The sacraments (36): A leap over the church fence?

Some call it the Eucharist, others the Lord’s Supper. For some it is ministers acting in Christ’s stead, for others it is the universal priesthood. For some it is a transformation, for others the body and blood of Christ are joined to the substance. Here it is Christ, there it is a symbol. Although Holy Communion is celebrated in all churches, it is celebrated differently everywhere.

There are many things that make a joint celebration difficult. Attempts to unify the rites of the Eucharist have been made time and again. The Lima Declaration of 1982 is a key document for the ecumenical churches. Already then it was clear that there are three major issues on which the churches differ: baptism, Eucharist, and ministry. Little has changed in this respect to this day. Only in their understanding of baptism have the churches managed to move closer together.

With regard to the Lord’s Supper the positions are still far apart. The Lima Declaration merely documents the lowest common denominator: the Eucharist is a thanksgiving for the sacrifice of Christ. In this sacrament the Christian celebrates communion with Christ, with His church, and with one another. The sacrament should be celebrated every Sunday and necessarily includes well-defined, biblical liturgical texts. Finally, it expresses the hope that “a greater degree of Eucharistic communion” can be attained.

Ecumenism as it is currently understood—the reconciled acceptance in view of the different profiles—stimulates the discussion on a common understanding of Holy Communion. However, taking a broader view and looking beyond is also painful. Some faithful church members complain publicly that things are not moving forward on this basic issue, and church leaders respond with theological explanations as to why that which belongs together does not come together. For actually, according to a widely held assumption, the Lord’s Supper is a communal meal of Christians in memory of their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Interdenominational hospitality

Yes, it is that, but it is also so much more. And the denominations give different weight to this “more”, because interdenominational communion already exists, but usually within the same denominational family. The leap over the church fence into other denominational families is still too big for most churches and theologically untenable. A joint step for now at least is the temporary invitation, Eucharistic hospitality: members of other denominations partake of the Lord’s Supper as guests.

This is also the model the New Apostolic Church follows: “Although usually only New Apostolic Christians receive Holy Communion, Christians from other denominations who have been baptised in the proper manner can partake of Holy Communion as guests. It should be made clear to them that Holy Communion is a meal of profession of the Son of God who died, resurrected from the dead, and will come again” (CNAC 8.2.21 ).

Other churches practise open communion, in which all Christians who have been properly baptised can participate, as stated in the Lambeth Declaration of the Anglican Church, for example, or the Arnoldshain Declaration of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany. The invitation to the Lord’s Supper is extended by Christ Himself, it says there, and the Churches are therefore not entitled to exclude anyone who is baptised. Protestant Christians therefore have no fundamental reservations about partaking in the Lord’s Supper in other denominations. They are, however, advised to take communion only if the respective priest and the congregation have no objections.

Many free churches practise the semi-open communion. Those sharing in it must believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and in His offering for sin. Denominational affiliation is irrelevant then.


True Eucharistic communion, that is, joint celebration or intercelebration, at which ministers of different denominations co-preside in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, is rare because it requires full ecclesial communion. This is the case, for example, with churches that are based on the same confession, such as the churches in the Lutheran World Federation. On the Catholic side there is such a joint communion between the Roman Catholic Church on one hand and the Eastern Catholic Churches on the other.

The Leuenberg Agreement from 1973 is a special case because it makes Eucharistic communion possible between different denominations. According to this document, most Lutheran, Reformed, and United Protestant Churches in Europe have pulpit and table fellowship. Also the Old Catholic Church of the Union of Utrecht and the Anglicans are an exception in that in the meantime they also practise intercelebration.

New old ways

How all this plays out in reality is another matter entirely. Right into recent times it has become clear that the denominational wishes are divided. For some, the receiving of the Eucharist is the holy of holies in their understanding of faith and a tradition that cannot be changed. For others, it is rather a hospitable act of goodwill and thus an expression of Christian love. The question of participation in the sacrament of Holy Communion by members of different religious denominations will remain a subject of discussion between the various denominations for some time to come.

The ecumenical movement tries to lend a sympathetic ear to the different views and to fathom common perspectives. It is therefore not a driving force for reform proposals, but it brings to light possibilities for joint action, such as the agape feast, a communal meal in which many denominations can share without losing their tradition.

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