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From the webmaster: This page of our website is about Orthodox practice surrounding the sharing of the Eucharist. It does not feature prominently on our website or on our "news and articles" page because it is intended solely as an exposition of something mentioned on our page for first-time visitors, specifically for those who wish to explore the matter further. Therefore, we only link to this article discreetly from that page. However, it has come to webmaster's attention that this page has been linked to directly from other sites on the internet and so may be read outside of its intended context. While we have no problem with this and are delighted that something that we have to say is considered by others to be of interest, we ask that readers please bear in mind when reading the article that its original context is as part of a welcome to newcomers and not of polemical debate.

Broken and distributed is the Lamb of God; broken but never divided; ever eaten, yet never consumed, but hallowing those who partake.
(The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom)

Many non-Orthodox Christians have a particular understanding of the Church which is a development of what is known as the Branch Theory, in which there exist different "denominations", each with varying beliefs and practices, but that these differences are of little significance and are all embraced within the different "branches" of the Church. Other Christians believe in something known as the Invisible Church, which teaches that a person is part of the Church as long as he believes in Christ, wherever he may be and to whichever "denomination" he belongs.  In traditions where this is the model held to, it is often common for communion to be shared with all who identify themselves as Christian, and sometimes even with those who do not. For people whose entire Christian experience has been in this context, and who have been exposed to little else, it is quite understandable that they may be surprised, confused, and even somewhat hurt, to discover that not all Christians see the Church in the same terms as they do, and indeed, that this understanding of the nature of the Church is a fairly recent innovation, designed to compensate for the divisions among those who identify themselves as Christian. They may become offended or quite genuinely upset to feel excluded when they visit an Orthodox Church and cannot receive the Mysteries of the Lord's Body and Blood.

This page of our parish website is intended to try to prevent and perhaps alleviate some of the upset that this clash of understandings can cause by explaining the reasoning behind the traditional practice of the Church where the Mysteries, including the Eucharist, are concerned.
In Orthodox ecclesiology, the Church does not begin with mankind. It is neither a sum of individuals who believe in God nor is it an abstract collection of different branches forming a concept of "invisible church". Those are non-sacramental, secular ways of looking at the Church as a human institution, and have never been accepted by the Orthodox Church. Rather, the Church begins with God. It is a microcosm of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, and exists solely for the purpose of bringing mankind into an eternal life of absorbing and reflecting the life of that same Trinity, giving right glory to God. The Church, for this reason, has been referred to as a divine-human organism, for the Church is God's extension of Himself to encapsulate mankind and draw us to Him - it is truly the Body of Christ. As the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit are One by being in communion of life and love with each other and having the same nature, so similarly the Church is one by virtue of each local church, under its bishop, being one with all of the other local churches in a communion of love, faith, and sacramental life.

Thus we affirm in the Creed that the Church is Catholic, which is often wrongly explained as meaning universal in the sense of accepting every variation on Christian teaching. Catholic comes from the Greek katholikos, from the expression kata'holou (kata = about, holos = the whole). Therefore, Catholic, as applied by the fathers of Nicaea who compiled the Creed in Greek, meant that the Church is of the whole - it is complete, at one within itself, and lacking nothing, for it is modelled on the life of the Trinity, which itself is perfect, is whole, and contains no division or fragmentation within itself. This is not a statement of intention or future desire, neither is it a description of an abstract concept, but rather it is the joyful declaration of an article of the Faith as it is, really and tangibly, as the Trinity is One. Therefore, to the ears of Orthodox Christians, to say that the Church is divided and fragmented is to deny that it is Catholic, and is to suggest that the Trinity is also divided and fragmented. Yet this is contrary to everything that has been revealed to us about the life of the Trinity, the three Persons of which, in eternity, in the act of creation, in the Mysteries of the Church, and in our whole experience, act together, at one with each other, with one purpose, one life, and one will, in the one communion of life and love. It is into a reflection of this one communion that we are to grow through our participation in the grace-bestowing life of the Church.

Participation in that communion of the Church, which is the Body of Christ, comes only from being grafted into Christ - the Way, the Truth, and the Life - through the Mystery of Baptism, and continued mystical life in Christ. This is God's call to each and every one of us.

The Holy Spirit continues to lead and guide us into all Truth and has done so since the age of the Apostles, and so by the grace of God, we have the Holy Scriptures, the Ecumenical Councils, the writings of the Fathers, the worship of the Church, and all of the riches of our Holy Tradition.

While Christ was still on earth, he promised the guidance of the Holy Spirit to the Church:

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
(John 16:12-15)

Orthodox Christians believe that faithfulness to the Truth of God is essential for the existence of the Church, for God is Truth and the purpose of the Church is the growth of those within it into sharing in the life and energies of God (theosis).
Christ's prayer "that they may be one, as we are one", has indeed already been fulfilled, for the Church is One - modelled on the Holy Trinity into whose life it is moving. The constant understanding of the Church throughout the centuries, reflected in the writings of such Fathers as St John Chrysostom, St Photius the Great, St Cyril of Alexandria, and St Cyprian of Carthage, among others, is that a departure from this Faith - such as happened in the West, resulting in the eventual Schism of the 11th century - does not constitute the formation of a new branch within the Church, but rather a separation from the Church for it is a separation from the basis of that loving communion that is the Church and the love and sacramental life within it. This is also attested to in the manner in which the Ecumenical Councils dealt with those who succumbed to the various heresies that plagued the Church in the earlier centuries of Christianity.

Therefore, Orthodox Christians do not accept any form of the Branch Theory, for it implies that variations on, and departures from, the Faith of the Church - teachings and practices that are contrary to the Truth revealed by the Holy Spirit and that have been adopted by various Christian groups - are to be accepted as though they were Truth, and this we cannot accept, for it is contrary to the nature of the Church and the teaching of Christ.

