I recently returned to Bolivia where I once served as a volunteer missionary. I had been invited to participate in the wedding of a young man I met while living there. Joel and his siblings had been abandoned by their parents. The church where I served was helping to raise them. We became friends and have kept in touch over the years.
Joel was to marry a young woman he met about four years ago, Lizeth. She is Catholic, and they wanted a wedding ceremony that respected each of their traditions. They began working with her priest on the details of the mass. Much to their surprise, it became apparent that it would be possible to have both a Catholic priest and a United Methodist pastor officiate. Through an ecumenically-minded priest and a little coordination, we celebrated a service that was respectful and inclusive of all present. I was a part of a Catholic mass, in a Catholic church, where I stood at the altar alongside a Catholic priest. He was clear from the beginning that we would both receive the sacrament and we would distribute the sacrament to all present in the ceremony, Catholic and Protestant alike. This was probably the most significant way we could have shown these two young people how to share God’s abundant grace: sharing symbols of the ordinary in an extraordinary way.
This experience showed me that I do not understand the separation that exists between Christian denominations over Holy Communion. A variety of denominations restrict participation in the sacrament for reasons such as church membership, good standing, etc. I typically find myself wanting to respect and tolerate differences among denominations, but I have to admit that on this one, I just don’t get it. Or, even if my mind “gets it,” my heart does not.
When the ceremony ended in Bolivia, the response was overwhelming from all those present -- Catholic and Protestant alike. “It was so nice to see you both participating in this service.” “What a joy to receive Communion with my neighbor who is Protestant.” I quickly realized there is nothing like a Protestant-Catholic Communion service to take attention away from the female pastor in the room! It was meaningful to hear “from the people” a general sense of support for what had taken place (naturally, I may not have heard from those who were not in agreement with what happened).
In questions related to religious institutions, we often argue that democracy is not the best way to govern. With this in mind, how is it that something as central as the way we commune with one another gets worked out? If the people desire it, are fulfilled by it, find meaning in it, and grow closer to God through it, can it be that they are on to something? And if we hope that humanity can learn to live together in peace (and what Christian does not?), can we expect that to become reality if we continue to deny peaceful, equal participation in the central tenant of our faith at the Communion table?
What sayeth the people?
Cynthia Weems is the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Miami, Florida.