The Orthodox position on inter-communion in the ecumenical context / Fr. T. George, Ireland

Inter-communion is a pertinent question often asked by many a people. This author too was fumbling for an answer once whena rector atthe Church of Ireland, asked this author why we, the Orthodox, keep ourselves away from the Communion with the non-orthodox.  He says that the Holy Communion is the best medicine for the curing of the wounds caused by the divisions in the Church.  It is true that following the schisms in the Christendom, the body of Christ has been broken and His wounds are still bleeding.  And those wounds are badly infested by the stains of selfishness and infected by the pus of theological disputes and misunderstandings.  As far as both the Orthodox and the non-orthodox differ on doctrines and stand divided on cultural ethos and social ethics, intercommunion is as useless as we apply balm on the wounds without letting them sterilized.  This author concedes to his opinion that the holy Host can be used as a catalyst to facilitate the healing process.  But this author is diffident whether applying balm on the wounds without cleaning it thoroughly will have the positive effect on its curing process. 

Now is the era of ecumenism, and it is imperative that all churches in the world be united in Christ which happens to be the will and prayer of the Lord Jesus Christ.  To an Orthodox, Ecumenism can be had by keeping the identity and integrity of the holy church.   

It is painfully seen that many a faithful of the holy Orthodox Church knowingly or unknowingly takes communion from other denominations. It is fast becoming a fashion and a new trend among the Indian Orthodox diaspora in European countries tohave “First holy Communion” for their little ones with much pomp and extravaganza completely disregarding the fact that they have already been communicant right from their holy Baptism. Is it advisable for the orthodox boys and girls who do their schooling ininstitutions run by theCatholic Churchmanagement?What a pity it is that many of our orthodox families, without discerning, yield to the peer-pressureand receive the Holy Communion from the Roman Catholic Church and even from many protestant churches? It is a fait accompli that leaders of these churches deliberately entertain such unbecoming acts.  Is it admissible from the strict point of view of church’s faith, order and discipline?It is high time that we addressed this issue.

The holy Eucharist is, as St Ignatius of Antioch has said, is “the medicine of immortality”;which implies that it is something meant to be for an everlasting relationship of divinelove, never ending unity within the humanity and with the divinity, and eternal life with God extending from earth to heaven (Ref. John 6).

We know from the Bible that there was a difference between the Jews and the Gentiles and the Bible deplores of such distinction. (John 4, Mathew 15, Galatians 3) Unfortunately, even today polarisation is seen in Christianity caused by the interpolation of doctrines or rather distinction brought about by many versions or perversions of the doctrines and practices. This has to change; the ecumenical movement is now working towards thegoal of bringing everyone together on a common platform.  The Lord has longed for His church’s unity as it has ever been in the holy Trinity. (John 17).The churches that are many now can be integrated by letting them keep their own identity like different varieties of plants and flowers add to the beauty of a garden. It is the fulfilling of the axiom “Unity in diversity”.

The unity of the divided church has ever been the long cherished dream of us all. And it still remains as the unfulfilled prayer of the Lord Jesus Christ, doesn’t it?   It is a valid point that intercommunion is imperative for the healing of the wounded body of Christ.   But, reconciliation is very essential before we come up together for Communion. We are asked to offer up our gifts on the holy altar only after having reconciled ourselves with anyone whom we differ at. (Mathew 5: 23-24) It is to be noted that since we, the Orthodox differ with the non-orthodox in many theological matters, we have to reconcile not just in terms of love but in terms of faith as well.

 It is a good sign that we have entered into theological dialogues with the non-orthodox so that eventually all will have a re-union. The church is supposed to and called   to have unity in faith and practices for it is written in the epistle to the Ephesians 4 that there is only One Lord, One Faith, and One Baptism since it is the very same God who is present in all. Until we reach unity in the faith and the knowledge of the son of God, we have to grow mature to the full measure of the stature of Christ.

The Nicene Creed says that the Church has four marks: They are Unity, Holiness, Catholicity and Apostolicity.  Wherein lies the unity of the Church? What is the unity that Christ wills for the Church? Is it a federal union, as Dr. E. Stanley Jones and others suggest, wherein world confessionalism will continue to function and there would be only agreement between the various world confessions? It seems that our Lord wanted something more than a federal union. He prayed that the churches should become one as He and the Father are one. So it is an organic union, and not just an invisible union, nor a federal union.

