Way back in the early days of Methodism here in America, there were circuit riders, pastors who would ride on horseback around a big circuit of churches in the American wilderness. Pastors who had a single church were very few and far between. So oftentimes an individual church would have to do without a real, ordained pastor for many Sundays and used a local lay preacher most of the time. When the pastor finally made it around to that particular church, it became a special occasion.
More often than not, the pastor only made it four times a year, and because of the rule that only an ordained clergyman could officiate at the Lord’s Supper, that meant that the church had communion only four times a year, or quarterly. Even so, after the “demise” of the circuit rider, when more churches were able to have their own ordained pastor, the tradition of quarterly communion still held sway in this country. Even in my own youth, in the 1960s and early 70s, the standard for the church was to have communion four times a year, and so those Sundays were considered special occasions.
In more recent years, when the message finally got through to the people that John Wesley really wanted us to have more frequent communion (Wesley himself often spoke of “constant communion”), most churches changed over to a once-a-month schedule for communion. Today, when we talk with pastors and seminary students, we find that most of them would really prefer to have communion every Sunday, and in fact quite a number of churches in the Methodist tradition do exactly that.
Some years back, when I was personally involved in a small church-plant here locally, that new church took it upon themselves to have communion every single Sunday. It was just what they did, it was part of being the Church of Jesus Christ, in their view. Personally, I kind of enjoyed it while I was there. It really didn’t take away any of the holiness and mystery of the Lord’s Supper, but instead we seemed to concentrate on that all the more. But I have also heard that, when it isn’t done the right way, much of that holiness and mystery, much of the “specialness” is lost when churches try and to it too often.
So recently I have been pondering a “what if”…what if we were to go back, as a church, to doing communion quarterly. Once every three months we would do communion, and it would be very special, very holy and full of holy mystery. We could go back to the old Anglican rite and center the entire church service around Holy Communion, the way John Wesley and the early Methodists used to do it. I think there’s something to be said for the idea.
It’s true that the language used in that old rite is very old and difficult for today’s Methodists to understand very well, but I believe that could be updated, and probably already has been somewhere. If you would like to see the service I have in mind, you can find it in the United Methodist Hymnal, in the front as Communion setting #4, I believe. The description of it says it’s the old service that they used to use in “days of yore”.
At least give it some thought. I think it would be pretty neat to at least use the old rite once in a while, even if we don’t go back to a quarterly communion schedule.