This is not to say that there is no possibility of salvation outside of Orthodoxy. The Spirit blows where He will (John 3:8) and we believe in a merciful God, who will not despise a heart that is humble and contrite (Psalm 50). There are many faithful people outside of the Church who show more of the love of Christ than many Orthodox people do at times, and so we pray for them along with the whole world. However, it is not for us to claim to understand the mind of God beyond what God has chosen to reveal to us in the New Covenant, and the only reality of the New Covenant of which we know is the unbroken communion of the Church, the Body of Christ.
The offerings prepared for communion, showing the Lamb in the centre, surrounded by particles for the Saints, and the faithful living and departed gathered in full unity and communion with each other and with Christ, the Head
The offerings prepared for communion, showing the Lamb in the centre, surrounded by particles for the Saints, and the faithful living and departed gathered in full unity and communion with each other and with Christ, the Head
The offerings prepared for communion, showing the Lamb in the centre, surrounded by particles for the Saints, and the faithful living and departed gathered in full unity and communion with each other and with Christ, the Head
The Mysteries (Sacraments) are means of grace given by God to assist our theosis, our growth into what God would have us be, through the Church. They are signs of the communion of love and common faith and life that exist among those in the Church, and the Church, while not owning these Mysteries, is the steward of them, and She cannot open them to those who are not united with Her. Communion is true unity and brotherhood in the life of Christ, and is an exposure to the energies of God, strengthening that unity with each other and with the eternal life of the Trinity. Therefore, exposure to the Eucharist is a partaking in the energies of God and must be approached only after proper preparation, which includes doing all within our power to be fully restored to the communion of the Church. The Holy Apostle Paul warns us of the dangers of eating and drinking unworthily, and a priest who is a good spiritual father would not endanger the souls of those entrusted to his care in this way. Even those Orthodox Christians who have separated themselves from God through sin must make the effort to be reconciled through regular Sacramental Confession before approaching the Body and Blood of the Lord.

This food is called among us "Eucharist", of which no one is allowed to partake except those who believe in the truth of our teachings, and who have been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins and rebirth, and who so live according to Christ's commands. (St Justin Martyr's first Apology to the Roman Emperor c.150AD)

The following was written by a member of the Church of England on the Ship of Fools discussion forum:

The communion meal - amongst many other things - is an expression of community; with our fellows and God. In the middle east, if you have anything to transact with anyone, you would be expected to observe the rules of courtesy, which would mean that you would not presume upon your host's welcome without sorting out any outstanding issues. The correct word for this is "atonement". You would then transact your business, and upon completion your host would offer you (and you would be expected to accept) a celebratory meal - to both celebrate and demonstrate that you were "at one" with another.

The problem is, we (I speak as an Anglican, but any others owing their origins to the reformation can likewise join in) are in schism. It wasn't our fault to be sure. And there were pressing reasons at the time. But we are still in schism. Doctrines such as the invisible church and the branch theory may give us some comfort, but in fact they act as a comfort blanket that shields us from the serious and pressing need to recover unity. By what right do we, who are heirs of those who stormed out of the family, demand the right to sit down with them at their expression of community? We have not sorted the differences between us yet - we have not atoned.

Who, upon reading this, would not be filled with admiration of the depth of humility which lies behind such a statement? It certainly shows an honest understanding of the current situation, which is the basis of Orthodox practice regarding what some people, quite unhelpfully, refer to as "closed" Communion.

Communion in the Orthodox Church is not closed, and it never can be, because the love of Christ is not closed to anybody. At our parish, we hope that our visitors and friends, who are always welcome, understand that we do not seek to exclude anybody - indeed, we invite all people to explore the Orthodox Faith in greater depth and to be fully united with us in Christ, and thereby to share in Communion with us. We welcome every human being, loved by God without exception or distinction, to make that decision. If, because of attachment to their own beliefs, people choose not to become one with us, we respect their choice and we continue to love them as before. However, Communion is not just a piece of bread. That piece of bread, which becomes the risen and glorified Body of Christ in Communion, is one and the same with the communion of faith, love, and life in the mystical Body of Christ, the Church. We cannot separate the two because the two are inseparable: without the one, the other is meaningless at best, and spiritually harmful at worst. That is why we must always continue to fervently pray for an end to these divisions and to welcome all to join us in that desire, but to practise what some call "open communion" would simply be to pretend that the divisions do not exist, and would be a spiritually dangerous misuse of the Holy Body and Blood of the Lord to express communion where there is no communion - not discerning the body. (1 Corinthians 11:27-32).

In 1931, in clarifying its position in taking part in inter-confessional gatherings and discussions, the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCOR) issued the following statement, which was reiterated in 2005 in a joint statement between ROCOR and the Patriarchate of Moscow:

Preserving faith in the One, Holy, Universal and Apostolic Church, the Synod of Bishops affirms that the Church never divided itself. The question lies only in who belongs to her and who does not. At the same time, the Synod of Bishops fervently welcomes all attempts of the heterodox to study Christ's teaching on the Church in the hope that through this study, especially with the participation of representatives of the Holy Orthodox Church, they will ultimately come to the conclusion that the Orthodox Church, as the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15), fully and without error preserved the teaching handed down by Christ the Saviour to His disciples.
We continue to pray for full unity in faith, worship, and life, and encourage all Christians everywhere to pray for the day when this vision becomes a reality, and we may at length share a common chalice.

This website is published with the blessing of His Grace Bishop Irenei of London and Western Europe, Ruling Bishop of the Diocese of Great Britain and Western Europe, (ROCOR)

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