The Roman Catholic Church sees the unity in the Pope and says that the sheep-fold will be one when the Pope is accepted as the one shepherd. Some of the protestant churches feel that there is no need of an organic visible union at all as there is already a spiritual union between all those who believe that Jesus Christ is their personal saviour. But the Orthodox churches see the unity, not in the Pope, nor in the invisible spiritual union, but in Faith, Ministry and sacraments. The church must have one faith, one Lord, One ministry so that the visibility becomes an interior reality. We cannot bring all Christians into one papal bloc because Jesus Christ alone is the Shepherd in whom the whole flock should be one (John 10:16). The autocephalous churches will continue; that is, each national church will have its own head. There is no need of one international head for the Church because, the reality of Christ is not only invisible, but also visible. Thus, the unity must be a theological unity and not a hierarchical unity.

“The Church is one. Its unity follows of necessity from the unityof God”. So wrote Khomiakov in the opening words of his famous essay (The Church is One). If we take seriously the bond between God and His Church, then we must inevitably think of the Church as one, even as God is one: there is only one Christ, and so there can be only one body of Christ. Nor is this unity merely ideal and invisible; Orthodox theology refuses to separate the ‘invisible’ and ‘visible’ church and therefore it refuses to say that the Church is invisibly one but visibly divided. No: the Church is one in the sense that here on earth, there is a single, visible community which alone can claim to be the one true Church.  The undivided Church is not merely something that existed in the past, and which we hope will exist again in the future: it is something that exists here and now. Unity is one of the essential characteristics of the Church, and since church on earth, despite the sinfulness of its members, retains its essential characteristics, it remains and always will remain visibly one.  There can be schisms from the Church, but no schisms within the church. And while it is undeniably true that, on a purely human level, the church’s life is grievously impoverished as a result of schisms, yet such schisms cannot affect the essential nature of the Church.      

In the Orthodox perspective, Orthodoxy is the sum total of the whole truth. Orthodox Church is not a branch church, nor one church among many churches. It is the undivided church. Unfortunately, there were three major divisions in Christendom. The first one in 451 AD at Chalcedon, and the second about 1054 AD, when the Byzantine and the Roman Catholic churches got separated by excommunicating each other. The other division was with the Lutheran reformation in the 16th Century. Now there are four major groups of Christians, namely, the Oriental or pre-Chalcedonian churches, the Byzantine churches, the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches. Ultimately, all these Christians must become one body, as our Lord himself prayed in His high priestly prayer (St John 17:21). 

The Russian word for catholicity is ‘sobernost’, which means ‘conciliarity and commonality’.  The catholicity of the church is not a quantitative geographical catholicity, but a qualitative orthodox universality. It is illogical to say Roman Catholic because if it is Roman, it cannot be Catholic because catholic is not a provincial limitation, but a universal extension. So catholicity is in faith and potentiality and not in the geographical extension, the church was catholic in the first century, when it was limited in Palestine    or in the Mediterranean world. The word “Oicumene” from which the word ‘ecumenical’ comes suggests that the whole world must become one family. This is the purpose of the existence of the church in the world. The word catholicity also shows the brotherhood of the members of the community of the redeemed, irrespective of distinction in various ministries. The fact that a person is a Bishop does not mean that he is removed from the brotherhood of the redeemed. The church is catholic because it maintains a faith for all, a gospel for the whole world and a potentiality of becoming the universal church.

The great theologian and ecumenist, the late lamented Dr. Paulose Mar Gregorios, has opined that one of the main qualities of the early community of the Holy Spirit was that it was an international community organically united by the Holy Spirit.  The Bible insists that divisions among men are the result of human sin and if salvation means anything, it must mean the re-uniting of divided mankind.   Mankind was divided into different races and languages at the Tower of Babel, because of human pride. If mankind is to be saved, it must be re-united. Not in one language or in one nationality, but in a pluriformity of linguistic, national and cultural expression, and that is what is typified at Pentecost; 3000 souls coming from among Elamites, Arabians, Armenians, Syrians, Greeks, Mesopotamians, and Latins were united together into a single community who were of one accord and had all things in common.

