Communion and inclusion


I hadn't taken communion since I was sixteen; it had been a point of pride. But last Sunday, I attended a service where I almost had no choice. The service was highly participatory, and all the congregation gathered in a circle around the communion table. There wasn't any way for me to get out of it without seeming rude.

It was one of those churches that not only practiced open communion, it insisted on it. It is a warm and welcoming church, and they tell you when you enter the church as a visitor that you should wear a name tag because you are addressed by name during communion. And, in fact, that was exactly what happened, when the bread was handed to me.

Since communion is a ritual that is so important to most of Christianity, how it is performed does say something about how serious the church is about practicing the radical inclusion that Jesus taught. There seem to be two, completely opposite philosophies--one positive, the other negative. Some churches have a very exclusive philosophy on the subject, and only offer it to baptized Christians, or even worse, such as in the case of the Catholic Church, only members of that particular denomination in good standing are allowed to receive the bread and wine. This idea of exclusive communion is such a perversion of everything that Jesus taught and lived--the man who practiced open commensality with prostitutes and tax collectors.

Before last Sunday, I had attended other services where open communion was practiced, but I never did participate. It was easy enough to decline the offer--I would just sit in my seat and not get up during that portion of the service. But when you and everyone else is are standing in a circle around the table, that option just isn't so easily available. My reasons for having declined in the past were complicated. I grew up in a denomination that saw communion as a shared act by baptized, believing Christians. As an adult far removed from that time in my life, a part of me still looks at Christian church services from the perspective of an outsider looking in; and I just feel, given that my views are outside the mainstream and probably different from those held by most of the people who are in the pews with me, that somehow it isn't right for me to partake of communion. If I partake, I wonder, am I dishonestly affirming somehow that I believe certain things about Jesus? Is is a symbolic equivalent to reciting the Nicene creed? Am I betraying my own beliefs and pretending to be something I am not?

And since I don't have the same beliefs about Jesus that orthodox Christians have, to me communion is like a test you have to pass--a belief test, or a membership test--that I knew I would not pass. For those churches that professed open communion--the ones that tell me it's okay, that it doesn't matter what my beliefs are--in the back of my mind I nevertheless felt like it was somehow presumptuous of me to assume that I belonged in that ritual of communion when I don't see God or Jesus in the same way that they do.

Some of the theology that surrounds communion doesn't really work for me, either--all that talk about the body and blood of Christ. Even for churches that reject out of hand the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, there is still usually some mention of Christ's body and blood. When the focus of the communion is on this kind of theology about Jesus, it doesn't resonate with me; when, on the other hand, it is instead offered simply as an expression of radical inclusiveness and community for all seekers who attend, that's another story.

From an anthropological perspective, one can argue that food sharing at meal time is one of the most essential elements of the human social experience; food sharing is one of the things that separates humans from our ape cousins. Humans in pre-agricultural times were hunters and gatherers; they went out, got food, and then brought it back to the wider community for sharing and eating. So building a ritual around the celebration of a common meal does have the potential of great symbolism--if it is done to promote inclusion rather than exclusion--because it hearkens back to the very essence of what it means to be human.

As an adult, for many years I attended worship at two denominations (Quaker and Unitarian Universalist) that didn't practice communion at all. And I kind of liked that. Because I saw communion as an unnecessary ritual, built around a Christological symbolism that I did not accept and integrated into a theology of exclusivism, I was happy to see the entire practice jettisoned from my worship experience. So to attend progressive Christian denominations that practice communion, as I have done recently, becomes during the communion portion a kind of entrance into a eerily uncomfortable world where I don't quite feel like I fit in. I have felt fortunate that the church I have attended the most often only practices communion once a month. And I have always felt relieved that there is no communion whatosever at the Taize services that I attend on Wednesday nights.

Last Sunday, when I felt compelled to participate in the act, my initial reaction was that I was betraying myself by participating. My long streak of many years of avoiding the communion was coming to an end, and at a church that I was only just visiting. It was like losing my virginity casually, and I had been hoping that if I ever did lose my communion virginity, I would save myself for--well, I wasn't sure what, but it would be in the context of some kind of commitment to something I could be deeply involved with. When I felt the wine go down my throat, it warmed my throat and felt pleasant. My aversion to communion hasn't really changed as a result of that experience, but I also know this: it wasn't the end of the world after all.