This month I want to talk about the life style we live; particularly certain choices we make in terms of morals we live by and how that relates to receiving communion and our so called "membership in good standing" with the Church.
This is a difficult issue to address because personally I am a coward who doesn't want to do or say anything to offend people and cause them to be angry with me. For those who are parents, you know that this attitude of mine is not always so good. Many times you have to say to your kids "no, you can't do that" even if it means your child getting angry at you; they might even say they hate you when you need to enforce an admonition with some type of consequence when they defy it. In a similar fashion our Orthodox Church teaches certain things that at times are not popular concerning the lifestyles we are to live. There are times we as priests and laity need to say to ourselves and others "no we can't do that" and if we do; there is a consequence we face if we choose to ignore what the Church teaches. I have already stated when it comes to matters of faith such as the Nicene Creed, that if we don't accept the tenets of the Creed and outright reject the confession of faith found in it, one should not come to communion until they change their thinking and can say "Amen!" to what the Creed professes to be true.
In the moral area, if someone commits certain sins such as murder or adultery, our church canons (or rules) call for a certain number of years where one cannot go to communion and must do acts of penance (i.e. actions to show you are sorry for what you did) before someone can be restored to communion. The Canons of the Council of Ancyra of the 4th century indicate those who commit adultery should do penance for seven years before being restored to communion. St Basil's Canons call for someone who commits murder to do penance for 20 years before being restored to communion. These are strict from our perspective today, but I just wanted to give you an idea of how these acts were seen in an earlier time in the life of the Church. The consequences for clergy are stricter than the above if they commit acts of murder or adultery.
In the case of marital divorce, it is understood that if both husband and wife are Orthodox Christians, they are to refrain from coming to communion for a certain time period, and do penance by examining what they did to contribute to the marriage failure. (There are occasions where if the fault of the marriage failure clearly lies with one person, the other person has been allowed to continue receiving communion.) After this penitential work has been done, our bishops in the Orthodox Church allow for someone to be restored to communion, and give permission for a second and possibly a third marriage to take place. There are church canons that address a number of moral lapses in behavior where one should not come to communion until they have appropriately repented for the wrong that was done. For example, the penance for the sin of fornication in the 4th century was as short as three years and as along as twelve years (depending on the circumstance) before one was restored to communion.
However, as society has changed and become more humanistic and secular, it has had an impact on those of us professing to be Christians. Ongoing sexual intercourse outside marriage among men and women and among those of the same sex is not viewed by many as being sinful or wrong. People often live together and are sexually active prior to getting married or they may not even get married at all. There is a big push in states to have marriage redefined to include people of the same sex. Here is the problem which I stated almost a year ago in the first newsletter I did. The Orthodox Church has not changed its teaching on any of these above issues. The Church can only bless sexual relations between a man and a woman after they have had their relationship blessed in the sacrament of marriage in the Orthodox Church. Someone who is living a homosexual life style; meaning they are sexually active with someone of the same sex and are not repentant, would not be allowed to receive communion in the Church. The key here is unrepentant; meaning one doesn't think what he or she is doing is wrong and will continue to act in a manner contrary to what the Church teaches as being right and true. Should someone repent and strive to live a chaste life and remain celibate; they may be restored to communion.
But what about people who profess to be Orthodox Christians and regularly engage in sexual relations with those of the opposite sex and don't think this is a sin? This is contrary to what the Church teaches. Should someone not come to communion who has this mind set? I am asking this question because of how prevalent this unrepentant mind set is today. Furthermore, there are certain ongoing sins the Church seems to tolerate that doesn't mandate staying away from communion. There are a lot of us who over eat, or smoke several packs of cigarettes a day, or abuse alcohol or drugs. While most of us don't justify any of the above habits, people who smoke for example are not told to stay away from communion. However we would be expected to confess these as sins when we come to Confession and strive to overcome those passions and impulses in us that contribute to adopting these unhealthy practices. But coming to the cup is not contingent upon overcoming the above types of sins within a certain time period. I don't think the case is any different with the sin of fornication (which I am equating with sexual relations outside of marriage). As long as someone is struggling to maintain chastity and to be faithful to what the Church teaches, this might be one of those sins that wouldn't necessitate staying away from communion for any long period of time (as found in the 4th century canons I cited). With this in mind, the best medicine for the sin of fornication would be to come to Confession when this sin has been committed before receiving communion again. Participation in the sacrament will eventually strengthen a repentant mindset; help one to struggle with this passion, and to overcome it by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. The attitude that is expressed to those who are repenting in the sacrament of Confession is that of our Lord's teaching; we should be prepared to forgive sins not seven times, but "seventy times seven."
So what this finally boils down to is when it comes to moral lifestyle and its relationship to communion is that of unrepentant sin. Should someone who is behaving in a manner which is contrary to what the Church teaches, and doesn't see that behavior as sinful be coming forward to receive communion in the Orthodox Church? My own understanding of the Orthodox Faith tells me that one should not. But this raises another question; do priests have the authority to tell someone that they can't receive communion? Or does this authority reside only with the diocesan bishop? I have had conversations with some clergy where they believe if they have told a person not to receive communion as part of a penitential practice and that person still comes to the cup, that they wouldn't publicly refuse to give that person communion. The rational for this is that the responsibility for this behavior lies with the one receiving communion and not the priest who instructs the person not to come forward (the priest has done his job). In other words as priests it is not our job to become policemen of the sacraments. While I agree that we are not policemen, I have also been told that as priests we are called to be guardians of the sacrament. What does that mean? Where does our responsibility lie when it comes to having knowledge of someone who receives communion yet lives an unrepentant moral life style? Is it proper for us to give communion to someone we have told not to come to the cup but they come forward anyway? From what little I know about relationships among the Orthodox Churches here in America, this is an area where we are all not on the same page. Some churches seem more strict and some more lenient. It would be good for a priest to know his diocesan bishop's viewpoint on this above matter. In other words if a priest is going to tell people not to come to communion, make sure one has the support of the diocesan bishop before doing so.
I didn't have much fun writing this note. I am still not at peace with it because of my weaknesses as a person. I basically talked about dos and don'ts and not much about the heart and the inner man. I am also aware of the fact that our Church teachings when strictly applied would probably makes us a much smaller church. In some places we can't get any smaller than we are! Do we walk the narrow way that Christ talks about in the gospel realizing that we will lose people because of it? But does this make us a Pharisee church preoccupied with doing things right and rules? Or do we set the table for our weaker brother in charity? By doing the latter are we compromising the Truth so people won't leave? What does that do to our credibility as a church? What is in our hearts that is motivating us to act the way we do? Do we desire to do God's will as we pray in the Lord's Prayer or are we concerned with the approval of men? Next month, I want to address this same topic from the perspective of our relationship with Christ. I end with this quote from Ephesians 3:14-19 for your prayer and reflection. I will also begin with it next month as I believe if we find fulfillment in seeking this reality below, the dilemmas raised above will be put to rest. Take care, Fr. Paul
For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height- to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.