In its early stages the Church continued to have this quality of being able to hold together different nationalities and cultures in one single society. In the last chapter of St. John’s gospel, in the narrative of the miraculous catch, we are told that 153 fish were caught in the net of Peter and of the Apostles, but that the net was not torn. The number 153 probably represented all the different varieties of fish in the Mediterranean then known to the Greeks. The New Testament demands that all the nations of the world should be united in a Church without schism, but this has not happened in history. Nearly all the divisions in the Church have been due to ethnic, cultural or political tensions.   

He says that this is a great challenge to our churches today. If the Gospel means deliverance from division, the result must be a united church in which all nations and cultures can worship together, live together and work together. This would appear to be the destiny of mankind and that destiny is to be prefigured and realised in the life of the Church.

But not simply in the life of the Church universal; it must also find expression at every level. There is no nation today, which does not have a large community of non-nationals and even among the nationals most nations have diverse ethnic groups. It is a pity that after 2000 years of the coming of the Spirit, the Church is not always able to transcend these narrow ethnic confines and to have multi-ethnic congregations living, praying and working together.

Mar Gregorios further suggests that it is imperative that we begin to develop in each part of the world and in the every nation multi-ethnic Christian communities. The power of the Spirit must today become manifested in small communities, international in composition, united in faith and worship, having all things in common, serving the needy around them.

Unity in diversity is the need of the hour.   In the reunited Christendom the national patriarchs would form a collegiality with the principle of Primus inter pares, the first among the equals and without any special prerogatives or authority for the first except presiding. The Roman Catholic legalism, and the Protestant dynamism or the Roman Catholic form and the protestant spirit, or the Catholic substance and protestant flesh or emotion, is together maintained in the undivided church and will be consummated in the one church. Every single member has freedom and dynamism within the structure of faith, not due to ex-cathedra declaration of the pope nor because of the private interpretation of the individual, but because of the solidarity of faith.  The authority of faith includes also its acceptance by the whole church, and does not depend on the declaration by the pope, nor on private interpretation of the Bible by the individual Christian. We believe that the Holy Spirit gives the criterion of faith and that He will see that true faith is accepted by the faithful universally. Thus the unity is in the totality of faith and not in a single pope above the council as the centre of unity, nor in an infallible Bible as the final word about faith. Orthodox authority is biblically based but not biblically limited. 

If the Roman Catholic Church speaks for Petrine supremacy and papal infallibility and the protestant churches stand for congregational democracy with or without episcopacy, Orthodoxy stands for the collegiality of the bishops, without a monarchical system centred around the Pope nor in what would virtually mean the infallibility of every single Christian.  The Orthodox stress on the infallibility of the Church as a whole guided by the Holy Spirit which is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). The Orthodox theology of the Church is above all else is a theology of communion. Each local church is constituted by the congregation of the faithful, gathered around their bishop and celebrating the Eucharist; the Church Universal is constituted by the communion of the heads of the local churches, the bishops, with one another.    The church is not monarchical in structure, centred round a single hierarch; it is collegial, formed by the communion of many hierarchs with one another, and of each hierarch with the members of his flock.  The act of communion therefore forms the criterion for membership of the Church.  An individual ceases to be a member of the Church if he or she severs communion with his or her bishop; a bishop ceases to be a member of the church if he severs communion with his fellow bishops.  Therefore, mutual acceptance of the heads of both Orthodox and non-Orthodox churches is inevitable for intercommunion.

In the true sense, Holy Communion is a bequest bequeathed to the faithful by the Lord or rather a legacy of life left behind by the Lord Jesus Christ to his followers.   The right to receive the holy Host is a prerogative reserved for the Church member.  Or in other words, the reception of the Holy mysteries (sacraments) is the birth right of every baptised member of the holy Church. It is the exclusive privilege of the member of the family called the Church. One who is outside the family circle is not entitled for any inherited property or patrimony reserved for the children having a common parenthood or father-figure.   That’s why we sing thus during the liturgy on Maundy Thursday, “Rahasyam, Rahasyam, kalpicheeshan, rahasyamenikkum en veetuukarkam….”  

