Who among us is “worthy” to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion?
I received my letter accepting me as a student at the University of Notre Dame in February of 2020. About a month later, the whole world, including institutions of higher learning, shut down in person operations in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. Because of the pandemic, I attended my classes for an entire year before actually stepping foot on campus. When we were finally welcomed to study under the Golden Dome in person in the summer of 2021, I knew many of my classmates from our online interactions, but I hadn’t met anyone in person yet. My classmates knew I was a priest in the Episcopal Church and they knew I was passionate about Jesus and about his mother’s university. And many of them were confused when I did not go to receive Holy Communion the first day that we all celebrated mass together in the Notre Dame Law School chapel. Many of my classmates strongly felt that, as a Christian priest, I ought to be welcomed at the Lord’s table. They were very discouraged that I was not able to receive Communion. Against my knowledge, many of them discussed an opportunity to refrain from receiving Communion in solidarity with me. While I appreciate their passion, I’m glad they did not refuse Communion on my behalf. I am, however, very glad they recognized that there is a real problem in the wider Christian Church. Sadly, the thing that is supposed to unite Christians, the theology surrounding the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, is perhaps more divisive amongst Christians than anything else.
“Why can’t you receive Communion?” I was asked numerous times.
“Because the Episcopal Church and other Anglican churches are not in communion with Rome,” I answered. “This is a much bigger issue than something that can be resolved by a few dozen theology students in a law school chapel on a muggy June day in northern Indiana.”
We did not resolve the problem that day and it has not yet been resolved. But what exactly is the problem? The Roman Catholic Church has very strict rules pertaining to reception of Holy Communion. Only baptized Catholics who are “in a state of grace” are permitted to receive the Eucharist. While every Christian must do their own discernment to recognize whether they are in a state of grace (free from what Catholics call “mortal sin”), it is well known that those who belong to churches not in full communion with the Holy See are not welcome at the table. Complicating the matter further, the Roman Catholic Church not only recognizes me as an apostate for becoming received and then ordained in the Episcopal Church, but also as a divorced Catholic. I’m pretty distant in their eyes from being in that state of grace that the Catechism of the Catholic Church so freely talks about.
While Roman Catholics are quite strict about who can receive Communion and under what circumstances, Anglicanism has a much more broad understanding. For starters, the canons of the Episcopal Church teach that all baptized Christians may receive Communion. While Episcopalians stress no need to be in a state of grace in order to receive, the Book of Common Prayer does teach that if we wish to receive, “it is required that we should examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people” (BCP p. 860). In good Anglican fashion, this policy relies much more heavily on personal discernment and much less so on ecclesial requirements. And although I’m not supposed to do this, I take things a step further: I willingly would offer communion to anyone, even if they are not baptized as a Christian.
Let me be clear that there are a whole lot of reasons to have rules surrounding the reception of Holy Communion. The scriptures teach us that it is important to receive Holy Communion “worthily” (see, for instance, 1 Corinthians 11:29). And I must also be clear that I am not authorized to change official policies of the Episcopal Church. I simply also don’t believe that I am authorized to decide for someone else whether they are “worthy” of reception. In fact, I think it would be arrogant for me to say I know better than someone else how worthy they are to have access to Jesus Christ. As one of his priests, I try to take my lead from Jesus. Jesus gave Communion to both Judas and Peter at the Last Supper. He did so knowing that Judas would betray him and that Peter would deny him. In fact, maybe because of those offenses, they needed Communion more than anyone else.
The policy surrounding Holy Communion was one of the catalysts that drove me away from my Roman Catholic roots. When I was a child, I had to go through a ritual called “First Holy Communion.” I had to interview with the parish priest and answer questions about my understanding of the sacrament of the Eucharist. I then had to receive the sacrament of reconciliation prior to receiving communion for the first time. There was an expectation of going to confession regularly. In fact, as a school group, we went to confession monthly. Honestly, how sinful could a group of prepubescent Catholic school kids really be? But this constant reminder of my unworthiness stuck with me. It interfered with my sense of self worth. Wanting to stay worthy, I felt immense shame if I did anything that might even be questionably considered a sin. And it all came to a head after my divorce, when I needed the Body of Christ in a way I never had in the past. And yet, I was told not to approach the table. Divorce, I was told, was a mortal sin. Without procuring an annulment, I would never be welcome at the Communion rail ever again.
In the Episcopal Church, this simply wasn’t true. In fact, Episcopalians understand that reception of Communion brings “forgiveness of our sins” (BCP p. 859). Note the contrast here. One denomination says that if you are a sinner, you’d best not come forward. Another says that we are all sinners and therefore in need of the grace of the sacrament. I can tell you which policy resonates better with me!
