Presbyterians and Communion

Presbyterian understanding of communion like that of Christians in general has both developed over time and yet been strongly conservative about the core understanding of what is going on. Despite the many changes in the church through the centuries, in different ways responding to Jesus' request at the last supper that his followers "Do this to remember me" has been an almost constant and universal feature of Christian worship. The sharing of bread and wine, the recalling of Jesus' words and actions, have brought people in all ages and cultures to the centre of Christian belief and spiritual renewal - that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

However, how precisely the "Last Supper," "Eucharist" or "Holy Communion" should be celebrated, how often, who by, and what is thought to be going on when it is, have been fiercely fought over. The issues are not unimportant, but the way in which they have been wrestled with has not always been to the credit of those involved. Looking back it seems that some of these debates have been as much about other issues as about the Eucharist itself. The boundaries between laity and clergy, the ways in which God's grace is mediated, degrees of dignity and intimacy in the language of public worship, and other ways in which concern for relevance and truth are contested are not as firm and fixed as one might imagine. Sometimes authenticity seems to require the informal and the spontaneous, at other times it can appear casual and heedless of the care and devotion in worship that God should be due. Attitude matters, and actions are easily misunderstood. It does help to know what you are trying to do and say, especially if interpretations and intentions obvious to you seem confusing to others.

It is no longer necessary to be familiar with the subtlety or passion of some of these debates in order to  be involved responsibly in the leadership of a congregation in Holy Communion. Although differences between some major parts of the Church still focus on the eucharist, that is far less the case than it was, and the degree of flexibility many now enjoy is hopefully more a product of a wider consensus as it what it is all about, not just a sign of spiritual and intellectual laziness.

Although each tradition must speak for itself, Presbyterians need to know something of where different people are coming from and why they do what they do today.

You might like to note down what questions you (or others you know) have about what Holy Communion means, why our church celebrates it in the way it does, and what you think is different compared with other traditions.

Who can preside

Most churches underline their sense of the importance of communion by being careful about who should and who should not be authorised to preside at communion. Different denominations have different patterns of authorisation and may or may not recognise the validity of the authorisation of a tradition different from their own. It is important to understand your own views and your own church as well as have respect for where others are coming from.

Our normal situation is that those who preside are those who are ordained by prayer and the laying on of hands by a Presbytery as a National Ordained Minister or Local Ordained Minister. A Presbytery may also authorise and commission an ordained elder to preside following training, and they may also authorise an elder who is part of a Local Ministry Team to be trained and ordained into that role. 

When our church moved to authorise particular elders to preside at communion, and not just share in its administration, there was considerable concern about the ecumenical implications. Did a person need to be ordained? Since elders are ordained are they authorised? The debates in the early 1990s were framed around "lay administration of the sacraments" - "lay" meaning people who are not ordained ministers. In the long run it was felt that that ordained elders could be authorised in particular cases and circumstances, including lay moderators of presbyteries and those authorised by presbyteries where parishes have a particular need.

Ecumenically complications remain. Authorising elders is consistent with the Congregational and Churches of Christ parts of our heritage but in cooperating ventures Anglican Bishops have difficulty with this level of ordination and authorisation, and usually require (as in Local Ministry Teams for instance) that Presbyterian elders be ordained by laying on of hands for presiding at Communion. It should not be difficult to respect this understanding and most of us are glad of people's prayers even if we might feel in our own tradition they could be considered "surplus to requirements!"

Some of these concerns are behind the careful introductory wording to  Celebrating Communion. See also Training elders authorised to preside at communion.

What Holy Communion means

The meaning is determined by the teaching surrounding the actions of communion, and also by the context in which communion is received, and the needs and views of people receiving communion. The church does not control how people may choose to interpret what is going on, but it is able to say how this has been commonly understood by Christians in different times and circumstances. The meaning is neither totally a given fixed thing, nor is it purely subjective and arbitrary. A community of faith repeats and renews the story of which these symbols and words are part.

Whatever else it may be, communion is a reminder that Jesus shared a meal with his disciples the night before he died. If we share in a re-enactment of that meal we are identifying with those disciples and in a sense with Jesus himself. We are owning what happened then.

This is important for the church because it brings the church back to what the Christian community is all about which is the core of the church's distinctive identity. It also serves individually and as a group to place ourselves in solidarity with a community across time and space which stretches around the world and back through history to the central events of Christian faith.

What this awareness and remembrance does to a person is obviously something very personal, and frequently quite properly private. It is neither wise, nor necessary to tell God or man what ought to happen here. Yet there are things which can happen, which can be encouraged. They are matters of grace and faith, not of mechanical or mathematical certainty.

