Shared Eucharist – Should it be a Priority for the Irish Churches?

image When I attend a Catholic Church, one of the saddest parts of the service for me is the Eucharist. I’m a Christian – but not a Catholic – so that means that I’m prohibited from taking part in that meaningful and central ritual. Sometimes I feel angry, because in other Christian churches everyone is invited to receive communion. The message I’m getting from the Catholic Church is that, somehow, Christ’s grace doesn’t extend to me.

This week’s Church of Ireland Gazette (5 February 2010) reports that Gillian Kingston, a leading Irish Methodist laywoman and former President of the Irish Council of Churches, has called on the Catholic Church to share Holy Communion with other Christians at the Roman Catholic Eucharistic Congress, set for 2012 in Dublin.

The theme of the Congress is ‘Communion with Christ – and with one another.’ Ms. Kingston is quoted as saying,

‘Would it be too much to suggest that theological considerations might, on this occasion, take second place to the interests of common witness? That, in an act of witness, we might indeed break bread together and recognise Christ among us as we do so?’

Ms. Kingston goes on to say that the Congress could be an opportunity, ‘to do something prophetic.’

Dr Andrew Pierce, in an article in the journal Doctrine and Life discussed previously on this blog, pointed out that among some people in Ireland, there is a hunger to push the boundaries on this issue. He notes the case of the attempted shared Eucharist in Drogheda, which was subsequently condemned by both the Catholic and Protestant hierarchies.

We also found this ‘prophetic’ perspective among some of those who responded my School’s surveys about faith on the island of Ireland. When asked what the priorities for the ecumenical movement should be, a Church of Ireland minister from Co. Tipperary said,

Doing together as much as possible, including the occasional provocative ‘bottom up’ activities such as con-celebration of Eucharist. Continually challenging church leaders for theological justification for structures that limit and define others, such as participation of women in full ministerial roles (both conservative evangelical and Roman Catholic!)

Some Catholic laypeople critiqued their own Church for its stubbornness about Eucharist, like this woman from Co. Galway,

Shared worship, but that can never happen as long as Catholic Churches refuse communion to those who are not Catholic. The welcoming notices as in, say, St Martin’s in the Fields, welcoming ALL to the altar do NOT appear in Roman Catholic Churches. Indeed I have seen one (not in Ireland) in a cathedral forbidding non-Catholics to approach the altar. This negates my understanding of Christianity.

And this Catholic man from Dublin City,

Let’s get the finger out and get a common declaration on Eucharist and inter-communion. It pains me hugely that the Roman Catholic Church is so slow to move on inter-communion and the few areas like retreat houses where it was possible are now coming under fire. I obviously do not understand enough about the complexities but I feel these complexities are part of turf wars. With the wave of secularism Christians need to affirm common values or at least admit others of good faith to share in the Eucharist and let God worry about the worthiness or understanding or whatever. In a typical congregation of Roman Catholics the range of actual understandings of Eucharist is wide indeed. So why not admit others with different views as long as they are respectful to our table? I have been impatient about this for more than twenty years.

Others, like this Church of Ireland woman from Co. Cork, shared the same sadness that I feel when attending Catholic services,

It is hard to explain to Roman Catholic friends and relations the hurt one feels at being denied access to the Lord’s Table. And Church of Ireland folk do not always appreciate the gesture that Roman Catholics are making by receiving in a Church of Ireland Eucharist.

On the other hand, the surveys also asked people what ecumenism includes, and gave them a list of 13 options, of which Shared Communion/Eucharist was one.

On the island as a whole, both faith leaders (clergy, pastors, ministers, leaders of other religions) and laypeople ranked Shared Communion/Eucharist just 11th of the 13 options.

Among both Catholic clergy and laypeople, Shared Communion/Eucharist was dead last. Church of Ireland laypeople gave it the highest priority. For them, it ranked 9th of the 13 options.

One must be careful when interpreting a result like this from a ‘tick box’ question on a survey. But one conclusion that could be drawn is that Shared Eucharist/Communion isn’t really that high on anyone’s agenda.

Whether that lack of urgency about Shared Eucharist/Communion is due to apathy or hostility is unclear. But some take exception to this, like Ms. Kingston and the others who I have quoted here. They are impatient with the hierarchies and theologies that do more to keep Christians apart than to bring them together.

8 thoughts on “Shared Eucharist – Should it be a Priority for the Irish Churches?”

  1. Its may be sad in some peoples minds that what this ritual (your words) does, is make a division between what Roman Catholics call the “Eucharist” and what protestants call “Communion” yet the division exists because; one is an act of remembrance, while the other is hailed as an act of sacrifice. For the Christian (born again believer) we believe as the scripture says in 1 Peter 3:18 “For Christ died for sins once for all, ……….” Christ is not sacrificed again and again according to the celebration of the Eucharist rather Sacrifice for sin is a completed act by Christ upon the cross so “born again Christians” through the celebration of the Communion simply remember his death and affirm their relationship with Him. The Division is theological not bigotry. Hope this helps

  2. The division may well be theological, but unfortuantely, I don’t believe it is separate from bigotry.

    I accept that there are different theological standpoints on the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (trying to use a neutral-ish term), but how can we be sure that all those even within a certain religious denomination or local congregation sincerely share the same prescribed beliefs and understanding of the meaning of the sacrament? I do not believe that the sacrament is devalued when people with different interpretations share the same consecrated elements; I think this needs to be the basis of any future standpoint on shared Eucharist.

