The celebrant, Reverend Angela Berners-Wilson was one of the first women to be ordained as a Church of England priest in 1994.
Disclaimer: In this Reflection, I discuss the nature of Holy Communion in terms of both the Anglican and Baptist traditions. However, I am NOT a scholar of the denominations, so nothing in this Reflection should be taken as definitive about church beliefs, tradition, and practice. Also, most denominations in the protestant tradition hold a range of specific beliefs and practices surrounding Holy Communion. Please read as my personal thoughts and understanding, not as definitive doctrine of any church.
Holy Communion (often called The Lord's Supper, The Last Supper, Communion, Eucharist) has always been a central part of my worship experience. I grew up in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ),My Disciples of Christ's roots run deep. One of the few denominations indigenous to the United States (1880's), its roots were in Bethany, West Virginia, about 15 miles from my hometown. Key founders were Thomas and Alexander Campbell, a Presbyterian Scotch-Irish immigrant father and son. In 1840, Alexander founded Bethany College. Now a small liberal arts institution, it's original mission was to train clergy for the new denomination. I am a Bethanian, receiving my BS in chemistry from that institution in 1965. and seeing the ushers (often, my dad was one) gather around the communion table — every Sunday — while the minister spoke the words of institution over the trays of small pellets of bread and tiny cups of grape juice is a scene etched in my place of good childhood memories.
After my baptism (age 12, I think ... by immersion, of course), the rite (that's what communion was called) became even more special: I now could actually take the piece of bread and small juice cup as it was passed across the pew. I recall the tradition in my home church was that everyone took and held the piece of bread until the whole congregation got theirs. Then the minister said a few words, and we all ate the bread — together. Similar with the tiny cup.
In some Disciples congregations, everyone simply ate or drank as the elements were passed. (I imagine there was symbolism beyond speeding up things and not having to have someone pick up the empty cups … you simply drank quickly and put the empty cup back in an open hole in the tray.) Whatever the procedure, I always thought the time and ritual special.
During my later 39 years in churches of the American Baptist denomination (Glenrock, Wyoming, and Wayne, Pennsylvania) the method of doing communion was about the same — trays of bread and with grape juice, not wine. The only real difference was that we didn't have communion every week. Bummer! Usually just on the first Sunday of a month. I treasure all my years as an American Baptist, but I have to say that I always missed not having the experience of the Lord's Supper every Sunday. Even though the communion's three-week absence made the first Sunday of the month more special, that didn't quite make up for no communion on other Sundays.
In 2012, we became members of a local Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion. ("Communion" used this way means the body of those churches making up Anglicanism, not the ritual.) Obviously, worship was much different than that of the two non-liturgical traditions of the Disciples and American Baptists. But, there was one tradition (in my new church, at least) that was immediately special for me: Communion every week! In fact, celebration of Holy Eucharist is a part of most our worship services. Oh yes, and with wine rather than grape juice. (Weekly communion is not necessarily the tradition in all Episcopal/Anglican churches. In many, the standard worship is usually of a form without communion other than special Sundays.)
While there are outward differences between my Disciples/Baptist forms of communion and the Anglican, there are some very basic theological differences. These generally center on the nature of the ritual itself and what we might experience as we participate in communion. (In this space, I cannot do justice to any full explanation of the differences; I can only give highlights and generalities: Always a risky endeavor. In the Resources below, I give links to a number of articles I used as background. These give fuller explanations and might make interesting reading.)
Central Baptist Church, Wayne, PA
The Disciples and American Baptists have two very important rituals: Holy Communion and Baptism. These are usually referred to as Ordinances, sometimes Rites. (Many other non-liturgical churches would be similar in nature and understanding of these two.) These two rituals are considered to be "ordained" by Christ in the bible and as acts done by the participant as a statement of faith (in the case of baptism) and as a memorial of Christ's death (in the case of the Lord's Supper).
In Anglican churches (as in the Roman Catholic) these two rituals of baptism and communion are called Sacraments. The Catechism in The Book of Common Prayer defines sacraments as, "Outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace." (Page 587) In communion, the outward part is bread and wine; the inward part is the body and blood of Christ. Through this sacrament, Christ is directly imparting His grace. Throughout the Holy Communion portion of Holy Eucharist and the sacrament itself the action looks backward as a memorial of Christ's sacrifice, forward as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, and to the present as an incarnation of Christ in the lives of the community and of individual believers.
The exact nature of this "body and blood of Christ" has a range of interpretations within the
Anglican Communion. Probably none takes the view of what Roman Catholics call Transubstantiation, where, in a mysterious way,
the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. Some beliefs might be quite similar with the body and
"Almighty and everliving God, we thank you for feeding us with the spiritual
food of the most precious Body and Blood of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; and for assuring us in these holy mysteries
that we are living members of the Body of your Son, and heirs of your eternal kingdom."
From a Post-Communion Prayer,
Book of Common Prayer blood becoming physically present but not replace the bread and wine. Others view the "body and blood" nature in more of a spiritual sense. Many fall somewhere between these extremes.
But there seems to be two very solid beliefs even within this wide range of Anglican views about the nature of communion. One is that the "how" of the body and blood of Christ's presence is considered a mystery. It is something we can know by faith, yet not be able to explain. Personally, even as a science-type guy, I think this sense of mystery here is important. Mystery seems sufficient, and sometimes trying to explain a mystery can diminish its importance and significance. (Also trying to further define and deconstruct a mystery sets the stage for division among us.) In the Episcopal communion liturgy, just after we remember Christ saying "This is my body … and This is my blood … do this for the remembrance of me," holding hands over the bread and wine, the priest says, "Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your son, the holy food and drink of the new and unending life in him…" After this sanctification, the bread and wine are to used only for holy purposes. (In video in Resources below, Bishop Michael Curry describes the nature of this mystery as well as the sacred beauty of the sacrament.)
