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.

question meetings

Back in the mists of time I posted something here about the traditional Scottish “communion season” and mentioned the Question Meeting, which (currently at least) is part of the Friday theme of self-examination ahead of participating in the Lord’s Supper.

Different people have different stories about how question meetings started and why. There is also some debate about how useful they are and whether it’s worth keeping them going even among the congregations which still hold them. (There are of course real pressures which combine to make the survival of question meetings seem doubtful – being unable to take time off from work for a Friday morning service, developing the skill to speak helpfully in accordance with relatively complex unwritten conventions, not to mention in general being spiritually-minded enough in the first place.)

Anyway, a couple of recent posts by Iain D Campbell are worth highlighting on the topic – one post on the meeting itself (19th century and contemporary practices plus some reflection), and one which quotes the views of Donald Munro of Ferintosh on how these meetings originated:

There are also various suggestions in addition to Munro’s about how the question meeting originated – Douglas Somerset reviews several in an article in the FP magazine a couple of years ago (‘The Origin of Fellowship Meetings,’ available here in pdf, starting on p333).

Questions meetings can be really useful and beneficial, when the speakers manage to demonstrate the distinction between what is experienced in genuine conversion and sanctification and what is artificial or spurious in religious experience. I can’t say that’s happened in every question meeting I’ve ever been at, but when it does, it’s extremely valuable to hear how the universal general features of effectual calling, regeneration, and Christian living, are worked out in concrete terms in the personal experience of other individuals. (If I could think of any of the many staple question meeting anecdotes right now I’d add them in – but maybe that will do for another post sometime.)

In the best-case scenario, nothing about a question meeting would differ from what Christian friends would discuss with each other anyway – how scripture and experience match, and what growth in grace really looks and feels like. Perhaps we don’t really need the (arguably Scottish-specific) formalisation of this natural part of Christian life to supplement it. Yet somehow you can’t help thinking that we could view the dwindling commitment to this public and formalised aspect of self-examination with slightly more unconcern if there wasn’t the sneaking worry that it might just be a more overt expression of our dwindling efforts in the church at large in the direction of striving for sincerity in godliness (and Christian fellowship specifically on Christian experience). Perhaps.