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.