Roman Catholics and Episcopalians have very similar Eucharistic liturgies. In fact, many denominations do. Attend a Catholic service, an Episcopal service, and a Lutheran service on consecutive weeks and you might not even notice you’re in a different church. So why aren’t Anglicans invited to the table when we attend Roman Catholic mass? Firstly, despite our best efforts, our bishops have not yet been able to arrive at an agreement of full communion. It is a goal of both churches, but it is not likely to occur any time soon. Secondly, it is because Roman Catholicism teaches something called “transubstantiation.” Transubstantiation is the teaching that the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine change substance to become the physical Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, while retaining the “accidents” (or the physical attributes: color, texture, taste, etc.) of bread and wine. A belief in transubstantiation is required by Roman canons for a person to be admitted to the sacrament.
That’s all well and good, but let’s be honest. Does anyone really understand transubstantiation? I’ve studied under some of the most brilliant minds in American Christianity today. I’ve studied under top scholars in the Episcopal Church, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, and Roman Catholicism. And while I was taught about transubstantiation from the time I was a child, I can assure you I don’t fully understand what it means. And, even though they might disagree with me, those brilliant scholars who taught me likely wouldn’t be able to explain it to me in a way that could make me fully understand. Without “understanding” transubstantiation, our conversations about full communion will remain at a standstill.
In Anglicanism, we use a term that I believe is much more helpful. I also believe it includes transubstantiation. It also includes the Lutheran term, “consubstantiation.” The term is Real Presence. While transubstantiation says that the bread and wine becomes Jesus Christ, and consubstantiation teaches that Jesus is present in the bread and wine, but the bread and wine still remain bread and wine, Real Presence is all-inclusive. Real Presence teaches that Jesus Christ is present with us in the sacrament in some mystical way. And while the word “mystical” might sound like a cop out, it isn’t. It simply means that we acknowledge it’s something that God handles, and we don’t have to understand it in order to believe it. Maybe someday we will achieve an understanding and maybe someday we won’t, but we don’t have to drive ourselves crazy trying to understand something that isn’t for us to understand. Jesus told us to “do this for the remembrance of me” (BCP p. 362). He didn’t give us a 5,000-page theology book to study beforehand. He simply told us he wanted us to continue to break bread and to share the sacrament in his memory. There weren’t any theologians present when the sacrament was instituted. Jesus’s friends were there. That’s it. And I’m guessing they weren’t exactly in a position to be concerned with understanding what Jesus meant. I’m sure they were much more worried about the pending arrest and execution of their friend and teacher than they were about ensuring no crumbs of bread fell on the floor. Jesus didn’t ask them any quiz questions or tell them they needed to go to confession first. In fact, the only people who received communion from Jesus himself were not Christians. They were Jews. Jesus gave communion to the unbaptized. He did so knowingly and willingly.
While I am not in communion with him, I admire many of the words and actions of Pope Francis. The Pontiff, who leads the world’s one billion Roman Catholics, has said, “Communion is not a prize for the perfect person, but food for the hungry person.” I strongly agree with this teaching, although it remains outside the official policy of Roman Catholicism. I also believe Pope Francis would offer Holy Communion to me. In fact, a number of Roman Catholic priests, especially Jesuits, have offered Holy Communion to me even though they knew I was (gasp!) an apostate and a priest in another denomination.
But what about people who say that we should understand what we’re doing if we wish to receive Holy Communion? I will tell you candidly, I don’t fully understand what I’m doing when I receive. And that’s after a nearly a decade of ordained ministry and five years of graduate level theological study. But do you know who I do believe understands? Little children. Although I had to wait until the third grade to receive communion, I believe it was a mistake for my parish to make me wait. There is nothing that lights up quite like the face of a young child who comes forward to receive Holy Communion. I have seen children skip, run, jump, and bounce their way forward, and I have seen the ear-to-ear smiles on their faces as I offer them a piece of consecrated bread. If you ever see a child who is enthusiastic about participating in Holy Communion, encourage their behavior! I hope they never lose that sense of excitement and wonder. When it comes to understanding the Eucharist, I assure you those kids understand it far better than I do.
It felt horrible to be denied Holy Communion in that chapel at Notre Dame that muggy June day two years ago. It also felt horrible to know that, as a child, I wasn’t able to participate fully. I remember wanting communion so badly. And I remember feeling rejected. It was painful. I don’t want anyone to feel the pain of believing Jesus doesn’t want them at his table. I hope and pray for an agreement of full communion to be reached at some point, although I’m not expecting it to happen in my lifetime. I also happen to believe that Anglican theology offers the best product Christianity has to offer. I believe Anglicanism gives us the freedom to practice our faith the way Jesus taught us to. But in Jesus’s prayer, he prays “that they all may be one” (John 17:21). He wants us to be one, not in any specific denomination, but in him. In his Church. In his one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. And he wants us to have a relationship with him. To facilitate that relationship, he offered up his Body and Blood for us. For you and for me. And if I’m worthy to receive him, then all of us are worthy.