Are ALL Welcome?

The message “ALL ARE WELCOME” is displayed in front of non-Orthodox churches all across America. Is it right for Orthodox churches to admit everyone to our services?

The most common sign in front of non-Orthodox churches across America reads, “ALL ARE WELCOME.” It is so pervasive, so… welcoming, even a number of Orthodox churches have adopted it. Is this right? Should we admit everyone to our services, particularly to the Mystery of the Divine Eucharist (Liturgy)? What is the teaching of the Church? What has been the practice of the Church?

To answer these questions let us turn our attention to two brief exclamations in the Divine Liturgy, the first one by the deacon, “The doors, the doors,” and the second one by the priest, “The Holy [Things] for the holy” and analyze their meaning. We will utilize for the most part our comments as found in our study on the Divine Liturgy. Then we will offer some additional comments and suggestions.

Deacon: The doors, [guard] the doors.

In wisdom let us be attentive.

Originally, this call was placed after the dismissal of the Catechumens and others who were prevented from participating in the Holy Mysteries. The deacon’s insisting call was meant to warn the doorkeepers (lower clergymen appointed to the task of guarding the doors of the church) to shut the doors as soon as those who could not receive Holy Communion were discharged.

St. Justin the Martyr, writing in the middle of the second century, speaking about the reception of the catechumens, explains the reason for this compelling shout:

This food [we partake] we call “Eucharist,” and no one may share it unless he believes that our teaching is true, and has been cleansed in the bath of forgiveness for sin and rebirth, and lives as Christ taught.

One of the most ancient instructions for the conduct of the Divine Liturgy that have come down to us, contained in the Apostolic Constitutions, states tersely:

Let the doors be watched lest any unbeliever, or one not yet initiated, come in… Let the porters stand at the entries of the men, and observe them. Let the deaconesses also stand at those of the women, like shipmen. For the same description and pattern was both in the tabernacle of the testimony and in the temple of God.

Only after confessing the same faith can we offer the Holy Oblation and partake of the Holy Mysteries. The Orthodox Church is open to all, but the Holy Eucharist is not an “open house.” Restricting the reception of the Sacraments to Orthodox Christians has been the mark of the true Church since the beginning. The deacon’s cry, “The doors, the doors,” is a constant reminder.

Now we come to the second exclamation we hear in the Divine Liturgy, which has the same scope as the first, to make sure only initiated, faithful members of the Church, may approach the cup of salvation:

Priest: “The Holy [Things] for the holy [people].”

As the priest “elevates” the Holy Gifts he “invites” the faithful: “The Holy Things for the holy [people].” What an awesome and fearful invitation! Although we are here for this reason, and this reason alone, i.e. to partake of the Holy Mysteries, nevertheless when the moment comes we feel totally inadequate, unworthy and unprepared (can we ever be adequately prepared?) to step forth. The priest’s cry checks us, cuts us through, dissects us and proves us wanting…

Obviously, the Holy Gifts are not for everyone. The Church has always applied to the Holy Eucharist the words of the Lord,

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you” (Mt. 7:6).

“Holy,” here, means those who have dedicated themselves to God, those who have set themselves apart, those who have been consecrated to God, in the sense St. Paul applied it to himself (“set apart,” Rom. 1:1). In baptism we were consecrated to God, to His service, to His army. We could then render the meaning of this invitation by saying, “God’s things to God’s people.” We are His, we belong to Christ; we are Christ-ians…

Non-Christians and non-Orthodox were not allowed to even enter the Church, unless they were listed in the ranks of the Catechumens. As we have already mentioned, the Catechumens themselves, who had not yet received the “laver of regeneration, the forgiveness of sins and the garment of incorruption,” had to depart prior to the commencement of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, or Liturgy for the Faithful.

Also members of the Church who had an impediment to receive the Holy Sacraments had to depart. Only those who would commune remained or, to put it differently, they remained in order to commune. Others could not stay. Only those Orthodox Christians who have the correct faith, the correct baptism, and the correct life, as we saw above St. Justin the Martyr attesting, may approach, “with fear of God, faith, and love,” and without presumption and arrogance, because God is a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). Even as we humbly chant the “disclaimer,” “One is Holy, One is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen,” we prepare to receive, not in boldness, but in utter humility, in realization of our sinfulness and unworthiness.

The shouts on which we are commenting seem to be so much out of place today, standing as anachronistic relics of times past and long gone. They serve as a constant reminder of the ancient practice of the Church, from the very beginning, to guard with her life what is her most precious treasure, precisely because the Divine Eucharist is the life of her members, the food of immortality.

Before the holy Eucharist is offered, all the members confess their common belief in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As St. Nicholas Cavasilas, an authentic commentator of the Divine Liturgy, writes:

Since brotherly love goes hand in hand with love of God, and love of God is not found without faith in the living and perfect God, the priest, as soon as he has reminded us of love, and urged us to love one another, begins the profession of faith.

Partaking of the common cup presupposes common faith, common doctrine. You need to confess the same faith, the faith of the Church, before you can approach the cup of salvation. Christians are those who have and declare the same faith. One does not “confess” his or her faith, but declares to share a common faith in the Ecclesia, in unity with her other members. Unity of faith among Christians is essential.

Therefore no member of the Church should be offended when, prior to administering the holy sacraments, the pastor addresses the people with the words, “only baptized and/or chrismated Orthodox Christians, who have recently been to confession, may receive the holy sacraments.” This announcement has become necessary since the modern custom of keeping the doors of our churches open for everyone to walk in has infiltrated in the Church. Our own bishops in America, following their leader the Ecumenical Patriarch, invite all sorts of heretics to their services, providing places of honor for them, if not allowing them to stand in the holy altar itself!

In our commentary we had also added the words, “Today, when everyone is admitted to church, let the call ‘The doors, [guard] the doors’ serve us as a reminder to be on guard so that no worldly or sinful thoughts enter our mind.” Indeed, “In the house of David, the fearsome mysteries are accomplished; therein the fire will consume every base thought.”

Under the circumstances, for Orthodox Christians to have such thoughts is good, but it does not go far enough in offering a solution to the problem addressed. Today there is an urgent need to reinstitute the ancient practice of the Church, in order to safeguard the supreme gift of our Lord, His very precious Body and Blood, offered as spiritual sustenance to the members of His Body, the Holy Church.

As I state in The Heavenly Banquet, we should welcome the Inquirers, those who visit our church and attend our services, and the Catechumens, those who have made a commitment to gain admittance into the Holy Church and are receiving formal instruction in the faith, and encourage them along the path that leads to their full acceptance of the truth that saves. Of course the “Litany for the Catechumens” should be reintroduced, at the end of which instead of “dismissing” them, they would be invited to join in the religious instruction offered.

So Catechumens and other visitors should all be directed to the hall or to a classroom, where a priest or an experienced catechist would carry on their instruction, and answer their questions. This time could coincide when the ending of the Liturgy for the Youth, so that any adults (parents and visitors attending it) would meet with the Catechumens and visitors. Where there is only one Liturgy the children should be directed to their classrooms, save on one Sunday a month, when they would receive Holy Communion, after the priest would address them in a special children’s homily. Why only once a month? It’s bold to say, but at their young age the instruction in the faith is more important than receiving the Divine Eucharist every week.