Hungry and thirsty for Holy Communion

How often  should we celebrate the Lord’s Supper? Kyle Tau, in his “A Wesleyan Analysis of the Nazarene Doctrinal Stance on the Lord’s Supper” (Wesleyan Theological Journal, Fall, 2008, Vol. 43, No. 2, pp. 101-22) addresses this question as well as other subtle but important shifts that have occurred across the years in the wording of the Nazarene Manual. These shifts, he argues, have moved us toward a purely “memorialist” view, and away from the more robust “real presence” view of John and Charles Wesley and Phineas Bresee.

Leaving aside the more technical aspects of Kyle Tau’s treatment of Ulrich Zwingli’s, John Calvin’s and John and Charles Wesley’s views of the Lord Supper, this brief essay will focus specifically on the question of how often we as Nazarenes celebrate Holy Communion. Since he was writing in 2008, Tau was unaware of additional language to the Manual that would be added by the action of the General Assembly in the summer of 2009.  The 2009 Manual (paragraph 413.9), under the heading “the core duties of the pastor” now reads:

“413.9. To administer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper at least once a quarter. Pastors are encouraged to move toward a more frequent celebration of this means of grace…”

The new wording in the language is consistent with our Methodist and early Nazarene heritage. Kyle Tau observes (p. 117):

The ministry of Bresee seems to have been characterized by rich and frequent Eucharistic celebrations. As early as 1900, Bresee was celebrating the Eucharist once a month with his parishioners. By 1903, upon moving into a new building, Bresee began celebrating twice a month. This frequency of celebration is a rather surprising element of the foundation of the Church of the Nazarene given the relative infrequency of celebration in many Nazarene churches today. Bresee highlighted the importance of the sacrament to the life of the church in the final sentence of the Manual’s article of faith. Nazarenes are called upon to ‘partake of the privileges of this sacrament, as often as they may be providentially permitted’…Such a statement places Bresee firmly within the tradition of John Wesley, who sought out communion every four or five days.

In-light of our heritage, it is encouraging to see the wording “means of grace” included in 413.9. This brings it into line with the ritual for church membership (see paragraph 801), where members promise “a faithful attendance upon the means of grace.” Of course, this begs the question of whether a member can fulfill this membership vow if communion is only served haphazardly in his or her congregation. The additional phrase, “Pastors are encouraged to move toward a more frequent celebration of this means of grace” smacks of compromise on the floor of the Assembly. Did the original proposition name a specific accepted frequency? Still, the addition is a step in the right direction, and future General Assemblies can re-visit the issue.

As a Nazarene missionary working in Africa, I have noticed a tendency to celebrate the Lord’s Supper very infrequently. Part of this may be the reluctance of some to acknowledge our heritage as a denomination that practices “open communion.” Specifically, we do not clearly state in our ritual or article of faith on the Lord’s Supper that only baptized believers are eligible, yet this is the “default” position of many evangelical groups working in Africa, and they have influenced us. So, if a church only baptizes new believers annually, then it is natural — on this reading of things — to hold communion the same day after the baptism, so the newly baptized believers can participate. To hold communion more frequently (say monthly) would open up the table, making it more likely that someone who has not been baptized will participate.

But the communion eligibility debate appears to be specifically an African issue. Back in the United States, there are many churches that have gone to a monthly observance of Holy Communion, and this is a positive step. In one Nazarene congregation that I visited, communion was available every week in  a side room off the sanctuary. This was apparently an accommodation of those who had come from a Roman Catholic background, and who were used to celebrating weekly Eucharist. Another Nazarene pastor from the south now celebrates the Lord’s Supper every week in his church. He argued: “Can you imagine Jesus looking down from heaven and saying: “Stop it! You just did that last week!’ ” His humorous take on things underscores a serious point. Not surprisingly, he too has a good number in attendance from a Catholic background. We should be grateful that our Catholic brothers and sisters have taught us something valuable, but why should we wait until we have many Catholics worshiping with us before doing what we as Wesleyans should have been doing all along? An appreciation of our Methodist and early Nazarene heritage should lead us to say: “This is who we are. This is in our DNA.”

So here’s to John Wesley and his belief that “constant communion” is not an option, but a “duty.” Are you as hungry and thirsty as I am for the bread and the cup? Let’s be who we are. Let’s celebrate Holy Communion often. Let’s be Nazarene.

