Among the many traditional conceptions of the church,* one of the most ancient and enduring is that of a communion of human persons with the Triune God (see Trinity ) and, consequently, with one another in God. This communion, though fundamentally spiritual, is effected, nourished and certified by adherence to common expressions of the faith,* by participation in the same sacraments* and, some would add, by submission to a single collegially unified pastoral leadership.

According to the New Testament Christians are in communion with God and with one another through faith, the sacraments, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, joint apostolic labours, and practical care for the poor.

In patristic times the Greek koinonia and its Latin equivalent, communio, referred to a whole set of ecclesial bonds. Each particular church was seen as a group of faithful in communion with their own bishop (see episcopacy ) and, through the bishop, in communion with the faithful of other local churches.* The universal fellowship was both a communion of persons (the “communion of saints”*) and a communion in sacred things, especially in sacraments.

In the early centuries communion was effected and expressed in a great variety of ways. For example, the bishop of Rome had the custom of sending particles of the bread consecrated at his own altar (the fermentum ) to the titular churches of the city. Unconsecrated hosts were sent over great distances to be used for the eucharist. Bishops of major sees would send lists of approved and orthodox bishops in their own region to bishops of distant lands. Christian travellers would be furnished with tesserae (letters of communion), entitling them to hospitality in the churches they visited. The most fundamental sign of communion was admission to the eucharist* – as celebrant or concelebrant, in the case of clergy, or as communicant, in the case of laity.

When one bishop established communion with another, he entered into communion, at least nominally, with all the bishops recognized by the second bishop. When a bishop was out of communion with the principal churches, and especially with Rome, he and his faithful were to that extent “excommunicated”.

Excommunication* was not yet viewed as a canonical penalty imposed by a superior authority but seen rather as a suspension of communion between fellow bishops. Communion would be denied in various degrees for various offences ranging from heresy* at worst, through schism,* down to lesser infractions of good order. A person who was in some respects excommunicated – e.g. from the eucharist – might be in communion in other respects, such as participation in non-eucharistic prayers.

In the middle ages, the church gradually became more centralized, especially in the West, where it took on the appearance of a monarchy under the sovereignty of the bishop of Rome. With the increased codification of canon law,* the church was seen in predominantly juridical terms as the spiritual counterpart of the holy Roman empire. Excommunication came to be viewed as a penalty imposed from above, involving a denial of churchly status to those who were, so to speak, cut off from the body. From the Roman point of view, any individual or community outside its communion was to that extent outside of the church.

This juridical type of ecclesiology continued to dominate in Roman Catholic theology until the mid-20th century. But the rise of the ecumenical movement brought an increasing readiness, also in the Roman Catholic Church, to attribute some true churchly status to bodies of Christians with whom one’s own church was not in communion. Thus the conditions were ripe for a revival of the patristic theology of communion.

In Roman Catholicism, Vatican II* (1962-65) was a major contributor to this revival. Following the lead of Catholic theologians well versed in patristic literature, the Council adopted in many key texts a communio ecclesiology. The Catholic church described itself as a communion of particular (or diocesan) churches, each of which, being a communion, was a distinct realization of the mystery of the church (e.g. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 41). The member churches, while maintaining their individual character, were linked to one another in a fellowship of charity and truth. As bonds of union the Council referred to communion in the same faith, the same sacraments and the same structured fellowship. The bishops were charged with presiding over the communion of their own churches and keeping those churches in communion both synchronically with the other churches and diachronically with the church of previous ages. The bishops were seen as mutually joined to one another in a collegial fellowship, or hierarchical communion, over which the bishop of Rome presided in charity and truth.

In its Decree on Ecumenism,* Vatican II took the position that all baptized Christians were in some degree in communion with one another and with the Catholic church, but that the lack of full participation in the same professions of faith, the same sacraments and the same societal structures were obstacles to that full communion which should flow from baptism. Thus the present ecumenical situation, as described by the Council, was one of communions in imperfect communion with one another and with the Catholic church. The goal of the ecumenical movement was seen as the establishment or restoration of full communion among separated Christian groups.

The ecumenical vision of Vatican II has been consistently maintained by the highest Roman Catholic authorities since the Council. Pope Paul VI and Cardinal Jan Willebrands, second president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity,* repeatedly spoke of the desirability of restoring full communion with “sister churches”* such as the Orthodox churches of the East. Paul VI, followed by John Paul II, described the Orthodox churches as being in “almost complete” communion with Rome (Paul VI, letter to Patriarch Athenagoras, 8 February 1971; John Paul II, address for Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 17 January 1979). The extraordinary synod of bishops of 1985, reviewing the work of Vatican II, re-affirmed an ecumenism of communion: “We bishops ardently desire that the incomplete communion already existing with the non-Catholic churches and communities might, with the grace of God, come to the point of full communion” (final report, 2.C.7).

The Roman Catholic conception of the church as a communion having its centre in the Petrine see was authoritatively set forth by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in its letter Communionis Notio (28 May 1992). The statement in this letter that any church not in communion with Rome is “wounded” in its ecclesial existence provoked critical comments from highly placed theologians in a number of other churches. In his encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint* (1995), Pope John Paul II depicted ecumenism as a movement that begins with the partial and sometimes unrecognized communion that already exists among baptized Christians and moves towards full and visible communion in one church, as willed by Jesus Christ.

