I'm an agnostic young adult living in America


A few years ago my family and I were at a Lutheran church because my cousin was becoming a pastor. Throughout the whole ceremony I did what I saw others doing- kneeling when they did, singing along, putting my hands together in prayer, etc. I didn't really know what I was doing but I was trying to fit in:
Then everyone got out of their seats and lined up to for the juice/water/etc. and communion wafers at the front. I followed my family and people in front of me and received and ate a communion wafer.

Over the weekend I found out from my boyfriend's family that one is not supposed to eat a communion wafer before one's first communion(? I think that's what I heard them say anyway)
His aunt was more upset by this and said I would be going to hell in a concerned and sad way. My boyfriend's family is Catholic but himself and his siblings are much less religious than their parents and grandparents.
His aunt also said she wouldn't even participate in a communion at a church she did not attend as it would be disrespectful. However his mother said she thinks it's proper etiquette to participate even if you don't attend the church.

This was all new to me and I'm mortified by how I must have looked during my cousin's ceremony. I really wouldn't have taken a communion wafer if I knew I wasn't supposed to. Most people there probably weren't disturbed by my family's actions as we were not confronted and maybe at worst some were thinking: “ignorance of the law is no excuse”

But what is the etiquette for participating at a communion for someone who is not religious? The different perspectives I got from my boyfriend's mother and aunt sort of confuse me. I aim to learn more to properly show respect next time.

  • Did you get any indication that anyone outside your family thought you were doing something wrong? Most people there presumably didn't know you were ineligible (assuming you were - I don't get involved in theological questions relating to any given religion). I don't see evidence that anybody except your family had any idea you shouldn't have done what you did. – David Thornley Nov 6 at 21:33
  • @DavidThornley Everyone was pretty nice so they probably didn't know like you said. I don't think even my family (parents) knew that we weren't supposed to take the communion. I think my aunt (cousin's mom) knows we're not really religious but she acted normally and didn't say anything – aaa Nov 6 at 22:02
  • Did you ask how to behave before going to church? It's always a good idea to be prepared, at least have someone next to you to ask such questions. Did really "everyone" go to communion or did some of them stay at their seat? Besides this I believe the concept of "exception to the rule" is known to a loving god too, so you won't be sent sent to hell straight away if you do something wrong like you did. – puck Nov 10 at 7:40
up vote 30 down vote accepted

Both a preacher's kid and seminarian here.

A lot of this depends on the denomination in question. Catholics and some Lutherans practice what is called "closed communion" where only those practicing that specific faith are allowed to participate. Others practice what is called "open communion" where anyone is allowed to participate. There isn't really an entrance examination as people visit other churches all the time, so it's up to the communicant (person taking communion) to determine if it's right for them or not.

Pretty much any answer will depend on how you interpret Scripture, and these conflicting answers can both be considered biblical.

Let's start with what you did "right" - trying to fit in. A church service, especially one where you don't know what to do, can be somewhat intimidating. So kudos to you for first of all attending a church service that meant something to your cousin, and secondly for trying to fit in. I'll leave religious undertones out of this and say that I hope others appreciated your gesture.

Communion is a sign of participation in the faith. To Christians, it means that you are part of the Christian community and you embrace the faith, and celebrate Jesus' absolution of your sins. That's the simple explanation. How did it look? To a Christian, that only really matters to God. To a non-Christian, therefore, it doesn't really matter to anyone. I suspect that very few people there knew of your belief system and didn't pay any attention to you at all. (I know when I take communion, it's a matter between me and God, and I don't pay any attention to others.)

WRT the IPS skill here: If you find yourself in this situation again, you can remain seated and not take part. If the ushers want to call you to communion, merely holding up a hand to say "no thanks" will suffice. No one should ask why you didn't take part and if they do, you can respond with "I chose not to" and leave it there. @Upper Case's answer is technically correct but really only applies to Catholic churches - I suspect some Protestant ministers would be a little bit confused. If you're not sure, ask an usher and they'll be more than happy to help you clarify any questions you have.

If you decide you want to participate, then go ahead and do so with my blessing. Watch what others do and follow their lead. You're really the only person that knows what's in your heart and you're under no obligation to share that with others. Personally, if I'm leading worship, I'd rather have one confused person feel welcome and discuss how communion works with them later than have someone feel like they're not welcome and stay away. I'd be embarrassed to turn someone away for "not being Christian enough".

I grew up Catholic and had the full suite of religious education that goes with it. I suspect that the rules vary by Christian denomination. The headline answer to your question for a Catholic service: if you are not Catholic, you should not take Communion at Mass. Full stop.