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4 thoughts on “Hungry and thirsty for Holy Communion

  1. The original resolution as I wrote it was worded as follows:

    413.11. To administer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper at least once a quarter. Acknowledging John Wesley’s advice that elders should “administer the Supper of the Lord on every Lord’s day,” and recognizing that a weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper was the New Testament and historic norm, we encourage pastors to see quarterly administration as a bare minimum. We further encourage them to move towards a more frequent celebration of this means of grace. A licensed minister who has not complied fully . . .

    FOR THE FOLLOWING REASONS:
    1. The quarterly system stems from the circuit rider days of frontier Methodism. It was an acquiescence to the fact that there were not
    enough ordained elders to serve each parish. Elders made a circuit, roughly on a quarterly basis. However, the whole reason for
    Wesley’s ordination of elders for America was in order to have the sacraments.

    2. John Wesley’s strong advice was “Constant Communion,” and his clear instruction was that elders were to administer the Lord’s
    Supper each Lord’s Day.

    3. Wesley understood the Lord’s Supper to be a vital foundation for the life of holiness and a vital means of maintaining such a life.

    4. As liturgical scholars have noted, and as the Rev’d. Dr. William Greathouse, general superintendent emeritus has stated, “. . . every
    Lord’s Day the early Christians celebrated Christ’s atoning sacrifice by eating His Body and drinking His blood in the simple faith
    that He was present with them at the table.” (In the Foreward of Rob Staples, Outward Sign and Inward Grace.)

    5. The pattern found in the New Testament is that of the celebration of the Eucharist each Lord’s Day.

    6. The current ecumenical consensus is that weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper should be seen as the Christian norm, even when
    the reality is that the sacrament is celebrated less frequently.

    7. The proposed amendment would NOT require the observance of the Lord’s Supper to take place more frequently than the current
    quarterly minimum. No further requirements would be imposed upon our clergy or congregations.

    8. What the proposed amendment would do is make a statement consistent with our Wesleyan heritage, as well as the New Testament
    and historic Church.

  2. Todd,

    Your comments really help put this issue in context. Am I right to perceive something of a generational divide on this issue, with those born in the 60s or sooner more suspicious of things liturgical (including frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper) and those born afterward desiring the Eucharist and higher liturgy? Perhaps the question of whether one grew up under revivalism plays in here?

    – Greg

  3. Lacking your theological training and ecclesiastical experience, I often find the church’s treatment of this issue puzzling and I have some questions. The supper at which Jesus originally gave this instruction was the Passover, an annual celebration. Should we not consider that? When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me”, did He mean by “this” to “celebrate the Passover” (surely a foreshadowing of His sacrifice), or did He mean to “Do this (regularly and often) to particularly remember *this* Passover”? What are we to make of Paul’s addition of the phrase, “whenever you drink it” in 1 Corinthians 11? The language to my ear sounds antithetical to the establishment of any regular schedule, but simply an additional aspect to the meal when it is celebrated.

    • Hello Lucien –

      Thanks for your insightful remarks. The importance of the Lord’s Supper is reflected by its inclusion in all three Synoptic Gospels (see Matt. 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-26, and Luke 22:14-22). Likewise, regarding this meal, Paul reports words that he had “received from the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:23), which Bible scholar F.F. Bruce sees as a Christian tradition that had been passed down, stemming from Christ himself (see 1 & 2 Corinthians, in New Century Bible Commentary, Wm. Eerdmans, 1971), 110. To be sure, Paul is doing some inspired theologizing, adding his commentary to the kernel of tradition, noting (for example) that “whenever you eat this bread or drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v.26).

      Was the Church justified in making the Lord’s Supper (sometimes called Eucharist) such a central, weekly part of worship? I think so. When you read Luke 22:19, for example, Jesus says: “Do this in remembrance of me.” He goes on in the next verse (v.20) to call it a “new covenant.” The Passover celebration was not a one time celebration, but done annually, so there is a sense of repetition involved. Jesus called what he did the “new covenant,” thereby tying it in some sense to the old. If the ceremony of the Old Covenant was repeated, then why not the New? On this basis, one could argue that the Lord’s Supper replaces the Passover for the Christian, and so should at least be done annually! Yet the early Church saw something that merited constant repetition (see Acts 2:42-27). With time, Eucharist came to mean more than remembering, but was seen as a means of grace, a way that God strengthened the faith of the celebrant. This was John Wesley’s view, for example, as an Anglican.

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