Orthodoxy, in the strict sense, is the right faith and true worship, anything beyond that is termed heterodoxy or heresy for a faithful. Communicating from a non-orthodox church is hence against the vow taken through Psalm 16.

Let’s glance through some of the differences between the orthodox and the non-orthodox: 

For some churches, the Eucharist is just a symbolic act or a memorial of the death of Christ and nothing more. And to some others, it is interpreted as transubstantiation where the bread and wine, though remain in appearance as the bread and wine, its essence changes at the time of the word of institution.  Consubstantiation is yet another theory which says that the substance of the bread and wine does not change, but the substance of the body and blood is also added to it at the time of institution. In the theory of receptionism, no changehappens in the elements objectively, though the subjective faith of those who receive them, gives them the benefit of the Holy Eucharist. Thus, the effect is in subjective preparation of the recipient and not the objective transformation of the bread and wine.  But  the  orthodox believe that the offered bread and wine after blessing becomes the real body and blood of Christ which is termed as Holy Mysteries or Rozay in Syriac. To them, Christ incarnate is fully God and fully man.  There is an objective real presence of Christ in the consecrated elements and so the communicants receive the real presence of Christ into their lives while receiving the body and blood of Christ through the Eucharist.

Some, though they claim to be Christians, deny the divinity of Christ overtly and covertly.   The orthodox addresses Saint Mary as the mother of God, which underpins the fact of Christ’s divinity.   

The Orthodox emphases on the use of leavened bread and fermented wine and diluted with an equal amount of water as the elements for the Eucharist which are indicative of the dormant life of Christ. The vigour and vitality or lively presence of Christ is obvious there.  But the non-orthodox uses unleavened bread which showcases dry and lifeless status. The commixing of the holy mysteries in the Orthodox tradition is indicative of the inseparable unity of divinity and humanity manifested in Christ incarnate, a complete infusion of God’s nature with human nature.       This difference in the type of bread shows how the orthodox and the non-orthodox view of Christ’s nature. Further,   While the Orthodox affirms the creed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the father alone which is biblically based (John15:26), the non-orthodox accepts the filioque clause adding the phrase “and from the Son” which was not in the original text of the Nicene Creed of 325AD.  The Catholic’s Immaculate Conception of St. Mary (that she was conceived without original sin) is not accepted by the Orthodox Church.  These are all contradictory in faith matters.

Communion, literally, means‘the state of being together of the people  having common belief or ideas and their corporate sharing of the holy elements, or rather being  one in thoughts, words and deeds’. When we partake in the Holy Communion, we are partaking in the heavenly feast, or in other word, we are foretasting the eschatological banquet as foretold in the holy Bible (Revelation 19: 9 and Mathew 8:11, 22: 2-14). And we have to wear the wedding clothes lest we be thrown out of there. The wedding cloth here means something made of the same fabric of faith. 

Faith is a pre-requisite for receiving the holy mysteries (body and blood of Christ) for the Eucharist is the expression, declaration and celebration of our faith.  Justin Martyr (165 AD) has pointed to the necessity of having the same faith for all who participate in one Table of the Lord. “This food which we call Eucharist, he says, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true , and has received the washing of the sin and rebirth and who lives as Christ has handed down to us”. 

The communion is given from the Eucharist only to those who have been baptised and who belong to the family of faith or rather the sister churches having intercommunion. The Oriental Orthodox churches namely the Coptic, the Ethiopian, the Eritrean, the Syrian are the sister churches who are in communion with the Indian (Malankara) Orthodox Church.  Among the grownups, only those who have confessed their sins to a duly ordained priest and got absolution and are ready and receptive, will be given the communion. In the book of the order of the Syrian Orthodox Eucharistic service, at the time of the elevation of the holy mysteries, the celebrant states thus: “It is right that these mysteries be given only to those who are holy and pure.”  The church instructs and insists that only the holy and clean shall be given the Holies. The church believes that one becomes holy when one is in the company of God or gets attached to the holy triune God, who alone is holy by nature. To be holy, for an Orthodox Christian, implies that one who is to be made holy (sanctified) by the holy spirit of God and that it is by one’s virtue of being called, chosen, and separated by way of one’s faith, hope and love in God or the profession of one’s baptismal faith –the undefiled faith upheld by the Church and that was once for all entrusted to the saints. One is sanctified by means of sacraments of confession( honestly admitting of one’s follies and foibles with a repenting and contrite heart)  before an ordained priest and the absolution( of both sin of commission and omission) given therein makes one worthy to receive the Holy Communion by the command and authority received from the high priest, Christ.   Confession , in the true sense, means not just being regretful of one’s  misdoings, but professing one’s faith in God(Ref: Romans 10:9-10, Hebrews 9:14, 1 John 1: 7-9, Jude 3) 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, Paul the apostle, insists everyone to discern the Lord’s body before consuming the holy mysteries.  It is not something to be received unworthily. One becomes worthy for it when he receives it with faith endorsed by the grace of God.

