This series of posts will be in regards to a conflict I see growing in my local church. It is not regarding the theology of communion, nor the frequency of its practice, but rather the way it is “done” in my local church. So traditions and methods I talk about here will be what I have seen in local Methodist churches during my lifetime, for the most part, and may or may not have anything to do with the same in the whole denomination or the whole of the Christian religion.
What we see in the scriptures, particularly in the three synoptic Gospels, is that on the night when He was betrayed, when Jesus and his twelve disciples gathered in the upper room to celebrate the Passover, Jesus took the bread, broke it, gave it to His disciples, and they all ate it. Then He took a cup of wine, told them all to drink it, and they drank from that one cup. That is the basic information we are given about the methodology of the so-called “Lord’s Supper”, as it has traditionally been called in the Methodist tradition.
So, how do we translate this into a modern church setting? As far as we can tell from the scriptures, this was twelve or thirteen men meeting together for a meal. The one loaf of bread and the one cup of wine was sufficient for them all to eat and drink a little bit of each. But how do we do it when we have over 200 people in a church service?
Well, let’s start with the way I have seen it traditionally done in Methodist churches in southern Minnesota over the past fifty years or so.
Once we get past the preliminary liturgy, the congregation is ushered up to the front of the sanctuary, usually a couple pews at a time, and all stand patiently along the communion rail. Then the pastor and those helping him (if any) bring a tray of pieces of bread to each person. Usually each person selects his own piece of bread as the pastor passes by, and immediately eats it. (The pastor says the appropriate words as the people take and eat.) Having finished passing out the bread, the pastor and his helpers then take a tray of small (read “tiny”) cups of grape juice (we’re Methodists) and pass them out in the same way to the people waiting along the communion rail, again saying the appropriate words. The people are to drink their little cups of juice immediately upon selecting or receiving them. Then the pastor says some words of benediction to that group of people, and then they rise to return to their pews, and the next group of people come forward, and the same procedure is repeated, until all have been served.
I have observed a few variations on this in different traditions over the years. In a Presbyterian church I once attended, the bread and little cups were passed through the pews while the people remained seated; everyone waited until all had received, and then everyone partook of the elements at the same time.
In a very small evangelical church I was involved in for a short time, a church of 20-25 people, the elements were also passed through the pews and then everyone partook at the same time, but it worked very well in such a small church, while it took much longer in the large Presbyterian church.
The method that is causing the problem in my church crept in several years ago, when a former pastor was apparently looking for a faster way of doing it, under the guise of a “new and different communion experience”. In fact, it’s neither new nor particularly different. It is called “intinction”, and is frequently reviled by some members of our church as “Catholic”. The people are ushered out of their pews and proceed up the center aisle to the front, where they meet the pastor and his helpers at two stations. A bite-size (hopefully!) piece of bread is torn off and handed to the member, who then is supposed to dip the bread in a large cup of grape juice, eat it, and proceed back to their pew.
The complaints I’ve heard are that it seems Catholic to these Methodists; that they feel like a herd of cattle going up there; that it makes communion feel too rushed and unworshipful, thereby emptying it of its “meaning”; and finally, that it tends to get grape juice stains on the carpet.
These are complaints I have heard off and on for a few years now, but only recently have they become louder and more persistent, since it is looking more and more like intinction is becoming our pastor’s preferred method of communion. It’s especially loud at this time since we have taken communion so often lately, with Holy Week and Easter Sunday immediately preceding the first Sunday of May. The people just don’t like this method, and the more often we do it, the more they complain.
I do consider this a serious issue, and becoming more serious. People are not only complaining about it, some are going so far as to either walk out of the service before communion, or to not even attend church on the Sundays when communion is scheduled. People are not taking communion, and it seems to be splitting the church.
What kind of solution, or compromises, can be made in this situation?