Governor General Adrienne Clarkson receives communion from Roman Catholic Archbishop Marcel Gervais during a September, 2002, memorial for photographer Yousuf Karsh.
A photo of Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, a devout Anglican, standing before a Roman Catholic archbishop to receive communion has prompted a renewed discussion in the two denominations over the issue of who may take communion in a Catholic church.
After the photo was published in January in the Ottawa Citizen, there was a flurry of letters to the newspaper over the issue. The story was widely covered across the country and the letters and coverage prompted a published response in the newspaper from Archbishop Marcel Gervais, Catholic archbishop of Ottawa.
In his Jan. 27 letter, the archbishop explained the Roman Catholic view of communion, saying, “In our tradition we do not approach the communion table in any old way.” The archbishop said that he should have spoken to Ms. Clarkson’s office after he gave her communion at a memorial service last September.
Non-Catholics may not receive communion in a Catholic church, although Roman Catholics and Anglicans now formally recognize one another’s baptisms. Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan, the Anglican Church of Canada’s ecumenical officer, who wrote to the Citizen after the archbishop’s letter, said in an interview, “It’s unfortunate in that we do have an agreement (between the two churches) but that the Roman Catholics from recent correspondence don’t remember that.”
She said that “overall” the archbishop’s letter was good and balanced. “It’s good that he put out there that no one will be refused communion at the altar rail,” she said. However, she took exception to his statement, “In our tradition we do not approach the communion table in any old way.”
In her letter of response, Ms. Barnett-Cowan wrote: “Anglicans approach the Eucharist with the same reverence and belief as Roman Catholics, and I am sure that the Governor General did not approach the communion table ‘in any old way.’ Rather, it is out of a deep recognition that Christ is present in the bread and wine that Anglicans desire to receive Roman Catholic services.”
She added the reason that some Roman Catholics say Anglicans should not participate at the altar is “because we do not agree on all aspects of interpretation of the faith.”
The controversy was instigated by Catholic freelance writer Art Babych, who photographed Archbishop Gervais giving communion to Ms. Clarkson in September at a memorial service for photographer Yousuf Karsh in Notre Dame Cathedral. Mr. Babych then complained about it in a letter he wrote to the Citizen.
“Surely protocol-conscious Rideau Hall – if not the Governor General herself – is well aware of the Catholic church’s position on the matter,” wrote Mr. Babych. “Acceptance of Catholic communion by the Governor General delivers a slap in the face to those ‘commoners’ in the Catholic pews who are unable to receive the sacrament for reasons such as not having gone to confession, being remarried without first receiving a church annulment, or living common-law.”
Archbishop Gervais wrote that in the Catholic church priests never publicly refuse communion to anyone who approaches to receive, “whether it is a head of state or an ordinary person.
“In hindsight I should perhaps have contacted Mrs. Clarkson’s office afterwards in order to speak to her about the matter, but such action is only taken if the person has repeatedly received communion under similar circumstances,” he added.
Ms. Barnett-Cowan said that the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches have agreed about the theology of the sacrament.
“We need to respect their belief that full communion is only possible when we live in full visible unity,” she said. “Anglicans, on the other hand, consider that sharing in the eucharist helps to build the unity we seek, as it is Christ who makes us one.”
The Governor General’s spokesman, Stewart Wheeler, said that shortly after becoming governor general, Ms. Clarkson spoke to members of the Catholic archdiocese in Quebec City near her residence there and expressed her wish to take communion at funerals and other public services.
Msgr. Jean Pelletier, chancellor of the Quebec archdiocese, said he had not discussed the matter with the Governor General and did not know which officials she had talked to in Quebec. He added, however, that communion was a personal choice and that it was difficult to go into consciences. “Personally, not only do I not judge her, but I understand her,” he said.