Like many, I was more than a little surprised to see an American Orthodox archbishop of prominence suggest that inter-communion is a good idea—i.e. that an Orthodox priest should give Holy Communion to a non-Orthodox person. Admittedly he was not suggesting indiscriminate inter-communion and giving the Eucharist to anyone showing up from off the street. The situation he envisioned was that of inter-marriage, wherein an Orthodox was married to a non-Orthodox. He thought it was inconsistent to allow the couple to share one sacrament (i.e. Matrimony) and not the other (i.e. the Eucharist). Since, he reasoned, they were one flesh through marriage, both should be given the Eucharist, even though only one was Orthodox. What are we to make of this?
In sorting all this out, we must first look again at why the Church has always refused to commune non-Orthodox, or those in schism. The Church’s practice is rooted in what the Eucharist accomplishes. The classic statement is found in St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:17 where he writes: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
That is, when the many faithful each partake of the one Eucharistic bread, they are re-constituted as one body in the Church. In this spiritual symbiosis, the Church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the Church. Thus the Eucharist not only brings the transforming and healing grace of God to the individual who partakes of it, it also unites that individual to other individuals in the one Body of Christ. In this sacrament one cannot separate Christ from His Church: the Eucharist unites one to Christ because it unites one to His Body, the Church. The Church is not merely a gathered group of individuals. When the Christians gather, Christ is in their midst to such an extent that the Church is Christ.
We see this in Paul’s vocabulary. For example, in 1 Corinthians 12:12 he speaks of the various members of a human body all constituting one single body, and when he applies this reality to the Corinthian church, he does not say, “so it is also with the Church”, though this is what he means. Instead he says, “so it is also with Christ”—identifying the Church with Christ. He says the same thing in Ephesians 1:23, where he writes that the Church “is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all”. The Eucharist unites those who partake of it to Christ because it unites them to His Church, re-incorporating them as fellow-members of that Body. In the Eucharist we are not only joined to Christ, but also to all the other members of His Body.
We further ask: what does it mean to belong to a body? Membership in any body—not just the Christian Church, but any corporate reality—involves two things: unity of faith or ideology and commitment to mutual discipline. Take, for example, something very different from membership in the Christian Church, such as membership in the Communist Party. To become a member in this body and remain a member, one must subscribe to certain tenets (i.e. Communism), and abide by its mutual discipline. Thus if one rejected the tenets of Communism or if one profited from certain business enterprises, thereby rejecting its insistence that one forego private property, one would quite properly be rejected for membership in the Communist Party. To be a part of a body which defines itself over against those not a part of that body, one must subscribe to its common tenets/ faith and live consistently with those tenets. That is what it means to be part of a body, and not an outsider.
It is the same with the body of the Christian Church: to be a part of the Church one must subscribe to its tenets (i.e. to the Orthodox Faith) and live consistently with those tenets. If one does not hold to that faith or if one refuses to be bound by the lifestyle it demands, one cannot be a part of that body. Baptists, for example, do not subscribe to the Orthodox Faith (if you doubt this, go into any Baptist Church and begin to offer prayer to the Theotokos), and they do not regard themselves as bound to the disciplines that define and bind the Orthodox. Wonderful as Baptists are, they cannot be a part of the Orthodox Church—not because the Orthodox are so mean, exclusionary, and nasty, but because the Baptists cannot fulfill the requirements of what it means to belongs to a body (in this case, the body of the Orthodox Church).
We now can see why the Church from its inception has steadfastly refused to commune those who were outside it. If one could not properly belong to the Church because one cannot confess the Church’s faith or accept the Church’s moral discipline, one cannot be communed, because communing would unite them to a body to which they cannot properly belong. Receiving the Eucharist unites one to the body that celebrates it, and the heretic or schismatic (to give their classical names) rejects the conditions required for membership in that body. The very nature of the Church (or “the fullness of the Church”, to use the language of the Prayer Behind the Ambo) forbids such communion. It not only would give no benefit to the outsider communed (and might actually do them harm; see 1 Corinthians 11:27f), but it also harms the Church itself, for it would thereby admit alien influences into it, like leaven into a lump.
