Sacrament of unity, sign of contention
Who may we break the bread of Eucharist with? Who should we? Tui Motu discusses this fundamental question of belief and practice with theologian Neil Darragh and others
In his book on Eucharist, When Christians Gather, Auckland theologian Fr Neil Darragh poses the question who do we celebrate with? He answers as follows: “It may seem a strange question to ask at all. Shouldn’t we be prepared to celebrate Eucharist with anyone? Are we to pick and choose between people and exclude some while including others? Is it narrow-minded and exclusivist even to ask such a question?...
We should note that the issue with whom we celebrate Eucharist is not just a modern question. It is also a traditional one. Eucharist is a sign of unity among Christians. This is a readily acknowledged understanding of the meaning of Eucharist.
We do not, however, give quite so much acknowledgment to its converse. Eucharist also operates as a sign of schism... Eucharist expresses not only the unity of Christians, but also legitimate pluralism among Christians, as well as unreconciled differences between Christians. (pp96-98)
Christians ‘loving’ one another!
At the Last Supper, after sharing the bread and cup and saying; This is my body; this is my blood, Jesus bade us to do this in memory of me (Lk 22,19; I Cor 11, 24-25). So, from the very beginning his disciples gathered regularly to break bread ‘in memory of him’. Eucharist has constantly been a focal point in the life of Christians.
It was to have been the focal point of unity also, but this has hardly ever been the case. Twenty centuries of Christianity have been a history of schism, internal squabbling and even mutual persecution. When Christians today sing the popular hymn: “..and they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love...”, the cynic could be forgiven for uttering a hollow laugh.
These days it is unusual for Christians to burn each other at the stake or torture ‘heretics’ on the rack. Nevertheless, attempts to heal schism and negotiate reunion have been fraught with disappointment. In a fractured world one might wish religion to be a force for peace and reconciliation; in fact, religious feuding – even among Christians – has simply served to add fuel to the fire of civil and international strife.
In the Sudan, Christians in the south fight Muslims in the north. In the Balkans, over recent years, Muslims, Greek Orthodox and Catholics have been at each other’s throats and have even practised ethnic cleansing on each other. In Northern Ireland the civil conflict is described as ‘sectarian’, even if the underlying reasons are historical, political and social.
Even in a predominantly Catholic country such as El Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero uttered this lament: There is a great sickness in today’s world: not knowing how to love. Everything is selfishness, everything is the exploitation of human beings by other human beings, everything is cruelty, torture. Everything is repression, violence.
They burn the houses of their brothers and sisters, they take their brothers and sisters prisoner and tor-ture them. There are so many horrible acts of one person against another! How Jesus would suffer tonight to see the atmosphere of our country and so much cruelty! I seem to see Christ saddened looking at El Salvador from his Passover table and saying: “and I told them to love one another like I loved them. (1978)
El Salvador is a very poor country. Yet great wealth had been concentrated in the hands of a small cluster of ruling families. A corrupt police state guaranteed that this gross mal-distribution of wealth was perpetuated. Romero protested in the name of the Gospel. But his own fellow bishops did not support him; the Vatican snubbed him. He was gunned down while celebrating Mass in a convent chapel. His blood was mingled with the precious Blood of Christ.
Eucharist symbolises both aspects. The bread broken and shared represents the open table fellowship which Jesus himself practised and which he demands of his followers. The wine, however, represents the blood spilt. It is the cruel death of Jesus which we are commemorating as well as the hospitality of his life. Jesus challenges us to risk comfort, reputation and even life itself when we follow him. It is little wonder that Eucharist contains this ambivalence: a sign of contention as well as of unity.
Ritual – who may be present?
Neil Darragh points out that even where there is no theological difference, ritual can be both inclusive and exclusive: there are always boundaries, which may be geographical, cultural, racial. Or it may be just a case of who you most feel comfortable with. A Christian liturgy is never totally open: what Christians have to determine is where the boundaries should be drawn.
In terms of being a ‘sacrament of unity’, therefore, Eucharist attempts to include all those whom it is possible to include. The participants are people who already have something in common and therefore are entitled to be included. In Eucharist, this unity is founded in the person of Christ.
But someone may have been excluded, say, by a deliberate action contrary to a commonly held belief. They have become marginalised. They are not quite in and not quite out, and have to undergo a ritual process in order to be brought back in.
A penitential rite customarily introduces the Eucharistic liturgy – not only in Catholic ritual; Presbyterians and Anglicans also have it. It is a reminder that every person has to turn away from his/her selfish or idolatrous actions in order to approach the Lord’s Table. All of us are to some degree marginalised.
Circumstances such as language and culture usually render it difficult for people always to celebrate rituals together, but they do not necessarily exclude anyone. Among immigrant communities this kind of pluralism is common and perfectly reasonable: we would find it today in many Auckland and Wellington parishes. Immigrants prefer their own language, but are usually comfortable also attending an English liturgy. Even schismatic Christian migrants may seek and find a home in another church if their own church is not present.
As regards those groups out of communion with each other, says Neil Darragh, Eucharist may perhaps be seen as a ‘strategy’. One view (the Catholic one) is not to practise open communion, because receiving Eucharist is a sign of unity achieved. On the other hand, Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists in recent times have moved towards a more open policy where they would admit to Eucharist baptised members of other denominations. The criterion of acceptance is simply: are you baptised?
