What does it mean that Christians all over Ireland have begun to quietly defy the official teachings of their churches, choosing to receive Eucharist/ communion in churches that are not their own?
No one really knows how widespread this practice is in Ireland. Unlike the Catholic Church, not all denominations officially forbid the sharing of the Eucharist among Christians of different denominations. Last week’s symposium at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin, on ‘The Eucharist in Ecumenical Perspective’ raised some questions about what this practice means, and whether some of the gaps between grassroots openness and ‘official’ church reticence can be bridged.
Among other talks, the symposium featured a roundtable discussion led by Gillian Kingston, director of the Glenstal Ecumenical Conference, and Anne Thurston, a theologian and doctoral candidate at the Irish School of Ecumenics.
Kingston has already been at the centre of some controversy around Eucharistic hospitality. During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, she raised the issue when speaking at the Roman Catholic Church of the Assumption in Booterstown, Dublin.
Kingston noted that the next Eucharistic Congress of the Roman Catholic Church is scheduled for June 2012 in Dublin, focusing on the theme of ‘Communion with Christ and with one another.’ She suggested that this would be an opportune time for the Catholic Church to extend Eucharistic hospitality to other Christians present at the Congress.
Such pleas routinely meet with a stony silence or outright condemnation from the expected sources, but as those present at the symposium attested, they resonate with the lived experiences of Christians all over the island.
These are the people who have come to see restrictions on Eucharistic sharing as an affront to their Christian convictions. Not only that, they see the lack of communion among Christians as a poor testimony to a secular society that wonders why Christians just can’t get on with each other.
Speaking at the symposium, Thurston noted that we have a ‘reductionist understanding’ of the Eucharist, in that we have focused almost exclusively on the question of whether we receive the bread and wine (or not) when we are in a particular church.
Thurston is on to something here. Although the defenders of a restrictive Eucharist would point to differences between the Catholic Church’s and Protestant denominations’ theological positions on what is happening in the Eucharist (transubstantiation v. a memorial), that’s not what Thurston is talking about.
Rather, Thurston said that Eucharist should be thought of as ‘a gift to participate in,’ not as something that we own and that we can therefore choose to give to others or to take away from them. She added,
We need an understanding of Eucharist that is about understanding what it means to be the body of Christ. We have a reductionist understanding – do you receive or not receive? Why should that moment be divorced from everything else that goes on in the Eucharist? … The power and fire of the Eucharist should be thrown open to the world. Participation in the Eucharist is sowing the seed of God’s presence, not affirming a presence of one true church.
There is something at stake that is more important than the ‘church,’ and that is an understanding what it means to be part of the body of Christ.
For me, those Christians who are already practising Eucharistic sharing are coming closer to what it means to be a part of the body of Christ. At the very least, they can provide perspectives on what that practice has meant in their lives and in their relationships with God and others.
A participant at the symposium, Rev. Katherine Meyer, added that there was a lack of communication between laypeople and clergy about what is happening. Possible questions that need to be explored are: What senses did it leave you with? How were you changed? As she concluded,
There’s no forum for us to honestly reflect on what’s happening and that’s part of the problem.
(Photo sourced on flickr photo sharing, by timsamoff)