Orthodoxy and Closed Communion

In an article, Koinonia and Eucharistic Unity (pdf file; may require subscription to journal server), Peter C. Bouteneff makes some cogent points as to why Orthodox do not practice open communion.

The issue of eucharistic sharing continues to burn in the hearts of Christians who are yet disunited; as well it should. The Eucharist—as rite, as event—is both intensely corporate (ecclesial) and also deeply personal. It is a sign and builder of unity between Christians; at the same time, while a gift of God, it is an act of personal devotion in which the total self is given and the divine is received. The inability of all people who confess Jesus Christ as God and Savior to participate together from a common cup is something that is impossible to take lightly. The pain of division is felt in proportion to the extent to which one experiences a degree of unity among Christians, a unity despite differences at the level of both doctrine and practice which are often very serious. This something that unites us despite our divisions is what those who participate in the ecumenical movement have come to call koinonia. . . .

Orthodox and Protestants approach doctrine in different ways. To say that Protestantism, post-Schleiermacher, gives a profound importance to perception and feeling is a stereotype, but one with a grain of truth. In any event one would be well grounded in saying that Protestants emphasize scripture over doctrine, for doctrine, unlike scripture, is seen as a limited, human construct. This is not to suggest that Protestants do not hold strictly to their respective confessional documents. But there are fewer tenets which are put into the category of dogma, or nonnegotiable truth. One of the clear signs of this fact, to an Orthodox believer, is the quite wide theological diversity that exists within some of the Protestant families, about which I will have more to say below. Another indication is the fact that intra-Protestant church union and church fellowship agreements of recent decades have been enabled in some instances by a certain suspension of doctrine and practice, notably in the areas of ministry and succession. To Orthodox sensibilities, this shows that koinonia has triumphed over dogma.

Orthodox are less apprehensive of dogma. This is partly because scripture and dogma, or more broadly scripture and tradition, are seen as contiguous: scripture arises out of tradition and forms a part of it, and the totality of tradition is seen as not merely human but a living dialogue, taking place within the church, between human persons and the Holy Spirit. Orthodox have also been more inclined to subject perceptions and feelings to the mind (I also have more to say below about the Greek word nous), and especially to the “mind of the church,” as expressed through the scriptures and the rest of the church’s tradition.

It seems to me that somewhere within this dynamic lies a significant portion of the bewilderment, and even offense, which characterize our different approaches to eucharistic sharing. Many Protestants express their puzzlement at why the Orthodox do not just lay aside some of their proscriptive teachings on the basis of a koinonia that is plain for anyone to see. Similarly, Orthodox are perplexed at the apparent facility of Protestant eucharistic sharing, amazed to see some of the steps taken in order to achieve church agreements (e.g., as mentioned above, in issues of ministry and episcope). And it appears that little can help this mutual bewilderment, other than to name it for what it is, and continue trying to understand each other.

The koinonia we know (which is both real and imperfectly realized) and its reflection in the sacramental life of the churches come into sharp focus in the relationship between baptism and the Eucharist. This relationship is rich on many levels. The Orthodox see these two sacraments as inextricably linked; some even speak of the two (together with chrismation or anointing) as virtually one sacrament. When we baptize and anoint, whether a forty-day-old infant or a forty-year-old adult, the next immediate sacramental action is the Eucharist. Baptism and Eucharist are linked also in that the one is a prerequisite for the other: in order to receive the Eucharist in our church, one needs to be a baptized Orthodox Christian. The Eucharist is a sacrament of the baptized, a sacrament of those who have entered into the life in Christ and into the faith of the church through the ages. Moreover, it is the sacrament of those who have entered into a specific community of faith—by this is meant not only the community of the parish, but the community of the church with which that parish incarnates and identifies.

