SASKATOON — Issues surrounding ecumenical understandings of the eucharist were explored by Dr. Timothy George during a Program in Ecumenical Studies and Formation held recently in Saskatoon.
“Ironically, the sacrament of Christian unity is often the cause of difference and even division,” George said in his presentation focusing on ecumenical dialogue about the eucharist.
“Identifying this reality first allows us to consider how we can talk across confessional differences and issues of theology and conviction and practice that separate us, while we work and pray toward that unity in Jesus Christ that is so powerfully embodied in the table of the Lord.”
George participated in a Baptist-Catholic International Dialogue that produced the 2006-2010 report, The Word of God in the Life of the Church: A Report of International Conversations between the Catholic Church and the Baptist World Alliance. Citing the report, George stressed points of commonality, which are highlighted in the document, before nuancing points of difference.
The report agrees that the eucharist/Lord’s Supper (noting both terms in respect of each church’s preferred use of language) is essential to the church.
“This is very scriptural,” explained George. “Both Baptists and Catholics agree on this point. It is a fundamental agreement. Everything else we say about the eucharist derives from this one underpinning agreement.”
By using the word “essential” both churches agree on the significance of the Lord’s Supper, “without which the church cannot exist,” George explained.
“It’s important to emphasize the word ‘church’ as well. We spent a lot of time on this, because we wanted to say that the Lord’s Supper is not merely an act of individual piety. While there is a personal dimension to celebrating the eucharist, it is not a private act of devotion. It is to be celebrated in the context of a community of faith.”
“In discussing the essence of the church, we recognize that the Lord’s Supper is both a sign and a source of Christian unity,” continued George, pointing out that while the words “source and sign” are more commonly considered Catholic descriptions, it was language that both Baptists and Catholics were comfortable with.
The fact that Catholics and Baptists do not share a eucharistic table was addressed. Here the dialogue examined some of the differences between the traditions.
As George noted, “Catholics teach that, through baptism, Christians who are not Catholic are brought into what is termed ‘real but imperfect communion’ with the Catholic Church. Eucharistic communion, however, is reserved only for those who share the oneness in faith, worship and ecclesial life of the Catholic Church.”
In comparison, he went on to say, “Most Baptists in the world today practice what is called ‘open communion’ — and all those who love the Lord Jesus in sincerity and truth are welcome to the Lord’s table.
“The sacrament of the unity of the church is itself lived out and experienced in the midst of a church that is broken,” said George, noting that the document highlights how “we all long for the time when we will be able to celebrate this holy sacrament together. We’re not there yet, but we yearn for it and we feel the pain of not being able to celebrate in the fellowship of the Lord’s table.”
Another commonality highlighted in the document states that “the Bible must play a formative role in the liturgy of the eucharist or in the order of worship of the Lord’s Supper.” George explained that both Catholics and Baptists “go back to those formative scriptural texts in the New Testament that tell us how Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Last Supper and how this was lived out in the early Christian community.”
Nevertheless, there are differences in the way the words of institution function in the liturgy. “Where the Catholic priest speaks the eucharistic prayer in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), the Baptist pastor would identify himself not with Christ but with the congregation. Baptists repeat the words of institution as a narrative rather than placing themselves in a mediated role.”
The Baptist-Catholic dialogue report found commonality regarding the Trinity. “There is a trinitarian pattern in the order of worship of the eucharist/Lord’s Supper.” According to George, “this marked a notable ecumenical advance, when Baptists and Catholics found they could agree to this statement. It is a much richer, more textured understanding of the Lord’s Supper than you find in a lot of Baptist churches, so we were pushing the boundaries a little.”
Discussion ensued regarding understanding the eucharist as a sacrifice. While not all controversies were resolved, significant misunderstandings were clarified. Getting beyond assumptions opened up a new channel of better mutual understanding, George said.
George is an internationally recognized theologian and author. He chairs the Commission of Doctrine and Christian Unity with the Baptist World Alliance, he is an Advisory Life Trustee of Wheaton College, and is active in Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue. He serves as Senior Theological Adviser for Christianity Today, and is on the editorial and advisory boards of First Things and the Harvard Theological Review. George is an ordained minister in the Southern Baptist Convention.