Not every Christian confession, of course, shares this view of the Eucharist. Some churches view the reception of Communion as entirely an individual matter, with the Communion expressing their commitment to the Lord, but lacking the corporate aspect of uniting them to other communicants in one body. They are quite consistent in offering Communion to Christians of other denominations, since all that Communion does, in their view, is express gratitude to God for Christ’s death on the Cross. Since Christians from other denominations can share their gratitude for the death of Christ, there is no reason why they cannot also share their Communion.
It is hard to fault their consistency. Given this theology, they would indeed be narrow, churlish, and wrong to deny Communion to those in other denominations. The problem is not with their consistency, but their theology. For Holy Communion not only expresses gratitude for the death of Christ on the Cross; it also unites believers to other believers in the one body. The legitimacy of intercommunion depends upon an erroneously individualistic understanding of the Eucharist.
The Orthodox argument that “in a mixed marriage the non-Orthodox partner receives one sacrament, so why not two?” entirely misses the point. (It also sidesteps the issue of whether such mixed marriages are wise in themselves, even apart from the Eucharist. For how will the children be raised?) The issue cannot be resolved by pretending that the discipline applied to one sacrament applies to all. It clearly does not, and it is an astonishing confusion of thought to conflate them like this. The issue is the nature of the Eucharist and of Eucharistic unity.
By definition, therefore, there is no possibility of inter-communion with Christ, only of communion. To quote from an old article by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (so old that he was then “Archimandrite Kallistos Ware”): “The Bible, the Fathers and the Canons know of only two possibilities: communion and non-communion. It is all or nothing.” He goes on to quote Professor George Galitis who observed, “Admitting one to communion and to church membership are identical…The concept of intercommunion is unknown to the ancient church, as it is to the New Testament also”. If one is not yet a member of the Orthodox Church, then communion is impossible.
It is important to recognize that the engine driving toward this unprecedented lapse of historic praxis is emotion, pure and simple. Some find it emotionally difficult to tell people, “No; you can’t have what you want”. One has a terror, seemingly, of making people feel bad. Parents know that such an approach not only represents a failure of nerve, but it is also folly. Children as well as adults cannot always have what they want, and maturity consists of realizing this. And a priest maintaining the Tradition of the Church and refusing to give in to emotion sometimes finds that such a stand can bear fruit.
I remember at my own St. Herman’s Church we once had a couple, one of which was Orthodox and the other a baptized Protestant. They were eventually married and continued to attend church at St. Herman’s, but the non-Orthodox partner was not communed. Eventually the non-Orthodox decided to become Orthodox, and was duly received. Such a happy outcome might never have occurred if we had abandoned Tradition and communed them both all along.
But ultimately it is not about the feelings or fate of any single couple. It is about the preservation of the Church’s faith and tradition throughout the generations. For let’s be clear: if the Church decides to abandon its Eucharistic tradition out of deference to the difficulties of a mixed marriage, it will not end there. It will very soon give Communion to any Christian turning up in the Communion line, for the engine driving the original change was that of emotion. Just as the kind-hearted priest could not bear to disappoint the nice marital couple by refusing one of them Communion, so he will not be able to bear disappointing the nice Protestant individual visiting his parish and joining the Communion line. And then, after that, any nice individual. I remember one Anglican priest saying he communed anyone who was “on a spiritual journey”. The net could hardly have been thrown wider.
Magical thinking will solemnly intone, “That could never happen in Orthodoxy”. That is touching faith in human nature, and wholly unjustified. I admit it seems unthinkable. But a generation ago, an Orthodox archbishop willing to commune a non-Orthodox was similarly unthinkable. We stand at the edge of a slippery slope—or if that metaphor arouses disdain—at the edge of an abyss. Many historic churches have already tumbled into it. Now is the time to remember our apostolic Tradition and back away.