Given the connection between baptism and Eucharist, the question is quite justly raised, and is the subject of contemporary ecumenical study: if the churches recognize each other’s baptism—in other words, if we believe that we share a common baptism— why do we not share in the common eucharistic fellowship? What is different between baptism and Eucharist, other than the simple fact that the latter one is repeatable and the former is not, which justifies an apparently different perception and discipline? The answer to that question lies within the areas of recognition, ecclesiastical identity, and ecclesiastical unity.

First, one needs to explore the nature of the recognition of common baptism, for it would be entirely erroneous to say that we recognize a common baptism among all Christians. Here it must be acknowledged that within the Orthodox Church there is a certain variety of views on baptism performed outside its canonical boundaries.” There are Orthodox communities who, following a strict Cyprianic approach (adopted in the early third century and not retained with any consistency since then), rebaptize all who enter the Orthodox Church, no matter whence they have come. Yet the mainstream position, so far as it is testified, for example, by Orthodox service books (euchologia), follows rather the approach of St Basil’s late fourth century Canonical Epistle, which prescribes entry by baptism only for those, such as Manichaeans, Gnostics, or Marcionites, with a radically different conception of God.

But even this abstention from rebaptism does not indicate recognition of a common baptism. Yes, for most Orthodox churches, baptism performed with water and with the invocation of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (thus named) is understood as an entry into life in Christ, whether performed at the hands of a Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox priest. Therefore converts from other churches (baptized as described above) are not rebaptized but, depending on the tradition from which they have come, are received with one or more of the following rites: an Orthodox confession of faith, a renunciation of previous error, the rite of anointing with chrism. What these rites of entry indicate is that baptism outside the Orthodox Church is indeed recognized as a real and effective entry, but—and this is significant—one which requires a completion. It is thus a partial recognition, based not only on the conviction that God does not turn away from the request made in all faith, but also on the impossibility of affirming with certitude that, through a baptism outside the Orthodox church, one has entered into precisely the same reality, not to speak of the same community of faith.

As is well known, we Orthodox identify our church with the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. We further hold that there is but one church of Christ, and that there is no division within this body, but only from it. And yet there are different extents of separation. As the dictum goes, we know where the Holy Spirit is, but we do not know where the Holy Spirit is not. So here again, while acknowledging a certain range of views from exclusivist to inclusivist, most contemporary Orthodox theologians who have considered the question from within the canonical Orthodox churches acknowledge sacramental reality outside the canonical boundaries of their church. This holds for both baptism and the Eucharist, and not by virtue of a simplistic notion of oikonomia.

If one looks closely, the understanding and pastoral practice surrounding baptism outside the Orthodox Church is thus in fact quite the same as for the Eucharist. In both cases there may (or may not) be a recognition of sacramental grace. But in neither case would one concelebrate the rite, for there is the crucial question of ecclesiastical identity involved: into which church, into which faith community is this a baptism? And while of course Christ is the ultimate minister of the Eucharist, who is its earthly minister? Moreover, in neither case would one consider the rites performed according to different confessions as interchangeable.

The Eucharist is bound together with ecclesiastical identity. Shared or concelebrated Eucharist would be indicative of a unity that in fact does not exist, testifying to a confused ecclesiastical identity. The same thing could be said about concelebrating baptism (could one call it “baptismal sharing”?). Such a rite would simply make no sense until we are visibly one church. If baptism signifies entry into the church through entry into a particular faith community, a joint baptism into churches which are yet divided would be a completely schizophrenic exercise.

Having thus set out the dogmatic, however imperfectly, I turn now to what I have referred to as the phenomenological. As convinced as one may or may not be by the Orthodox positions on the church and the sacraments, the question still follows: Are the differences in our faith and life not mere details? Are we not, finally, one in Christ? The walls of division surely do not reach heaven and do not touch eternity. Then why can we not, at least in special cases, set the strict teaching aside and receive together from one cup, at the eucharistic celebration, which, as the eschatological rite par excellence, is the very real foretaste of heaven and of eternity?

