congregant in love and humility. I would like to believe that if I approached someone not partaking it would be in a similar spirit.

    Nonetheless, I probably would not approach that person at all unless I had a good relationship with him or her. As you’re saying, communion is not only a community gathering of believers in remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice but also a deeply personal moment with God. Scripture also talks about reasons why we should not partake in communion (1 Cor 11:27).

    To summarize: I don’t believe that a person abstaining from the Eucharist should be criticized, shunned, or gossiped about.

    Thanks again. God bless.

    • Thanks for stopping by today and sharing your perspective. This issue is quite complex and requires much sensitivity. I think it’s so important not to shame people for their decisions regarding whether to receive communion, so I agree with you there. -Sarah

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