A second, and most important belief, is that Christ IS Present in the ritual. We might not know the form of Christ in communion; but, we can know that He is here. Early in the communion liturgy, we sing/say the Sanctus, and it includes the line, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" I don't know whether this is intentional in the liturgy, but, for me, these words seem a welcoming anticipation for communion: Christ will come at communion, in the name of the Lord — whether we want Him to or not!
Although the Baptist/Disciples view of the ordinance of communion does not include this "real yet mysterious actual presence of Christ" in the bread and wine, it is none the less beautiful and is filled with rich meaning. The Lord's Supper is a supper of remembrance, of entering into the same communion as existed between Jesus and his innermost disciples. As such, it is a symbolic meal. But it is a special meal in which one can experience the Presence of Christ, perhaps in the way we can experience the Presence of Christ in a sunrise, a walk in the woods, or the face of a tiny baby, or in our singing together. We know that Christ is present!Thanks to my friend and pastor of First Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, Stephen Jones, for this beautiful description of a Baptist view of the Presence of Christ in The Lord's Supper. I had experienced this, but never had the words for it. Thanks, Steve!
So, The Baptist at Eucharist? What am I to do with these somewhat differing views of communion? I'm not referring so much to the outward particulars (e.g. weekly vs. monthly, wine vs. juice, wafers or pinch of bread off the loaf, and such), but the inward nature of "sacrament" and "ordinance", Christ's place and my place in this The Lord's Supper. One way to deal with this would be to view one belief as true the other false, one right, one wrong. Hold on to one view as my own now; reject the other as a thing of the past.
For me this approach sounds wrong-headed and frankly arrogant. How could I — and why should I — think about rejecting those most meaningful moments of drinking from the little cup of juice in the pews of my growing-up church? Or now proclaim as a figment of imagination the times I felt Christ present, not only for me but sometimes within the whole congregation, during a monthly Communion service at my American Baptist churches? Should my sure sense today of Christ's presence in the bread and wine of every Eucharist Communion ritual overshadow or even seem better than the previous experiences? Such feelings are definitely not me!
I consider my faith quite personal. That doesn't mean it's something I have alone — my faith is always in the context of and shaped within a corporate body of believers. But, it is mine. Not someone else's or some religious body's faith. I work it out and it grows and shapes itself from learning, life experiences, and, yes, churches. As St. Paul said about "working out your salvation with fear and trembling," (Philippians 2:12) I seem to be constantly "working out" my faith with fear and trembling. I am a Christian and with that comes some almost-automatic components of my faith. I am an Episcopalian, and was at one time a Disciples and a Baptist. But, while none of these has defined me, they all definitely shape me — and my faith.
When I started to write this Reflection, I intended to describe and compare the Baptist/Disciples and Anglican beliefs and traditions about communion. I also planned to describe how my experience of communion today consists of choosing a few of my earlier beliefs and selecting pieces of my new beliefs. Kind of like with a Chinese restaurant menu: Take a couple thoughts from the Disciples column, a few from the Baptist column, and finally some from the Anglican. My communion meal! But, as I thought and wrote, I realized that is not my current communion experience at all.
Now, when I go to the communion rail, I go with all these pieces of faith meshed together — it's just my one sacred communion experience. My faith tells me that Christ will be there. Not because a priest used some mysterious powers to call Him down; but, because He said he would be with us in the breaking of the bread. When I hold out my hands to receive the bread and the priest or deacon says, "The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in everlasting life," in some mysterious way, I know that the wafer is what it is said to be. And, likewise with, "The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in everlasting life."
But, I know too that I cannot be passive in this action. Christ is there, but through faith I have to want to receive him. Presbyterian theologian Frederick Buechner seems to sum up well this responsibility I received in my earlier communion services: "Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you'll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too."The full quote is: "The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you. There's only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you'll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too." Found in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC, Frederick Buechner, 1973. I have an active role to play. It is up to me to allow that Body and Blood to nurture me. I am fed. Whether I allow that heavenly food to nourish and change me depends a lot on me.
And while I know that Christ will show up and be present in communion, I also realize that if I am open and want to receive and experience God and Christ, I am very able to have the same experience of the "real presence" while pondering the rushing stream as it flows through the mountain pass … and sitting on a bench on the sidewalk of a busy city street … and sharing a quiet drink with a friend.
I am thankful for the richness and variety of meaning God has given me through long-term relationships with different faith traditions and fellowship with varied faith communities. I believe my faith to be stronger for all that — I know my faith is fuller and richer. Praise God!
An elderly woman sits a couple pews in front of me at church. (I'm one who likes to sit in the same spot each Sunday.) With a bit of difficulty, she used to go to the rail for communion. Her bones wouldn't allow her to kneel; she just leaned forward a bit to receive the bread and wine; then slowly walked (often with an arm of help) back to her pew. Always with a smile of contentment and peace.
Then her conditioned deteriorated and she needed a walker to make it to her pew. For communion, she could no longer go to the front and the communion rail. However, a deacon or priest and a Lay Eucharistic Minister would come down to her spot near the aisle. She would stand, as much as she could stand up, and hold out wrinkled hands to receive the wafer. "The Body of our Lord …" She'd chew it, make the sign of the cross, and quietly say "Amen." Then, as the LEM held the cup near her lips, she would guide it and sip the wine. "The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation." She'd cross herself again, slowly sit down, then bow her head. Watching through usually-teary eyes, I always feel I might be intruding, yet feeling blessed to be granted a peek inside a very sacred moment.
They say that no one has seen God. They say, we won't see Jesus until he comes again. As I take communion then watch that elderly woman in front of me, I think "they" might be wrong. Open our eyes, Lord. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!