A similar theology of communion is accepted by many other Christian bodies. In dialogue statements representatives of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have been able to agree that “the church is a communion of believers living in Jesus Christ and the Spirit with the Father. It has its origin and prototype in the Trinity, in which there is both distinction of persons and unity based on love, not subordination” (USA consultation, 4 December 1974). The International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church declared in its Munich statement on “The Church, the Eucharist and the Trinity” (July 1982): “The one and unique church finds her identity in the koinonia of the churches.” In its Bari statement on “Faith, Sacraments and the Unity of the Church” (June 1987), the same commission stated: “The human person is integrated into the Body of Christ by his or her koinonia (communion) with the visible church, which nourishes this faith by means of the sacramental life and the word of God, and in which the Holy Spirit works in the human person” (see Orthodox- Roman Catholic dialogue ).

Anglicanism has traditionally defined itself as a fellowship of local and regional churches in communion with the see of Canterbury. The Lambeth conference of 1930 depicted the Anglican communion as “eagerly awaiting the time when the churches of the present Anglican communion will enter into communion with other parts of the catholic church not definable as Anglican… as a step towards the ultimate reunion of all Christendom in one visibly united fellowship”. The national ecumenical consultation of the Episcopal Church, USA, in its Detroit report of 5-6 November 1978, declared: “The visible unity we seek is one eucharistic fellowship, a communion of communions, based upon mutual recognition of catholicity.” The final report of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission in 1982 stated in its introduction that the concept of koinonia was fundamental to all its statements.

Lutheranism has historically looked upon itself as a confession, but this confessional consciousness does not exclude the idea of communion. Lutheran commentators have discussed the question of pulpit and altar fellowship in the context of a well-articulated ecclesiology of communion; and the new constitution of the Lutheran World Federation,* adopted in 1990, defines the LWF as “a communion of churches which confess the Triune God, agree in the proclamation of the word of God and are united in pulpit and altar fellowship”.

In its statement “Facing Unity”, the Roman Catholic-Lutheran Joint Commission (1984) proposed a gradual process of achieving a structured fellowship. The statement takes its departure from the assertion that the church is by its very nature a communio subsisting in a network of local churches (5). The statement also calls attention to the union of Florence (1442) as one possible model for church union without merger or absorption. Communion is seen in “Facing Unity” as involving three dimensions: fellowship in confessing the same apostolic faith, fellowship in sacramental life and fellowship in ministry and service.

The WCC at its New Delhi assembly (1961) used the concept of koinonia to explain the meaning of the “one fully committed fellowship”, which the member churches accepted as the goal for which they should work and pray. The assembly warned, however, that this fellowship did not imply “a rigid uniformity of structure, organization, or government”. The Nairobi assembly (1975) approved a new constitution in which the purpose of the WCC was described, in the first instance, as “to call the churches to the goal of visible unity in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ, and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe”. The “conciliar fellowship” envisaged at Nairobi may be seen as a version of what has been here described as communion. Recognizing the central importance of communion for the ecumenical movement, the fifth world conference on Faith and Order, held at Santiago de Compostela in 1993, took as its theme “Towards Koinonia in Faith, Life and Witness”.

Because communion admits of many degrees and modalities, it is not possible to state in simple terms which churches are in communion with one another. Churches that are still divided to some extent in doctrine and polity have sometimes chosen to express their mutual proximity by establishing “interim eucharistic fellowship”, such as that which was encouraged in the Consultation on Church Union* in the USA. Other churches that are very close to each other in doctrine, styles of worship and ecclesial polity have seen fit to refrain from eucharistic sharing until all barriers between them have been overcome. Thus eucharistic fellowship, although it is of great importance in the concept of communion, should not be used as the exclusive criterion.

The term “full communion” is used with various nuances. For Roman Catholics it normally signifies not only doctrinal and sacramental agreement but submission to the same system of pastoral rule. Some ecumenical statements, however, use the term to designate a relationship of “pulpit and altar fellowship”, together with commitment to mutual respect and consultation in teaching and decision making, among communions that “become interdependent while remaining autonomous” (Anglican-Lutheran Joint Working Group, Cold Ash, Berkshire, England, 1983). In the US important new agreements establishing full communion among churches were achieved around the turn of the century, for example between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church, and between the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Presbyterian and Reformed churches.

According to the perspective adopted in this article, ecclesial communion is a complex notion that includes not only eucharistic fellowship but also agreement regarding the necessary doctrines of faith, sharing in the full sacramental life of worship and affiliation with the same socially structured community. Christians who believe that a unified pastoral office is essential to the church will regard acceptance of the same body of leaders as necessary for full communion. Wherever any one of these elements is present, even minimally, communion exists to some extent, but “full communion” requires the total verification of all the elements.


n T. Best & G. Gassmann eds, On the Way to Fuller Koinonia: Official Report of the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order , WCC, 1994 n Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion” (Communionis notio) , Origins , 22, 25 June 1992 n Pour la communion des Eglises: L’apport du Groupe des Dombes 1937-1987 , Paris, Centurion, 1988 n J. Schjörring et al. eds, From Federation to Communion: The History of the Lutheran World Federation , Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1997 n J.-M.R. Tillard, Church of Churches: The Ecclesiology of Communion , Collegeville MN, Liturgical Press, 1992.

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)

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