in praise of the traditional communion

After casually asserting the other day that there are plenty of benefits to the customary preparatory services around a communion, I suppose it might be worth identifying what some of these benefits are.

So the programme is:

  • Thursday – a day for confession of sin (literally a fast day in the not desperately distant past)
  • Friday – a day for self-examination (including the ‘question meeting’)
  • Saturday – a day for preparation (themes like the dying love of Christ for his people)
  • Lord’s Day – administration of the sacrament (following the  ‘action sermon’, typically focusing on something like the atonement, the counter-imputations of sin and righteousness, the sufferings and glory of the Redeemer, or similar) (with the evening service a call to the unconverted)
  • Monday – thanksgiving (for the gospel proclaimed in word and sacrament, and often with the additional theme of encouragements to perseverance)

And the immediately noteworthy bundle of advantages is that (i) it gives you so much time to prepare for the sacrament (ii) in such a structured way (iii) with lots of practical assistance.

(i) Preparation of some form or another is necessary for any religious exercise, from personal prayer to corporate worship, and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is special for various reasons (it’s a nurturing ordinance, so a prerequisite for participating is that you have faith to be nurtured; it’s a public ordinance, so the profession that you publicly make there needs to be in harmony with the rest of your public and private life; it’s an ordinance which deals directly with the greatest mystery of the faith, namely Christ’s substitutionary atonement, so it’s not something to get involved in lightly, etc). Sometimes you have no option but to dive into something without any time for reflection or thought, and the good Lord can pardon those who prepare their heart to seek God even when they are not cleansed according to the purification of the sanctuary. But normally it takes t i m e  to turn the juggernaut of  your mental focus away from the trivial and on to the spiritual, away from the mundane and on to the heavenly, away from the routine and on to the gospel. So when things are scheduled to allow you whole days at a stretch (you’re working in the day? then whole evenings) to prepare, that’s an opportunity to grasp with both hands.

(ii) The particular kind of preparation which is specified in 1 Corinthians 11 is self-examination, and so there is a day devoted to self-examination, but there is also some sort of fittingness about taking the opportunity to consider and confess the sin of our nature and the sin of our practice and how seriously and in how many ways this sacrament and the blessings it represents are the very opposite of what we deserve. There is also value in considering directly the unmerited love of Christ in coming to suffer and die for his people – how much he suffered, and how much he loved – as a highly appropriate topic for thought and admiration around the time of this sacrament. Etc. So there is a structure to these religious activities – they are a coherent series of steps bringing you purposefully towards the one main event.

(iii) Ministers know the routine, and they’re meant to preach sermons which are particularly geared towards the stated theme of a given day. You’re not left to your own devices – you’ll hear a sermon on forgiveness on Thursday, or Christian graces on Friday, etc, and if you’re momentarily at a loss in your own personal devotions as to what confession or self-examination involves, there should at least be food for thought in the sermon you’ve just heard.

Also, you’re not left to your own devices in the sense that you’re joining together with the rest of your congregation as you all prepare together as a body of believers for the sacrament which above everything else expresses the unity that you have among each other in that particular congregation. Your own personal faith is the basic thing, but its context of flourishing is the communion you participate in with the rest of the congregation. Your own personal engagement with the Word and the sermon is essential, but you didn’t turn up to be an audience of one for that sermon – you gathered with everyone else to attend to a sermon preached to/for you all.

One other aspect of not being left to your own devices – this is even true on the congregational level, since normally, the congregation whose communion it is will be supported by visitors from other congregations attending the services and the sacrament. This means you have contact around the gospel ordinances with other believers who you might not see very often, who can bring a fresh perspective to things, who bring their own religious experiences and insight into doctrine, who bring along their own prayers and faith in the true minister of the sanctuary. Visitors often provide a boost to local morale simply by their presence in church, and even more so, in the scenes of legendary hospitality interspersing the church services, as there’s really nothing quite like home-made broth and pancakes for making in-depth Christian fellowship happen.

Obviously, it is not in the least bit obligatory for the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated in this way. These extra services and their accessories are both traditional and culture-specific. Never let anyone tire of saying that these services are non-compulsory (since the only thing which the church can warrantedly demand that people attend is the Lord’s Day worship) and never let anyone tire of saying that the sacrament itself consists simply of the giving and receiving of bread and wine with thanksgiving and prayer in connection with the preaching of the Word (ie, excluding the fencing and excluding the table addresses). But when this great array of opportunities is available, it’s natural to feel that you need all the help you can get – it would be a bit odd for someone to decide that they can easily do without the bonuses that everyone else in their congregation is taking advantage of.

Further, it’s one thing for generation upon generation of believers to accustom themselves and their families to spending the best part of a week in and around church services every few months, with all the associated logistics (arranging days off work, accommodating overnight guests, providing hospitality on a grand scale…). None of this is any chore for people who are well used to it – clearly the opposite, since attendances even at the weekday communion services are usually at least as good as attendances at the regular midweek prayer meetings, and visitors from other congregations are welcomed with open arms. But it’s not something that you can reasonably expect to be replicated in different contexts – it grew out of particular circumstances and has developed into its current form under various social and historical influences, and it is not mandated in Scripture.

There are, finally, various drawbacks to doing things this way – some obvious, some more subtle. But it is not a mere routine – not just a series of formalities which we grimly keep up for the sake of preserving ancient customs – it’s something that our congregations continue to do heartily and intelligently. And it’s not a cover for sentimental extravagances, as though we need to spend days on end reaching some pitch of religious excitement without which life wouldn’t be complete. If sobriety and reverence are to be seen anywhere, surely it must be in the hush around the sacrament as believers focus on the person and work of Christ revealed in Scripture, and partake in the sacrament of his body and blood, ordained for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of himself in his death.

