Although it is currently being discussed between the Vatican and several Protestant churches [including PC(USA)], on a local level it remains a serious concern. The issue is the modern fencing of the Lord’s Table by official Roman Catholic policy, i.e., the refusal to allow non-Catholics to receive Mass.
No doubt it could be argued that Catholics have every right to define the privileges and limitations of their own members. But in many churches it is made clear in church bulletins that non-members are not welcome to participate in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper at any time. This restriction extends to public events, weddings and funerals. At a recent Mass of Public Burial, for example, one open to the whole community, the following was printed in bold letters in the bulletin.
Only participating Roman Catholics in the state of grace
(free from mortal sins) should come forward for Holy
Communion at this or any Catholic Mass. Non-Catholics
and Catholics who are unable to receive Communion
today should make a “Spiritual Communion” during
Communion time, and we especially ask for their prayers
on behalf of all our beloved dead and their grieving
As Presbyterians we need to remember that we have a similar restrictive history, i.e., Calvin’s practice in Geneva, continued for a long time afterward, of “the fencing of the Table,” which excluded certain people from communion who were considered morally ineligible to receive it. [For more detail see my book “Selected To Serve, A Guide For Church Officers” (Geneva Press, 2000), 70-71.] Currently, of course, as Presbyterians we believe that such an approach is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ, that any Communion table is his, not ours, and that we have no business excluding anyone from it.
What should Presbyterians do? It is hopeful and significant that the Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism, approved by the 217th General Assembly in 2008, does recognize baptism between Catholics and Presbyterians. This year the Reformed Church in America (RCA), the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) and the United Church of Christ (UCC) will be voting on it at their general synods. As Robina Winbush, director of the Department of Ecumenical and Agency Relations in the PC(USA) put it, “in the context of so much that divides us and upon which our churches many not agree, we remind ourselves that our fundamental unity begins and is rooted in our baptism.” Another forthcoming study, “The Bread of Life,” was completed in the seventh round of talks of the Reformed Roman Catholic dialogue and is slated to be released later this year. But it appears that agreement about the openness of Communion is still unresolved and will remain on the ecumenical table.
Until official Roman Catholic policy changes, each pastor and church officer has to make a decision whether or not to attend public or ecumenical events that include the Mass. At the very least it should be necessary to continue dialogue at local meetings of councils of churches and interfaith groups about theological issues and practices which still divide us and work harder to discover ways in which brothers and sisters in Christ can break bread together at one Table.