By David Briggs
They marched down the sloping concrete ramps of the Communion aisles by the thousands-Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Lutherans and even one Catholic priest.
For more than a century, Christians had scattered throughout the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, N.Y., to receive the sacrament in the small churches and denominational houses dispersed around the upstate enclave.
But something was different this summer at the retreat, which is a landmark of mainline Protestantism's search for perfection in mind, body and spirit.
The night of July 31, torrential rains beat down on the roof of the open-sided theater during a performance by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.
Then the skies cleared the next morning, Sunday, Aug. 1, as eight seminary presidents in matching robes led 5,000 people to a liturgical moment that past generations could barely imagine.
Chautauqua officials decided the Christian unity movement had made so much progress that for the first time in the institution's 130-year history, faithful from all denominations were ready to celebrate a Communion service in the community amphitheater.
Male Lutheran and Episcopal priests flanked a female American Baptist minister at the center of the Communion table. A Catholic priest, risking discipline, and a female Presbyterian pastor distributed Communion to all who came before them, and then to each other.
“We dare to come together,” Joan Brown Campbell, a Cleveland-area minister who is the pastor of Chautauqua, said at the service. “We have caught a vision of our unity.”
The Chautauqua Communion service is one of the more extraordinary signs of what religious leaders and scholars say are revolutionary changes in Christian attitudes toward a central ritual of their faith.
Interviews with worshippers at services bear out the findings of national surveys: More people are coming to the Communion table, invited or not, and letting God sort out who is worthy to be there.
Over the last half-century, several Protestant denominations have moved from quarterly to monthly and now weekly celebrations of Communion. In a recent national poll, 45 percent of churchgoers said they had been to Communion in the past week.
At the same time, the gradual breakdown of Catholic-Protestant animosity and the development of inter-Protestant agencies along with rising rates of intermarriage and geographic mobility have contributed to a growing movement welcoming everyone to the Communion table.
Even Protestant churches with substantially different understandings of Communion are signing on. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which believes the Communion host represents the real presence of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which views the elements as symbols of Christ's body and blood, formally agreed in 1997 to share the sacrament.
This spring, the United Methodist Church urged its followers to see a divine power beyond mere symbolism in the bread and grape juice they share at Communion.
Not everyone is joining. The Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy and other groups such as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod still do not practice general intercommunion. Last year, Pope John Paul II warned that moving too fast toward intercommunion could produce a false sense of unity that diminishes a Catholic understanding of the Eucharist.
Because Baptist congregations are autonomous, there is no official policy regarding who can receive Communion. Some churches restrict Communion to members of that specific church; some open Communion to any baptized Christian; some open it to anyone present.
A few Baptist churches, still influenced by Landmark beliefs, limit Communion only to baptized Baptists.
Landmarkism was a movement among Baptists, primarily in the southern United States, propounded by James R. Graves, influential editor of the Tennessee Baptist in the 19th century.
It takes its name from an 1856 pamphlet by James M. Pendleton, “An Old Landmark Re-Set,” based on Proverbs 22:28: “Remove not the old landmark.”
Among its key concepts concerning the nature of the church are that ecclesiastical authority is limited to the local congregation, and that Communion should be restricted only to members of that local congrgation.
It is the position of the 1 million-member American Baptist Association, of the much smaller United Baptists and of some independent Baptist churches.
Distinctions over whether the bread and wine at Communion are symbolic or become the body and blood of Christ are important to people in the pews. But churches opposing open Communion tables are going against formidable social and cultural tides.
“To me, it's a dinner Christ is inviting people to share with him,” said Jim Hayes, of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Cleveland. “To deny someone who wants in their heart to receive Christ through Communion doesn't make any sense at all.”
Christians from their earliest days have celebrated Communion to commemorate their belief in Christ's sacrificial death for the sins of humanity and to remain close to the founder of their faith.
What is happening today is a widespread new appreciation of Communion that is transcending old differences.
The differences are clear. For example, Catholics believe in the principle of transubstantiation, or that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Many Lutherans talk of consubstantiation, or that the bread and wine both remain bread and wine and take on the real presence of Christ. Other denominations consider the elements symbols of Christ's sacrifice.
But the development of ecumenical groups, the fresh wind in Protestant-Catholic relations that blew through in the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s and other changes have lifted old anathemas.
Now this ancient ritual from Jesus' last days on earth is enjoying a revival that is sweeping across American Christianity.
In the Catholic Church, laypeople are participating much more in services, including serving the transformed bread and wine to their neighbors. The practice of going to confession has declined, but with it also went a lot of the guilt that kept many people from receiving the sacrament out of fear they were not worthy.
Many Protestant churches also are discovering the more they offer Communion to their members, the more they want it.
“To reverence the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a growing phenomenon,” said Ted Campbell, president of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. “I think it's part of that whole deep hunger for spirituality.”
This spring, United Methodists approved a statement on Communion asking congregations “to move toward a richer sacramental life, including weekly celebrations of the Lord's Supper.”
People over a certain age-45 or so-may remember a time when a mixed marriage meant a wedding between an Italian and an Irish Catholic or a German and a Swedish Lutheran.
Today, marriages across Christian boundaries are commonplace, and many people reject the idea they cannot break bread together at both the dinner table and the Communion table.
“It begins in families when a Presbyterian marries a Lutheran or a Catholic marries someone from the United Church of Christ. As families share faith, they see a common commitment in Christ,” said Bishop Marcus Miller of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The principle is so important that some said they would rather switch if their church opposes intercommunion. Claire Hayes, a former Catholic, decided to join St. Luke's Episcopal Church after her daughter became an Episcopalian.
“It was an issue for me that she couldn't receive Communion” in the Catholic Church, Hayes said. “I thought when I die when she comes to my funeral she wouldn't be able to receive Communion. That really bothers me.”
At the Chautauqua service, Campbell asked Charles Bouchard, president of the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, to read the Gospel as a gesture to acknowledge a Catholic presence.
The Catholic leader, however, had different plans. He got so caught up in the spirit of things that he, too, distributed Communion at the service, and received Communion himself from a female Presbyterian pastor, Cheryl Gosa.
“It was really a special moment,” an ebullient Gosa said afterward. “I thought God was probably just fine with that.”
Religion News Service
David Briggs writes about religion for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.