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Lutheran bishop endorses intercommunion

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
South Bend, Ind.

A Lutheran bishop, addressing the nation’s leading Catholic liturgists, called for sharing Communion among Lutherans and Catholics without waiting for permission from hierarchies of the two churches.

“Just as the liturgical movement began at a grassroots level, so we too cannot wait for the powers that be to approve of our understanding of what is sufficient for our practice of eucharistic hospitality,” Lutheran Bishop Robert A. Rimbo said.

Rimbo spoke at an annual liturgical gathering in late June sponsored by the University of Notre Dame Center for Pastoral Liturgy. The event, called “Eucharist Without Walls,” drew 350 of the nation’s leading Catholic liturgical experts along with a number of Protestant guests.

“It is time for us to begin communing together at the one table of the one Lord as the one church, and consider the consequences of such when God reveals them to us.” Rimbo of the Southeast Michigan Synod, Detroit, said.

He told conference participants that when he was a student in Milwaukee, he would sometimes go to St. John’s Cathedral (Roman Catholic) to worship. He said he was captivated by the ritual. The place smelled to him like a church, and he often received the sacrament there. “So far,” he said, “it hasn’t done any damage.” The audience roared with laughter and applause.

Rimbo belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the country’s largest federation of Lutheran churches with 5.5 million members. It does not represent the views of the 2.7 million-member Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, which has opposed recent moves toward closer ties with the Catholic church.

Rimbo’s call for eucharistic sharing was greeted cautiously by Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Richard J. Sklba of Milwaukee, who appeared with Rimbo.

A conference attendee told the story of his interfaith marriage and the hardship he and his wife have endured in not being able to receive Eucharist together.

“A marriage unites two people into an inseparable one. But when we go to worship together, we are told that we are not allowed to share the same bread. Where is this ‘one’ to take and eat? How long do we have to be put asunder, week after week?” asked Ray Temmerman of Manitoba, Canada.

Sklba stopped short of endorsing intercommunion. However, he said, such experiences should inform the larger church.

“We have gone from tasting the bread of unity to digesting it. And it is the second that nourishes, not the first,” he said.

Sklba is co-chair of recent discussions between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and a consultor for the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Another participant asked where the people are in this debate. “The people are way ahead of us,” Rimbo responded.

A spokesperson for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said Rimbo was offering a private opinion in his call for intercommunion. The church’s position, the spokesperson said, is that while anyone who believes Christ is present in the Eucharist is welcome to receive Communion at a Lutheran service, a formal move toward eucharistic sharing must emerge from official dialogue with the Catholic church.

The Catholic position, expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is that eucharistic sharing is forbidden with churches of the Reformation, which includes Lutherans. The basis for the teaching is that those churches have broken with apostolic succession; therefore their ministers are not validly ordained.

On the final morning of the conference, Rimbo and Sklba co-presided at an ecumenical repentance and baptism renewal service. It was based on a service from the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2000.

In other years, this final liturgy has been a eucharistic celebration. Some found the decision to fast from Eucharist this year to be difficult in an atmosphere infused with hope for unity. Several conference participants said the fast served as pointed reminder of the progress Christian institutions have yet to make.

“We wanted to celebrate what we could all celebrate together, which is our common baptism, so that none would be excluded. [Fasting] reminds us of the roads we still must travel,” said St. Joseph Sr. Eleanor Bernstein, director of the Notre Dame Center for Pastoral Liturgy.

Denominational difference was not the only kind of diversity that challenged conference participants. Another poignant moment came when Andrena Ingram, one of only two African-American participants, spoke about her sense of isolation.

“As you can see, I’m the only one here,” said Ingram, who had not yet seen the other African-American woman in the audience. That woman then stood up and shouted, “I’m here!”

“Where have you been all week?” Ingram laughed.

Ingram said she had contemplated leaving the conference the first night. “I felt like I was being tested,” she said. “My presence here is a testament to the walls that need to come down.”

Ingram, who attended with help of a scholarship from the Notre Dame center and support from a parish, is a member of Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the Bronx, N.Y. She noted that participation in such gatherings remains largely unavailable to members of impoverished churches.

Tara Dix’s e-mail address is taradix@hotmail.com

National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2000