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11 thoughts on “in praise of the traditional communion

  1. From what I’ve seen on the mainland, although in other Presbyterian denominations the communion practice for the major communion occasion still has some features in common with the FP one, almost always the quantity of meetings has reduced (substantially), the visiting ministers don’t stay for the whole period, and people don’t come to stay in each other’s houses. Perhaps in the west coast village where I used to live the FC was more like the FPs in the early years I was there – I don’t remember how much change there had been by the time I left the village.

    From the point of view of the things you gain from getting together in this way, any change from the fixed system followed in the highland FP churches would probably mean that these features rapidly disappear as they have done in other churches. I would say that the system is a major (perhaps *the* major) unifying feature in your denomination, producing a communion between congregations not found elsewhere.

    The question is, is there a command and/or example given for *frequent* communion in Scripture, and is there any Bible warrant at all for your practice of *infrequent* communion with extra services?

    Another thing…. as I understand it infrequent communion or communicating was carried over from the Roman Catholic church at the reformation. If I remember aright Calvin said it was of the devil but failed to persuade any one else much. John Brown of Haddington and his son likewise failed to persuade anyone else much! So if some supporters of frequent communion in the last couple of centuries may have had Romish tendencies and imitated later Romish practices, from what I understand one certainly can’t say frequent communion is a Romish thing per se, given the history of *infrequent* communion.

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  2. PS Of course your system means that for those who participate by travelling to several other congregations, communion becomes less infrequent than it might at first appear.

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    • Infrequent communion is more difficult for FPs in North America, as the next nearest congregation is 1600 miles away. A few do usually make the trip, but it’s not as easy as in Scotland.

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  3. Romish, indeed. How our spectre does seem to loom. Our own conversations about Communion never, ever include a nervous look over our shoulder at the Presbyterians.

    On the subject of frequent reception, by 1500 members of the Auld Kirk felt so unworthy to receive communion that the Council of Trent pronounced that Christians must receive communion once a year after the appropriate preparation. Although frequent reception was a norm by 1900, frequent reception without just as frequent confession of sins is arguably a post-1965 phenomenon.

    I am moved and edified by Cath’s Presbyterian programme of preparation, although I hope a Roman Catholic saying so does not take the shine off. I do, after all, agree that what is prepared by the hands of Presbyterian ministers remains bread and wine. What moves me is that Presbyterians are being encouraged to receive the symbolic body and blood with more preparation and reverence than many Catholics receive the Eucharist.

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    • Well, it’s just that every wrong idea about the sacrament happens to be promulgated by Rome, you see.

      Ok, other than the Lutheran. And Zwinglian. We hear about them sometimes too.

      Re frequent reception by 1900 – was this in Scotland? If so, that might explain the “frequent = Roman” thing.

      The bread always remains bread and the wine always remains wine. There is simply no scriptural case to be made to the contrary.

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      • Rome’s ideas about the sacrament tend to be shared by the equally ancient Orthodox churches of the East.

        Frequent, i.e. weekly, or even daily, communion was worldwide among Catholics by 1900, so it wasn’t just Scotland. No doubt the idea frequent = Rome thus has some justification.

        The caveat is that no-one conscious of unconfessed serious sin (or who had broken the pre-Eucharistic fast) was allowed to receive communion, and before1965 relatively few Catholics in a state of serious sin (or who had broken the pre-Eucharistic fast) would receive communion. Traditionally-minded Catholics are still careful not to do this.

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  4. Thanks Peter.

    I don’t really think of it as “our system” since it predates the denomination by hundreds of years.

    But I think you’re absolutely right to identify it as a unifying factor. It helps people keep in touch with other congregations throughout the presbytery and throughout the church, and over time everyone gets to know all the ministers, etc. It helps avoid de facto congregationalism and makes presbyterianism less of a convenient system of organisation and more of a living and breathing reality. We’re presbyterian and we know it (we don’t clap our hands).

    The number of services has also reduced in the FPs. In most places the early morning prayer meeting is no more, and in places where people travel longer distances to church there would only be one service in the evenings of the weekdays.

    I’m happy to accept that “as often as you do it” is sufficiently nonspecific that frequent/weekly and infrequent are both legitimate. It’s clear that there is no Biblical warrant for compelling attendance at the extra services … but at the same time, there is ample Biblical precedent/mandate for undertaking the religious exercises which the extra services are meant to assist.

    As far as I understand it, the caution over having freqent communion was in case it would license people to think that there is some efficacy in the sacrament itself, as if merely increasing the number of communions would bring some automatic benefit. There isn’t and it wouldn’t, but these are tendencies which it never hurts to guard against. Often, it seems, when people make the case for changing from Practice X to Practice Y, it’s their motivation for advocating change that’s as important as the merits of the change itself. There is nothing wrong with weekly communion, but if the person arguing for weekly communion also argues that it’s a converting ordinance (or something), then the orthodox are unlikely to become any more orthoprax on that particular issue.

    If I went to all the communions I was invited to, I could easily be at 10 or 12 a year.

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  5. Aelianus would immediately jump up and quote the relevant scriptural passages. (Did you ever hear the “When at the Oxford Ecumenical Meeting About Communion Aelianus Rose to His Feet” story?) I, however, do not see the point in firing Biblical verses like snowballs.

    B.A. asks, yelling from his chair while watching telly, “If the body and blood were purely symbolic, why did it take someone 1500 years to say it?”

    These men are so stroppy.

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