This question comes both from the mind and the heart, perhaps especially from the heart. It is important to state once again that an honest and sensible person of any confession asks this question with earnestness; no such person is immune to the pain stemming from the impossibility of partaking together in the eucharist. I recall how Alexander Schmemann, who was very close to my family, talked with us on his return from the enthronization ceremony of Pope John Paul I. There was an enormous celebration of the Eucharist, at which all the Roman Catholic clergy were communing, but from which he had to abstain. “I felt like the lowest worm,” he said. The question, the challenge of why we cannot share, comes out of a longing ultimately to share in the Eucharist.

When Protestants ask Orthodox why they do not share the eucharist, I often sense not only pain but a sense of outrage. The conviction seems to be that what is really at the root of Orthodox inability to share across the confessions is finally closed-mindedness, closed-heartedness, sectarianism, and triumphalism. That assumption, while understandable in the face of the insensitivity with which we Orthodox often present our views, is in itself very sad and painful to behold.

A related approach goes thus: “We invite you Orthodox to share in our Eucharist. Why can you not accept? And further, why can you not invite us too? Clearly this is not our problem but yours. We are open; you are closed. You exclude us.” Using the categories set out above, one can say that this approach represents a spurning of the dogmatic in favor of the phenomenological. It assumes that no teaching about the church, no understanding of the Eucharist, is important enough to justify forbidding us to share, on the basis of koinonia, if not human graciousness. At the same time, it also shows how very differently we understand what the Eucharist is in the first place. And it is on the level of the radical difference in what we mean by the whole concept of Eucharist and church that we need to approach this issue, rather than on the level of accusations of exclusiveness, elitism, or closed-mindedness. . . .

The Orthodox position on the Eucharist is such that intercommunion and eucharistic hospitality are completely foreign concepts: there is eucharistic communion where there is shared ecclesiastical identity; these are of a piece with each other. If we are in communion with a church, we are of the same church, for, as it is often said, Eucharist constitutes the sign, the crown, of an existing unity. . . .

So let us ask the question again: is the Eucharist a sign of unity or a builder of unity? There need not be any confusion on this matter: we ought simply to admit that it is both. True, the Orthodox, particularly in the context of inter- Christian relations, stress the character of the Eucharist as sign or mark of an existing or achieved unity. At the same time, it is undeniable that in partaking in the Eucharist within the Orthodox church, we also experience a building up of unity between us, as persons and as local communities. But there is only one appropriate context for this unitive function of the Eucharist, namely a clear, expressed bond of already-existing unity—that is, membership in the same church. An analogy can be drawn with a similarly intense, unifying phenomenon: sexual union. Sexual union is not only the sign of unity between persons, it also builds that union. But if we view this rightly, it is something whose unitive fruits we enjoy and are given properly to realize only from within a specific permanent covenantal relationship, namely, marriage. . . .

In some ways, “dogmatic” and “phenomenological” are just fancy words to designate the mind and the heart. Some may then think that what has been said can be summarized as “you either follow your mind, obeying the teachings of the church, or your follow your heart, and lay aside these teachings.” But this potential divorce between mind and heart is ultimately in itself a distortion, something artificial. The mind, after all, especially if we consider it in terms of the way the Greeks understood nous, is the self-transcending element of the human person; it is the seat not merely of the academic exercise but also of prayer, of intuition, of intercourse with God. If we listen to the church’s great teachers on the life of prayer we know that the mind and the heart are to work as a unity.

Furthermore, the teachings of the church are not true because they are dogmas. If we are persons who believe in the holy church—as we confess in our creeds—it is the reverse: they attain the status of dogma precisely because they are true. Seen this way, respect for the doctrine of the church is not the submission of the mind to an arbitrary authority, but a free obedience of the whole person to the church, which he or she confesses as holy and true.

2 thoughts on “Orthodoxy and Closed Communion

  1. Sorry ’bout that, Jakob. Since all my jobs are at academic institutions, and since I can access the schools websites from home, it’s hard to know what journals are accessible or not.

    I do have the full article, so email me if you want to see a copy.

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