Though we are tempted to believe who communes is an individual decision and choice and the pastor needs little involvement in whether one communes or not, Mr. Biden shows us how it is not merely an individual choice at all. There are repercussions and consequences. Those who advocate for open altars in any church are ignoring how one communing affects all communing and those outside the church who are watching. This is not simply a private decision or personal choice. Yes, the Scripture does say that those who commune should examine themselves. This does need to happen and the discipline of who communes does not mean that this personal examination should not or need not take place. But in placing the pastor as the steward of the mysteries, God also has given the Church a means to address those who commune on a different level.
I have said repeatedly on this blog that the stewardship of the mysteries is not a matter of making sure those who commune are card carrying members of your denomination. That is shallow and makes a mockery of the Lord's gift. The pastor is called upon to prepare the people for this Holy Communion and that is the level of his examination. It involves knowing and discerning the Lord's presence in this Sacrament, having acknowledged and confessed their sin, believing and rejoicing in God's forgiveness, and desiring by the aid of the Holy Spirit to amend their sinful lives. Yes, that is all true. But it also means protecting the individual from themselves when their lives are clearly at odds with the faith and protecting the Church when their communion would scandalize the greater communion and the witness of the Church to the world around.
No pastor delights in doing this. It is awkward and unpleasant. It is prone to misunderstanding. It can be its own scandal when done carelessly or arrogantly. And yet, not to do it is to cause offense as well. It is not a matter of protecting the altar from sinners but protecting sinners who are not repentant from what is there at the altar. It is not a matter of protecting the church from those whose sins may be well known but protecting the well known sinner from the condemnation of those not given stewardship of the mystery. When pastors and congregations make radically different calls in many of the same circumstances, it affects our larger fellowship as parishes and churches walking together.
Mr. Biden's presence at a Roman Catholic altar is a pressure point for all of those churches who confess this truth about who communes. So, many are watching how Rome will handle this and wondering if Rome will act faithfully and consistently -- even those not Roman Catholic are watching. Because what Rome does will inevitably make it either easier or harder for the rest of us to steward the mystery where we serve.