Communion is a holy feast among the companions of same faith which is otherwise known as the Church of God. The word companion derived from cum (with) and panis (bread) etymologically means those who share the same bread with one another.  So this is purely a private activity of faith companions and anyone outside this relationship are not entitled to partake in it.

    “We, who are   many, are one body in Christ” (Romans 12:5).  The Church is the extension of the Incarnation of Christ, the place where the Incarnation perpetuates itself. The church and its founder are inextricably bound together.  The Church is Christ with us. The unity between Christ and His Church is effected above all through the sacraments. The Eucharist, by uniting the members of the Church to Christ, at the same time unites them to one another. We, who are many are one loaf, one body; for we all partake of one loaf (1 Corinthians 10:17) Eucharist creates the unity of the Church. As the many grains of wheat grown in the field had been harvested, gathered, and crushed into flour, and made finally into a single bread, so the people of different backgrounds must also be brought together into one single unit in the love, faith and hope of the holy triune God. This is exactly what the bread on the same platen on the Lord’s Table implies or meant to be. So, when we, the Orthodox and the Non-Orthodox, still tend to differ each other on many theological issues, how we can share the same bread and wine on the Lord’s Table without settling those doctrinal issues?

Let me quote my guru, Dr. Geevarghese Mar Osthathios of blessed memory, “The idea of inter-communion is not known to the Orthodox churches because such a view takes for granted more than one church which, of course, is unbiblical. We only know of communion in the church and not communion between the churches. Hence, the Holy Eucharist must be the last step of church-union and not a means of church union. Each time we keep ourselves away from the Lord’s Table of another church, we are praying the Lord to hasten the day of union so that all could communicate together in the one Church, consummating the union of the churches. The unity of the church also means the unity of the church militant with the church triumphant”.

And if I borrow the words of my professor and the world renowned theologian Rev. Fr. Dr. K.M. George about the Orthodox position on Communion, it is as follows: “Underlying our concept of Eucharistic communion is the biblical teaching on Church as the Body of Christ. Communion is the total experience of the one body of Christ. If the Body breaks up so does communion. Hence we do not use the term inter-communion since it implies division and separation. Communion is thus inseparable from the unity of the Church, the Body of Christ. People break the unity for various reasons- because of the love for power or ego clashes or wrong teachings or unchristian way of life…We cannot easily make a judgement. So in all humility and compassion we pray and act for the unity of the Church so that communion be restored. Although we remain compassionate to those who are not in communion with us, we do not use the Eucharist as a tool to restore unity; because communion is not an isolated instrument or object, but the genuine experience of the one Body. Nor do we condemn them outright, since the wisdom of God is incomparably greater than all human thinking. We should also refrain from all triumphalist affirmations of the truth of our position. By constantly calling on the Holy Spirit of God we pray that we be guided into all truth. This is where prayer becomes ecumenical in the sense that we sincerely search for the fullness of truth as revealed to us as we travel together by praising the triune God, and engaging in works of love and forgiveness in the world.”

 Books referred:

  1. The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware, Penguin Books, England , 1997
  2. Be Still and Know  by Paul Verghese (The late Dr. Paulose Mar Gregorios)CLS  Madras, 1971
  1. Communion in the Body of Christ by Fr. M.V. George (Later Dr. Geevarghese Mar Osthathios), St Luke’s Orthodox Parish, Velloor, 1969
  2. The Eucharist Service of the Syrian Jacobite church of Malabar, by the very Rev. K.P Paul Ramban (Later Dr. Kadavil Paulose Mar Athanasios), YMCA, Trivandrum 1960