Communion - First or Last?

by Richard Bending

from Signs of the Times, No. 23 - Oct 2006

How strange it is that communion, which should be the symbol and expression of unity, can so easily become a focal point for division. When we Christians disagree, we register that disagreement (if the issue is serious enough) by denying one another eucharistic hospitality. It may be the disagreement about homosexuality in the Church (which stands proxy, of course, for disagreement about how we use the Bible). It may be the ancient division between Roman Catholic Christians and Christians of other denominations, where eucharistic hospitality works in one direction but not in the other.

In response to this sad tradition, I would propose that communion - sharing together in the eucharist - should not be the reward for agreement nor the culmination of a process of reconciliation. On the contrary, communion should be the beginning of the process, and its prerequisite. If I am in serious and honest disagreement with my fellow-Christians, then any accommodation (even if there is no ultimate agreement) must begin with the acknowledgement that we are brothers and sisters. Where better to make that acknowledgement than at the Lord's table?

I disagree fundamentally with Archbishop Akinola about the Christian attitude to homosexuality. I believe his point of view is wrong both because it involves a misuse of the Bible and because it is unkind to an already vulnerable group of people. (I would still take issue with his hermeneutics if the argument were about eating shellfish, but the moral problem would be much reduced.)

Nevertheless, if the archbishop were to be in the congregation at a communion service at which I presided, I would be pleased to offer him communion. If I were a worshipper and he was presiding, I would be happy to receive communion from him. I we were both worshippers, I would readily kneel at his side at the altar rail. I would do so, not to express our agreement, but to affirm that despite our real and important disagreements, we are both Christians.

In the same way, I am happy to offer communion to Roman Catholic friends, and to receive communion from priests of that Church (though the latter is something I have rarely been able to do). There are important things about which I may disagree with my Roman Catholic friends, but I do not see those things as obstacles to communion.

The approach I am advocating is not easy. Disagreements are rarely blessed with academic detachment; on the contrary, feelings often run high. Kneeling alongside someone with whom one is in sharp dispute is markedly uncomfortable. It can be easier to close the door and restrict one's fellowship to the like-minded. Sharing communion obliges me to address the issue rather than sweep it under the carpet or distance myself from it by demonising my opponent. If the issue is a public one (as in the case of homosexuality in the Church) being willing to share communion with those I disagree with places upon me a duty to make that disagreement known - otherwise others will not know where I stand or will think I am being two-faced.

St Paul took issue with his Corinthian friends about behaviour at the Lord's Supper which accentuated social divisions and marginalised poorer believers (1 Cor 11.17-33). It was their failure to recognise the body of the Lord which troubled him most. In context, he was surely thinking not of the consecrated elements themselves but of the church as the body of Christ, for it was the reality of that body which was being harmed by selfishness and greed. So for us: the starting point, and the basis for communion, is the recognition of the body of Christ. We join in communion with one another not as perfectly formed saints but as God's unfinished business, with much to learn from God, from the world and from one another. We need to be able to reach across even real and important disagreements to recognise that with all our differences and follies, we are members together of the body of Christ.

The Anglican Communion, whose integrity seems threatened by the present disagreements about homosexuality, is what its name suggests: a fellowship in which Christians with different opinions - sometimes with deeply-felt disagreements - can discover both the joy and the pain of knowing that we all belong to one Lord. We don't have to be monolithic, uniform, homogeneous; we would be duller Christians, and less able to be God's ambassadors in the world, if we were. The world around us provides all too many examples of disagreements leading to division, enmity and even bloodshed. We in the Church should know a better way. Communion is not the reward for reconciliation, but its beginning.