Frequency of Communion

I have the privilege of regularly co-teaching a worship course at Wesley Seminary. The best part of teaching this course is coaching students as they develop an integration paper. In fact, I am spending this week reading my latest round of position papers. Every semester so far I have at least three students writing on communion, with at least one of them writing on the question of its frequency. How often should communion be celebrated? They invariably answer, “More often!” However, the practical question of how to increase frequency inevitably arises. Here’s a few stray thoughts on the matter for your consideration.

(1) Clarity of conviction. It seems to me that a pastor ought to have some clarity as to why he or she believes communion should be practiced more frequently. Usually we come to a position before we’ve work out all its kinks. So spending some time in reflection before a knee-jerk reaction is the better part of wisdom.

Wesley’s sermon on the duty of constant communion is as good as any place to start. The insight embedded in the way he structures his argument is to reply to a series of objections to more frequent practice. Although he does not answer every objection, he deals with a lot of the most common ones. It seems to me that if a minister desires to celebrate communion more frequently, he or she would be wise to formulate replies to anticipated objections, in order to be ready to respond calmly yet confidently to those who might resist.

Note well: I find that the more confident I am in my conviction, the more calm I respond to those with whom I disagree. And calmness seems appropriate in this case, for is not communion the sacrament of Christian unity? If so, then increasing its frequency ought not be an occasion for divisiveness.

(2) The priority of practice. Although clarifying one’s own convictions is a often a good personal starting point, I do not think that it is the best place to start in forming a community. The best way to change a community’s “views” is to change their practices. A community’s convictions are nearly always embedded in their common practices. Therefore, one cannot simply talk a different way of approaching the table into existence. But one can often subtly draw a community into a different view by inviting them to into a different sort of practice.

This invitation can take many forms. For instance, one could offer more frequent communion at a distinct venue. Or, one offer more frequent communion at a midweek service. Or, one could celebrate communion in a slightly different way, making it seem less redundant when frequency slowly increases. Or, one could celebrate communion very frequently for a season, perhaps Advent, Lent, Easter, or Pentecost (i.e., summer), treating it like a temporary experiment. You get the idea: there are lots of ways to increase the frequency of communion without having to first convince everyone that it is a good idea.

Note well: I have found that once people experience more frequent communion, especially if it is done well and with intentionality, they don’t want to go back to less frequent practice. So, ironically, the best way to increase demand is to strategically increase the supply.

(3) But teaching has its place too. The above is not meant to imply that one ought never teach on the sacrament of holy communion. Heaven forbid! I simply mean to suggest that we should start with existing practice, then move on to explicit teaching. This way has the distinct advantage of teaching in response to questions.

On the one hand, the minister may begin to ask questions. Did you notice anything different about the way we celebrated communion? Was it more meaningful this time than usual? Why do you think that was the case?

On the other hand, the congregation may begin to ask questions. Why did we do communion that way? What is the meaning of communion? Should I not be taking so often? Am I worthy of so frequent communion? What is really happening when I take holy communion? Whether they come from you or your people or both, questions are a fitting point of entry for reflection on the meaning of communion.

Note well: I have found that questions emerging from practice lead to more interested people and much deeper reflection. Sacramental theory can very quickly get technical, esoteric, and controversial when it is approached in the abstract. But when the meaning of the sacrament of communion is asked in the context of its practice, the theories thaw out and permeate a living conversation.

Well, there’s a few stray thoughts of mine. Any thoughts you’d like to add?

 

  • LawrenceWilson

    Good thoughts, John, especially your first point. I’m not sure that we (speaking of The Wesleyan Church) have had a crystal clear theology of worship so that adding (or increasing) certain elements can make for a hodgepodge. It’s confusing to people. Though many laypeople probably couldn’t state it as such, they feel a disconnect between this incarnational element and the Pneumatic experience that we more often present as “real worship.”