‘ Uniting parishes’ are found in many places. This recognises that differences between the denominations are not that great; only structural differences or differing traditions still keep them apart. Intercommunion becomes a means of achieving unity, rather than a mark of unity achieved.
Neil Darragh observes, however, that these days intercommunion is seen by many churches less and less as a normal thing. They prefer to remain apart and retain their identity, but will come together occasionally. They are not necessarily aiming at eventual unity. This is a new stage in ecumenism where the aim is intercomunion rather than unity.
Catholics also practise this with some of the Eastern churches: they may intercommunicate without intending to become unified. Individuals may ‘shop around’, so to speak, but the churches themselves continue to remain distinct.
A Presbyterian voice
The Rev. Denzil Brown was for many years Minister of First Church in Dunedin and a leading figure in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa. Tui Motu asked him for his opinion and experience in these matters. For him and for those in the Presbyterian communion who think like him, Eucharist – the Lord’s Supper – is the norm of Christian worship. Eucharist embodies the ‘oneness’ which Christ desired. This does not imply a forced uniformity; nor does it allow for exclusion from one another.
Christian disunity, he maintains, is nothing less than a scandal. Pope John XXIII provided a welcome ecumenical initiative, reinforced in the Second Vatican Council. By working together, by listening to each other, by praying together, by becoming friends, there has been a thawing of relations between Christian churches. Denzil believes that even if common worship does not happen, the possibility of shared communion should be a real aim. Eucharist and Mission are essentials for us as Christians. It is by seeing the unity of Christians that the world can be brought to believe in Jesus Christ.
“ If,” he says, “the different traditions (in the one church of God, but which we scandalously accept as separate ‘churches’) were to see that we are all in the presence of that which is greater – in the presence of God – then we might be more willing to allow the sacrament of unity to become that which in God’s purpose it is intended to be”.
Denzil Brown, however, laments the widening divisions in his own communion – between the extreme wings of literalist evangelism and reductionist liberalism. Presbyterians are not alone in this. All the churches are experiencing such tensions. Perhaps these need to be healed first as a preliminary to a renewed ecumenism.
Healing and Eucharist.
Political divisions which erupt into civil strife are rarely religious only. They are more likely to be social or historical in origin. Religious differences tend to make a tense situation worse. Religion can divide – but it can also help to heal.
Eucharist can become a means of healing. When celebrating Eucharist, people are saying something about themselves and how they relate to each other. If there is division, Eucharist can certainly express that division. But it can also be a way of trying to break it down. This is illustrated by the joint Eucharist which recently occurred in Drogheda (see Glynn Cardy opposite).
It frequently happens at an individual level where a couple chooses to receive communion together, even though one of them belongs to another denomination. Or on occasions when interdenominational groups are gathered for some common religious purpose. Or where, say, a Presbyterian attends a Catholic retreat. People practise intercommunion, even though it may not be according to the rules. They are using the symbol to say ‘while there is still division, we are trying to overcome it’.
But Neil Darragh insists that so-called ‘open communion’ should never be forced on people. They may not want it or feel ready for it.
Discrimination: historical injustices.
The church itself is sometimes accused of discrimination. For example, the position of women in ministry or discrimination against homosexuals, refusing communion to divorced and remarried people: all these are justice issues. Exclusion in such cases may be unjust, and the criteria for exclusion need to be re-examined. One problem is that liturgy may serve to entrench such injustices. People tend to make their own decisions on these issues, and perhaps that will lead to a solution.
Even with regard to traditional religious splits, people are beginning to vote with their feet. Perhaps ecumenism will progress more rapidly through individual action than through formal negotiation. People on the borders of Eucharist are taking the steps themselves. On Good Friday Christians of all denominations will often process the Cross together. This is good witness. Perhaps it would be better if Catholics were to drop their Good Friday communion service, since it may keep them away from a shared service.
The ideal, says Neil Darragh, is that the Christian church in a particular area should cater for all the varieties of Christians in that area. The people do not all have to attend at the same time. But organisers should strive to meet the local needs in all their cultural diversity. Perhaps some groups will periodically have Eucharist in their own language.
In New Zealand, divisions between faiths are largely a matter of where people originally came from when they emigrated. It is hoped that the hurts which caused the split have been left behind. But ecumenism is now past the point where it seeks uniformity, because most Christians desire to remain faithful to the particular tradition they were brought up in. What is now being sought is communion along with difference.
If there have been deep divisions, then more than just ritual healing is needed. The injustices need to be put right. Such reconciliation takes time. The key is to recognise that, while the official church stance may seem to preclude a coming together, in fact Eucharist has always involved negotiation around the borders.
A ‘sacramental’ union
People interrelate in order to achieve common outcomes. They achieve better mutual understanding, but also come to determine what they are prepared to stand firmly about together. What are we prepared to commit themselves to? Who will be our leaders? How will leadership happen? These are the questions people ask when they negotiate.
When people from different religious traditions come together to celebrate a common liturgy they are about to do something which hopefully will have a profound and lasting effect. It belongs to the category of ‘sacrament’ in the sense that it is an effective sign. Afterwards they are going to be different people. It is not just a discussion or a show they are putting on.
Likewise, forgiveness is a process which changes both parties, provided that what needs to be healed is healed. ‘Reconciliation’ can happen too quickly. Rev. David Crooke, a Dunedin Anglican priest, agrees that movements towards closer co-operation, or even corporate reunion, move slowly because true healing takes time. The hurts may not have been healed: the psychological conditions may not have been properly met. It is the will to achieve healing that really counts in the long run.