Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Close Communion and the Holidays

Having just come through the largest Christian holiday, where the church is often filled to overflowing capacity with a variety not often seen during the remainder of the year, the age-old question of close(d) communion again presents itself. With many families making the effort to attend church as a group for at least this one day of the year, the conundrum of altar fellowship seems never quite as acute. For how does one 'refuse' the Sacrament to one family member while allowing it to another? And how does one deal with family members who once belonged to the church yet have now moved on to other communions, many of them at theological odds with their former church?

There is little doubt that many in the LCMS are not at all supportive of the established practice of close communion as officially confessed by the Synod, and this practice is probably widely ignored especially at the Easter celebration where attendance is at an all time high. The rationale for attending communion in a church whose teachings your present congregation is technically opposed to, becomes much more emotional than rational. We attend because it is the "family" thing to do. It is far too painful at such a happy occasion to deal with the reality of our real theological divisions. Or, the reality may be that we truly do not understand the real differences between our churches, especially the one to which we belong and the one we find ourself attending at the moment. The truth is that people, generally speaking, choose their churches more for personal reasons than for theological ones. Many of these churches may very well demand little in the way of understanding before accepting them into membership, thus perpetuating this unfortunate ignorance. Instruction classes may be no more than a few hours worth of introduction. Therefore, when the moment arrives to approach the altar, little thought is given to what this means as a visible demonstration of unity in faith, or as an outward confession. They simply do not understand. Or they do not want to.

So, what is the solution to this dilemma? Ah, now that's a question with which one could truly wrestle. The immediate answer certainly involves better catechesis. Yet this does not entirely remove the problem with which I began. Communion policy statements in the bulletin are invaluable as a tool to communicate the church's postion on fellowship at the altar. Yet, how many people really read these? How many actually read any bulletin announcements? And of those who do, how many just ignore them? Some people simply do not feel bound by any rules accept those they impose on themselves. It is part of an individualistic and relativistic society, and Lutherans are not exempt from this cultural malaise.

Close communion is a difficult practice for the confessional Lutheran pastor, one which often brings unwelcome pain to his ministry and not a little guilt in his inability to faithfully assure the faithfulness of its adherence.


Jeff said...

Wow, I sent you an e-mail before reading this blog! Members of LCMS congregations should be familiar with the Synod's stand on close(d) communion and understand the reason for it. If I as an LCMS member visit an LCMS church it is my responsibility to contact an Elder or the Pastor before presuming to take communion. As a guest in a non-LCMS church I should know to remain seated. Sounds like a no brainer doesn't it? As an Elder I have had to ask non-LCMS family members to remain seated when they have asked to receive communion. It is not a pleasant thing to do.


Don Engebretson said...

I agree with you, Jeff, and unfortunately our society is more influenced by the individualistic approach that says: it's about me and what I want, more than it's about what God desires and requires. And yes, I also agree that enforcing this practice is not a pleasant thing to do. It has certainly caused me the greatest discomfort in the course of my ministry.

Thanks for your comment!