Andy Hawes is Warden of
Edenham Regional Retreat House

he Eucharist in fact not only manifests our personal communion with Jesus Christ, but also implies full communio with the Church’; thus writes Pope Benedict in Sacramentum Caritatis. By communio he means the full participation and sharing in the life, ethical practice and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church. Elsewhere he writes, ‘the respect we owe to the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood prevents us from making it a mere ‘means’ to be used indiscriminately to gain unity.’ This is the theological basis for ‘impaired communion.’ Shared faith and practice leads to full communion; different expressions of faith and practice lead to less than full communion. Holy Communion is an expression of unity, not a means of attaining it.

Many readers will have lived in ‘impaired communion’ with the majority of the Church of England for nearly twenty years, and now we find that friends and family who have been received into full communion with the Roman Catholic faith are also placed at a similar distance from us in the Eucharist. Like many others I have struggled with not receiving Holy Communion Impaired communion at both Anglican and Roman Catholic celebrations. This dilemma is one that often crops up in Spiritual Direction. It gives rise to some very strong emotions; anger, resentment and sometimes guilt.

Nevertheless, I understand that those of us who find ourselves compromised at the altar rail are somehow caught up in the work of the Holy Spirit – the giver of all unity. Speaking personally, I could not suffer the hurt I experience, or the hurt I cause, if I did not believe it was God’s will. It seems that in occupying this sacramental no man’s land I am witnessing to the reality of the divisions within the church; I, with others, am a witness to the reality that the work for unity is incomplete and the prayer of Jesus remains unanswered. It is not a comfortable place to be, and not one that anyone would choose, and yet being out of communion with the church deepens my own communion with the Lord.

Recently in conversation with an old and much loved friend who has become a Roman Catholic, we both admitted the real pain and sadness of the ‘impairment’ of a communion that we had shared for a lifetime. But we resolved to do more together that would express the communion we do have. This surely is the way forward. Our communion is not broken; it is diminished but still is vital and of God. For many years our Deanery Clergy Chapter has not shared Holy Communion but instead we say Morning Prayer and study Scripture together. This is not experienced as ‘second best’ or inadequate; in fact it is a source of many blessings.

We must remind ourselves that the pain we experience is only a shadow of the pain of Christ, and our sad divisions must be a cause for renewed loving and sacrificial service to work for the unity which is his will.