    One of Peter Rollins’s recent blog posts, which examines Paul’s proposition that “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3:28), is relevant to this thread. Here, Rollins explores how the above verse has been hitherto deployed to differentiate between Christian and non-Christian identity:

    “Instead of raising one concrete identity above and beyond all the others should we not follow this logic to the end and place the very distinction between ‘Christian’ and ‘non-Christian’ alongside all the others?

    “In other words, when we identify as followers of Christ we are not laying down all our other identities (republican or democrat, rich or poor, gay or straight) in order to affirm only one as truly important. Rather we lay down every identity, enacting what, in theology, is called kenosis. This is where we partake in Christ who became nothing, divesting himself of everything to become a servant.

    “Here we do not lay down our identity only to pick up our new identity in Christ. Rather it is in laying down all our identities that we directly identify with Christ.”
    (An Economy of Nobodys and Nothings, 2 Feb 2010,

    As a cornerstone of Christian identity, I believe the Lord’s Supper has also been appropriated within the centuries-old identity politics of the Church. There are many rich and valuable theologies of the Eucharist which deserve further study, yet this has brought about an understanding of the Eucharist, especially its position (or lack of position) in worship that continues to serve as a marker of difference, “in order to affirm only one [theology of Eucharist] as truly important”, which goes against the unity that so many Christians believe is imperative to their faith.

    Whether as an act of sacrifice, veneration, remembrance, or of fellowship, we have an opportunity through the sharing of the Lord’s Supper, paraphrasing Rollins, to lay down all our identities so that we can identify directly with Christ.

  3. Tim and Wesley, Thanks for your comments on this post.

    Tim, I appreciate your comment, “but how can we be sure that all those even within a certain religious denomination or local congregation sincerely share the same prescribed beliefs and understanding of the meaning of the sacrament?”

    Wesley, I think some theologians, clergy, and really interested laypeople share your view about the differences between what the Eucharist/Communion means (transubstantiation, or remembrance, etc), and that they are not necessarily bigoted. But I have a hunch that very few ‘punters in the pews’ as it were, would be able to articulate the ‘official’ basis of the difference.

    Tim, your comment here is similar to a comment posted on my facebook by a friend, and I agree that it is an interesting place to start any possible conversation about shared Eucharist/Communion:

    “I do not believe that the sacrament is devalued when people with different interpretations share the same consecrated elements; I think this needs to be the basis of any future standpoint on shared Eucharist.”

  4. I have read the other post and find that some common ground exists for discussion regarding this sometimes-heated debate but we need to ask, what gives the sacrament value in the first place? Is it our taking of it? Is it the style in which it is given by priest or pastor? Or is it in our acknowledgment of it as a covenant made by or in Christ’ blood? And also what the said covenant produces by way of graces toward the recipient? It cannot be a matter of how I see it or how it appears to others, it must of it’s self contain meaning and purpose. Often it’s our interpretation of a sacrament that lessens its appeal or divides opinion within us. You say potato I say potato…… (doesn’t work in print) but when interpretation eclipses the original reason for giving it, we must come back to it’s instigation and it’s reason for being “Do this in remembrance of me……..” I believe until we agree what it is we cannot agree to take it together as this further blurs the reason for the sacrament in the first place. Often the agenda for unity sidelines the core reason why we celebrate a sacrament or religious practice as we do! Distinctiveness is not an enemy to unity but a good friend who tells it how it is.

  5. Wesley, thank you for your response.

    I think the challenge of a shared Eucharist is acknowledging the value of the different meanings that the Lord’s Supper has taken on within and between different Christian communities. In my opinion, one finds the sacrament devalued because of others’ differences only when one chooses to let it be so. I believe the significance of the act of celebrating the Lord’s Supper is greater than the meaning attributed to it by the consecrating president or receiving individual or community.

  6. People often say implicitly that when you see things my way we can have unity, or in this case sit down together at communion. This on the face of it is seen or regarded as a “”bigot” forcing his or her view or belief on another, but what if what he or she believes is the truth? (Wither forcefully or lovingly communicated) In our post-modern society we have come to the point, that holding an absolute is not possible, that truth as an absolute does not exist because of human filters that are applied to it in it’s interpretation. This philosophical argument sounds to all intensive purposes absolutely true, yet it falls by it’s own sword. What starts of as an argument (in the apologetic sense) to defuse bigotry or strongly held beliefs, becomes a ghetto mentality in it own right, it itself becomes insular and bigoted, it moves from the forum of “healthy beliefs” sparing and debating for the truth, into a group of people who’s minds are muddied by debate for debate’s sake. Its subtle debate does little to find the truth, but much in furthering the confusion among the masses who seek it. By saying everything is right and permissible to the bearer of that belief, brings about and anarchy not a consciences. This delusion that grips those in this camp it is then forced upon others in the name of unity (their only unity is in the delusion they’re in) . Semantics, clever argument and rebuttal of the truth gives their intellectual prowess wings, only to plunge to their demise because of the waxy substance they have used to bind their argument together with.

    In conclusion: let us establish what is truth and follow it, not the whim of man, let us find true unity in Christ not in what we do or don’t do!

  7. Hi Wesley,

    You write, “By saying everything is right and permissible to the bearer of that belief, brings about and anarchy not a consciences.”

    I certainly don’t think that is the position of all post-moderns. I think a healthy contribution that post modernism has made is pointing out that there are a lot of competing truth claims actually out there. So when people claim that one belief about a particular issue is absolutely true it requires an awful lot of confidence (which may or may not be unfounded). This doesn’t necessarily have to descend into relativism, or saying that all moral judgements are equally valid.

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