I have recently been asked by some of the team at Christ Church Manchester to do some thinking about communion.
We are a multisite church, and we have noticed that there are some subtle differences in the way communion is talked about and practiced at the different sites, or even by different people within the same site. It isn’t that these differences are big and doctrinal. It’s more about slight differences in emphasis or tone, with different aspects of what communion is being highlighted to different extents, or things being explained in slightly different ways.
As a starting point for us to chat about exactly what we believe about communion, how we practice it and why, I want to ask a few questions. Perhaps they will be useful fo you too as you reflect on how communion is practiced in your context.
WHY do we do it? – Communion is a strange thing. At some point in our gathered meetings we pause to all eat a bit of bread and drink a bit of wine. Why? The obvious answer is ‘because Jesus told us to’. But what was he hoping the outcome would be of giving us such an instruction?
WHAT happens? – A lot of the historical debate on this question is about the ‘real presence’ of the body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine. In reacting against this, a lot of churches like ours have swung the other way and see communion as merely a way of remembering what Christ has done for us. Neither of these views seem easy to square with the way the Bible speaks on the topic, so it will be important to survey exactly what kind of language the Bible uses in describing communion and how this can shape our understanding of what is happening.
WHO is it for? – Are there restrictions on who can take communion? If there is a meeting in which both Christians and non-Christians are present, then should we draw a distinction and if so, how is this best done? For those who are professing Christians, are there other factors (e.g. baptism, no unrepentant habitual sin, no conflict with other believers) that need to be in place for communion to be appropriate? What does 1 Cor 11:27-29 mean?
WHERE and WHEN do we do it? – When Jesus first instituted communion it was in the context of a meal, and involved the bread and wine that was being shared by the group. Over time it morphed into something that is done in a more ritualistic way as part of our worship services. Is this change an appropriate thing? Is it right to do communion in our gathered services or should it be done around the dinner table instead (or both)?
HOW do we do it? – Building on the answers to the other questions, there will be some practical considerations to look at. How do we actually administer communion? Will it be tightly prescribed at the different sites or will there be some bandwidth? Is there particular language that will help communicate what we believe is going on?
What other questions do you think would be good to ponder?