There are a variety of situations in which one is not supposed to take Communion, every one of which is considered to be a deeply personal matter for that person. It would be extremely rude to see someone refuse Communion and then ask them why they did so. Modern adherence is all over the place, but in general a church service is the least of "what others [do]" in participating in their faith. The sacraments are particular aspects of the religion, but they are only a small (though significant) portion of what believers are expected to do.

The "official" ways to decline Communion at a Catholic service are to simply not approach, eliding the issue, or to approach and then cross your arms over your chest (make an X with your arms, with your hands near your shoulders, making clear that you will not take part) and then step aside for the next person.

Additional detail: Your boyfriend's aunt's statement that she would not take Communion at a church she did not attend is not related to the Catechism at all, as far as I'm aware. The Church encourages Catholics to take Communion frequently. You can take Communion at any Mass, anywhere, at any time, provided that you, personally, are in a state where that would be acceptable at any Mass.

Those states get really intricate, really fast. But the summary is that you need to be adhering to the dictates of Catholicism, including having participated in your first Communion (which itself is more an expression of the spiritual preparation for what Communion represents to Catholics) and are not living in a state of mortal sin (plus other situations, that level of detail is probably not useful here). Taking Communion when you are not supposed to is... pretty bad, theologically speaking. But as above, from the Catholic perspective, that's between you and God/Church officials (like priests), not you and any other members of the community.

  • Do you mind a follow up from someone who went through a similar situation in a Catholic church years ago? (I don't feel I can post it because it's too much like this one and would be marked duplicate.) – Tango Nov 7 at 5:24
  • @Tango No, I don't mind at all. – Upper_Case Nov 7 at 15:35
  • Thank you! A while back I was a teacher at a parochial elementary school. The 2nd year we had a new principal, who had just left her convent. I don't know if she knew I wasn't Catholic or not. (I'm pretty sure she did, though.) There was a special mass the Sunday of the week school started and all the teachers were called up to be presented to the congregation. (We didn't do this the previous year.) I forgot the exact sequence, but, basically, from there, we were supposed to take communion. I think they were starting with the teachers. (See next comment.) – Tango Nov 7 at 18:39
  • Basically all the teachers were up in front of everyone and it went straight to communion, with no way for me to graciously leave or not take part. I felt I had no choice to but take part in communion, but I felt that was wrong. On the one hand, I felt it was insensitive to put me in that situation, but on the other, I had no idea what to do other than to just follow along and not make waves - even though I felt it was not right for me to take communion. (I'm a Quaker - no sacraments.) Was there a better way for me to handle it? – Tango Nov 7 at 18:41
  • @Tango I misunderstood your previous comment, and thought that you would be writing another (similar) answer. These comments will likely be deleted. But until then: if you have to approach for Communion, crossing your arms is the "official" way to decline actually taking the wafer or wine. In practice any reluctance will probably work (no one is going to jam things into your mouth). Anyhow, it's not reasonable to expect random people to know all of the rules, nor is it a social or community problem to take Communion improperly. – Upper_Case Nov 7 at 18:51

Note: I'm French, I have done my first and second communion in a Catholic church (but I now consider myself agnostic).


In France, we have a saying: "In Rome, do as the Romans". It means that, when you don't know what you should do, do as the local people do.

In your case, you did this and it mostly goes well except for the communion wafer part. Honestly, if no one had told you beforehand that there was a special rule for the communion wafer, I don't see how you could have guessed. So, I wouldn't blame yourself for that.

Now that you are aware of this "special rule", you want to know what you should do next time. I won't repeat what the other two (great) answers have said but I will give you a more general guideline.

When it comes to the communion wafer, the difference is between people who have done their first communion and those who haven't. Since you haven't done your first communion yourself, you should act like the other people who haven't done it either: childrens. In France, the age for the first commun is around 9 years old but it vary country to country. So I will suggest doing the same as children that don't have the ability to read yet to be safe (or better, checking one the internet/with someone before going to the church).

If you see children going to receive the communion wafer but with their arms cross, do the same, if they stay on their seat, do the same, etc...

As a musician I sometimes have to be in some church or other place of worship. I'm an atheist so I do not want to take part in any way; for one thing it would be against my principles, and for another it would be pretty disrespectful.

When they all start doing stuff I stay sitting quietly with my head a bit down. Generally the music is at the side or the back so no-one really notices. If asked I'll say, no, I don't belong to [this organisation]. If there's a songbook I might sing along, though, because I like singing. When it's over I sort of slope off discreetly and wait outside.

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