Communion is called a sacrament because it is a ritual which in a special way this interaction with God is expected to take place. It is partly a matter of language whether we say that sacraments are two (baptism and eucharist - those specifically authorised by Jesus); seven (as set by the Roman Catholic Church and including other rituals at important "rites of passage" or other times of need when assurance of God's presence is needed); or some larger number which recognises that there are many times and occasions when such assurance is needed.

Some of the debate arises out a proper desire to understand how God's grace is mediated and how we can get more of it; some of it looks rather like an attempt to organize God into human categories. In calling baptism and the eucharist "sacraments" we are recognising the special nature of what these are, but it does not mean that other prayers, moments, and experiences are not also sacramental in nature. Telling God what he cannot do is likely to have an element of futility about it in any case. Trying to understand what God does do is of help to everybody. It will also help reduce misunderstanding if it is noted that baptism, eucharist and so on must define sacrament - not the idea of sacrament define what the other way around. The notion of sacrament is a broad summary classification, it is not a definition.

In the eucharist the church provides an opportunity for its people to say things to God they need to say, and for them to hear again what God has said and done for us in Jesus.

 How often should communion be celebrated?

Sometimes people do opposite things in response to the same motivation. Presbyterians have long said that they have communion less often because it is so important. Most other traditions have agreed it is important and for that reason prefer to have it every week, some every day. In the 18th century one English minister rejoiced at the effects of revival in his parish because the numbers taking communion increased. Around the same time a Scottish minister  rejoiced at the work of the Holy Spirit in the congregation because he had got the number taking communion down to six - the others at last being convinced that they were sinners. We should beware of what conclusions to draw from religious behaviour.

At a personal level, it is obviously a matter of choice, though more Presbyterians need to be told it is OK to take communion more frequently. There are those who attend Anglican services as well as Presbyterian for this reason. The problem in the congregation, is how often should the church have such a service.

Many factors come into play. The Reformed tradition going back to Calvin emphasized the importance of not taking communion lightly or unworthily. A special part of the service "fencing the tables" was long part of the Scottish service in which people were warned of the dangers as Paul did to the church at Corinth - even though most Presbyterian congregations have some way to go before they are in much danger of the sort of riotous behaviour Paul was trying to sort out.

In the old Scottish churches the "fencing" was literal - stakes driven into the earth floor around the communion table which was a trestle table at which people could sit down (white cloths on the pews are remnants of table cloths) in batches. There were gates at each end. A person was only admitted if they had a metal communion token (the ancestor of "communion cards") which would have been given by the elder during a visit to check whether or not the communicant member was living free of gross sin.

This system had its value and we should not think that its severity was not a means of grace and genuine discipline. It is important also to see that it was not unconnected with rural life and long summer evenings in Northern latitudes when the annual communion season in each village was stretched out from Thursday through the following Monday. Burns Holy Fair captures one side of the atmosphere at least.

But the legacy has been mixed. In the North of Scotland it is still an effort to get the message across that you can take communion and the God wants us to whoever we are. The infrequency of communion reflects fear and tradition which are not consistent with the whole of the Gospel. Calvin had wanted weekly communion; not surprisingly the elders in Geneva baulked at weekly visitation just as elders in New Zealand have objected to monthly communion if it meant monthly visitation to deliver communion cards - though the tradition and comments about communion being more meaningful for being less frequent are the reasons which are more confessed than the impracticalities of frequent visiting.

Is Jesus really present?

Blood as well as ink has been spilt trying to sort out the way in which Jesus is present. Partly it is a matter of doing justice to Jesus' words "This is my body" "This is my blood." The medieval doctrine of transubstantiation which used Aristotle's distinction between substance, essence and external accidents, may now look like a verbal trick to remove the debate about whether the words are literal or figurative from the reality of sense experience (if you say that it has changed, but nothing physical which would tell us it has changed has altered, disbelief may be possible, but disproof is difficult). If we allow others to decide and to answer for themselves how they wish to formulate the way in which Jesus is present in communion, there is a lot to be said for saying that we believe Jesus to be present without saying how or what in.

What language should be used?

Presbyterian churches generally allow considerable freedom. It is wise to take note of what a congregation is used to. Familiarity with the now widely accepted structure of the communion service and the significance of the different prayers is important for someone leading communion, even if they choose to depart from it and use different prayers or something informal. The liturgy of the eucharist has value as a further expression of the universality and historicity of our faith. Its familiarity and the depth of the spirituality it reflects is pastorally sensitive and provides a framework and stimulus for our own spiritual growth.

It should not be necessary to note that whether prayers are read or not is no commentary at all on the spirituality of the person leading the prayers. Those perfectly capable of pouring out their hearts to God for themselves and for others, are usually secure enough in their relationship with God to see the benefit of allowing the tested aspirations and confessions of others to also express what needs to be said.

John Roxborogh, 1999.