Communion–How or How Not To Commune

16 Jun

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Yesterday during Communion I was reprimanded  for not taking the piece of bread the lay person offered and taking a piece next to it instead. “Please don’t do that,” she said.  I responded with “I always do that,” which I admit was not diplomatic and off the top of my head and not well thought out.  Typically, six to eight people serve the congregation  in the front of the church and the ushers let us go up row-by-row to have a piece of unleavened bread handed to us, which we are then supposed to dip in a goblet of juice.  My primary reason was that I think this way of handling Communion–having congregants break off a piece of bread with their hands and passing it on to other church members–is unsanitary.

However, this type of service by the lay people is not my only beef with the practice.  I also think handling Communion in this fashion is very “high church,” a term used to connote a church service that has an elevation of pomp and circumstance,  and that I think not appropriate for a Methodist.  It is true that one of the things that Catholic churches and the Methodist churches have in common is that it is considered okay for the minister to place the bread on the tongue.  But this is a highly controversial practice, , and does not happen often.  Protestants do not believe it is necessary to have someone intercede between them and God, so in the symbolic sense this kind of Communion doesn’t coincide with actual church teachings.  I did go ahead and dip the bread into a common goblet, which is maybe worse in terms of sanitation.  A local minister told me that this practice is referred to as intinction.   She also said that using wine instead of juice would be more sanitary, but there is some concern with alcoholics being in a position where they have to drink alcohol.  Some argue, in addition, that merging the intake of the bread and the wine isn’t biblical because they are separate in the Lord Supper (Christianity Stack Exchange).

The United Methodist Church website states that “The term Holy Communion invites us to focus on the self-giving of the Holy God which makes the sacrament an occasion of grace, and on the holiness of our communion with God and one another,” This Holy Mystery continues.  This emphasis on being together with other people to participate in a sacrament is implicit in the word “communion,” but I think the symbolism works better when people are together in a circle, as opposed to trooping to the front of the sanctuary and being served by lay people.

At Walker Methodist church in Minneapolis, I had a similar problem with Communion and sanitation.  I was involved with hospitality and one of the things I did was to bring the goblets to the stage for the service.  I also filled them with cranberry juice, but I did not drink from them.  Once we had finished the service, we would assemble on stage in a circle, share joys and concerns, celebrate Communion, and then finish by singing “Amazing Grace.” Communion consisted of the minister, Walter, raising the bread and the juice and then passing them around the circle.  For some reason I was not too bothered when the bread loaves were passed around.  I would simply try to tear off a hunk in a fresh place, but I usually avoided dipping my hunk in a goblet.  Despite this one problem, Communion at Walker was a community experience and preferable what I have experienced in some other churches in that it brought people together.  Passing the bread and juice had the advantage of in some way mimicking the way Jesus shared the fish and loaves in the Bible.  Although Communion is taken from the scripture about the Lord’s Supper, his sharing of food earlier in the New Testament prefigures the Lord’s Supper.

As a small girl growing up in my church, I was in awe of the whole Communion process.  Pieces of unleavened bread were passed on silver salvers by the ushers.  They tasted like saltines with no salt.  Each person took a piece from the plate and waited for the minister to say something holy.  Then we swallowed them simultaneously.  Next, tiny glasses of grape juice inserted in  large round holders made of silver plate were passed around.  My mother always became very nervous around the grape juice, but I was very excited to hold the tiny glass in my hand and drink along with everyone else.  After we finished drinking, we put the cups in small holes that were located on small shelves on the backs of the pews.  I realize that taking care of the silver and washing the little glasses was probably an arduous task.  Perhaps the contemporary ways of serving Communion stem from an attempt to make the sacrament less formal and less work, but both of the more recent examples that I have described are not as sanitary as possible.  In addition, the current situation at my church of having two lay people serve Communion, one who passes out a piece of bread and another who holds the goblet that the bread is to be dipped in, doesn’t contribute to my sense of community.  I’m taking the bread separately and, if I’m daring, dipping the bread into the goblet by myself, not in the company of other people.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of my favorite intellectuals, began his career as a Harvard Divinity School student and was ordained early on.  But he left the Unitarian Church because he didn’t think it should be the province of the minister to intercede between God and man.  I agree with him in principle, but think the fact of the pastor administering Communion doesn’t make him or her holy. However, it was an argument against a minister performing the sacrament on which Emerson chose to take his departure.

Emerson was very influenced by the Romantic poets and their sense of self, so it is not surprising that he chose to focus his belief system on an approach to spirituality that centered on the individual and his relationship to God.  In Uncollected Prose, he refers to the confusion caused by the many interpretations of the Lord Supper, “In the history of the Church no subject has been more fruitful of controversy than the Lord’s Supper. There never has been any unanimity in the understanding of its nature, nor any uniformity in the mode of celebrating it.”  For this reason and others, celebrating Communion does not always create a sense of togetherness with other Christians.

Experiencing awe over a sacrament is also harder when you’re an adult and have been through Communion so many times, but it is usually a religious experience for me and in the past a joyful one.  Having to choose how I partake of this sacrament certainly takes away from its mystery and glory.

One Response to “Communion–How or How Not To Commune”

  1. I just rewrote it. Hopefully that helps. I appreciate you reading it so quickly.

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