Notorious sinners?

Two Episcopalians in the commuter lounge (plus a battered Steinway)
Sometimes, seminarians dive into heady discussions in the YDS commuter lounge, so called because there are lockers, a piano, and several love seats and tables where people can rest and sip coffee from our student-run “Holy Grounds” coffee shop. Normally, though, few of the commuter students hang around, so most of the time, the Commuter Lounge Regulars are there.

I rarely lounge there, but happened to one day, and fell into this conversation with other seminarians. One of my fellow Episcopalians needed to make a presentation in her Book of Common Prayer class about admission to Communion, and she had surveyed a bunch of us, asking whether we had ever seen someone denied Communion at church.

So I asked her how people responded to that, and she said that several students had observed it–mostly Catholics who saw their priests deny Communion to known non-Catholics. Then another student said that his denomination denies communion to notorious sinners. I had to ask: what’s the difference between a notorious sinner and your average, everyday sinner? Was it someone who did one of the more frightening sins such as murder, or someone who flaunted something, or what?

He said it was someone who did something really bad, and everyone else in the church knew it, so that to give that person communion would be to condone that wrong in some way.

I asked him to describe how this works because I have never seen this or heard of it. What is “really bad” sin, as opposed to “you’re good to go” sin? He gave the example of his old church, at which the married pastor had an affair with the church secretary (wow, I have heard that story a lot). The pastor was defrocked and is no longer allowed to receive communion at the church, which he still attends. The church secretary also cannot receive communion.

Another part of the commuter lounge--but not the people who were in this discussion

But then I asked, How do you know they haven’t had a complete change of heart that we just don’t know about?

He said that to his denomination, the rite of Communion is not only communion with Jesus Christ, but also communion with the other members of the congregation. If they feel offended at the idea of another receiving Communion, then it profanes Communion. Hmmmm. I wondered about secret sins. Most of us just do a good job of hiding them. I asked him why it didn’t bother people to think that they, and everyone else who was going up for Communion, were secretly sinful in some way.

Then he said that for that very reason, he did not come out as a gay man at his home church because he wants to be able to take Communion with his family at Christmas. That’s such a hard statement to respond to because it hurts to think that people can’t be completely honest at church about who they are and still be loved and invited to the table. I said as much to him. The other Episcopalian and I were very uncomfortable with the idea of denying Communion to anyone.

Fortunately, some famous Bible commentator (Meyer, Anchor Bible Dictionary) agrees with me, pointing out that one of the ways that Jesus differed from the religious figures around him is that they preached conversion as a condition of communion. He, however, practiced communion as an invitation to conversion. This is one of the many great things about Jesus.

3 Thoughts

  1. Hi Janine!
    Oh what a wonderful note you left us to think about! I see communion much as you do and feel that God can forgive so why can’t we?
    I am sad about your friend, the gay young man. I have a nephew whom I have know was gay from his Higschool years.
    We had long phone conversations about “getting over it”. I told him he couldn’t and we have to accerpt him as he is. So we have been good friends over the years. However he is not a churchman because of how he is made to feel at times.

    I admire that you are learning so much and fr om each other as well as the instructional side. You should be a fine priest one day, I know! God Bless you!
    In Him,

    Ken Funk

  2. Something else that happens: “secret sinners” choose not to take Communion out of a sense of guilt and therefore exclude themselves from the community and are stuck there on the margins. This is why I don’t take communion at Mass: I am comfortable (mostly) with my sexuality, but I feel that others wouldn’t be. I essentially ostracise myself to avoid the possibility of being excluded by others. Difficult.

  3. Dear standingonmiddleground, I have heard from friends and acquaintances their accounts of ways in which the Church has made them feel unwelcome and unworthy at church, so I feel deep sympathy for your dilemma. I have no doubt that God welcomes you and your God-given sexuality at the table, and I do know of church communities that are very welcoming and affirming of all people. God bless you for your persistence in worship; I pray that you find a welcoming and affirming community that recognizes what a gift you are to them.

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