Communion at Home?
Posted by Marc Lloyd, 24 Mar 2020
Given the current restrictions on gatherings and travel, Marc Lloyd asks whether we could have Communion at home.
Here I want to continue to reflect on Communion and the Coronavirus following on from my previous post.
Someone might ask, “Could I have Holy Communion at home?” Here, as elsewhere in theology, the answer is: it depends! Or if you like it in posh words: we must cry, “distinguo!”, “We distinguish!”
I think we all know what Holy Communion ideally is: a multi-age, multi-cultural church family are gathered together physically at their Lord’s Day service of Holy Communion and the Pastor preaches the Word of God and administers the sacraments faithfully to the faithful. Glory!
But other things are also Holy Communion. You can have mid-week Communions and informal small group Communions, though they fall short of this ideal. The Communion is more limited. The gospel is less on display amongst the variegated people of God. This is less of The Command Performance that God has summoned us to in his presence on his day. But it is still undoubtedly the Lord’s Supper.
If someone is unable to get to the church gathering, for example, through long term sickness, it is entirely appropriate for the minister to take the Lord’s Supper to their hospital bed, but even in this we know it falls short of the ideal. Of course, we wish that person were well and could congregate to Commune with her brothers and sisters. The body of Christ is somewhat separated and we long for it to be whole, even as we break bread together to represent our unity in Christ.
Although in the C of E, lay ministers might sometimes take the sacraments to the sick by extension from the church service of Holy Communion, church history has said that you need a duly called, authorised and ordained minister to have Holy Communion in the first place. Lay Presidency is a novelty in Christendom which the Magisterial Reformers would have thought sounded dangerously Anabaptist. This is not because the minister at Communion must be ontologically changed into a “priest” in the Old Testament style with special magical powers. It is because the Minister of the Word (the “priest”/presbyter/elder), who is especially set apart as God’s steward and authorised spokesmen, is also the Minister of the Sacraments. The Bible and the Bread are the tools of his trade and it is not for the unqualified to minister them in this public authorised authoritative way.
Calvin puts it strikingly:
“No sound Christian makes all men equal in the administration of Word and Sacraments, not only because all things ought to be done in the Church decently and in order, but also because, by the special command of Christ, Ministers are ordained for that purpose. Therefore, as a special call is required, no man who is not called may take the honour upon himself.” (Canon X, 7th Session Antidote to the Council of Trent, Calvin’s Tracts, Volume 3, p177)
Yes, of course, we all minister the Word of God to one another, but this is different from the public preaching of the church. That is why, in my opinion, it is good for women to teach in home groups or give lectures to the church family or theological college, but they cannot be Presbyters, so the Lord’s Day sermon is not their role. They do not teach the word as authorised Elders but as part of the one-anothering ministries of the church from which we all have much to learn. This varied distribution of functions is part of the good ordering of the church. And it is essential for a Pastor to preside at Holy Communion as the Supper and church discipline belong together. Ministers have been entrusted with the power of the keys: what would excommunication mean if I could communicate myself and my family at home in any case?
“We’ve got a Vicar at home!”
Ah, you might say, “we’ve got a Vicar in our house, so we could have Communion, right?” Well, you could. You wouldn’t be breaking any Canon Law if you did. But I wonder if out of solidarity with your brothers and sisters it might be best not to. Perhaps I’m wrong here, but it’s worth thinking about.
Bread and wine at the family table?
Some people have said, “well, why don’t all our church families enjoy bread and wine together this Sunday at home?” That sounds lovely. And why not? But would it be the Communion of the church? Families certainly are a kind of mini-church, a sort of first parish with the Father as the Guardian of his little flock. But I do not think this would be wise. What would that meal be? A kind of reminder of Communion? A sort of play acting of it? We have already said that without an ordained presbyter it could not be the Lord’s Supper proper, unless you plan to invoke some idea of necessity. Presumably you don’t think Dad should have an emergency ordination? This family are in a different situation from a group of people, for example, who might be shipwrecked on an island for the rest of their lives. They are going to need elders and sacraments in time and an irregular ordination would be in order. By the grace of God, we are confident we can survive the next few months without the Supper, though we ought to long for it every week.
Biological Family and Baptismal Family
This situation of deprivation of the physical presence of the church family and of the Super should remind us too of the primacy of the Church family over the biological family. In this sense, the water of baptism is thicker than the blood of breeding. We hope it never comes to it, but if it does, Jesus has been explicit that if we do not love him and hate our parents, we are no disciples. This is a protection against the tyranny or neglect of bad fathers. And it is a reminder that Jesus trumps tribe and country.
Won’t it be great to be back at the Lord’s Table with our pastors and the whole people of God in that place, not to say the fellowship of the Church around the world and down the ages and all the company of heaven expressed at the Lord’s Table when all this strangeness is over!
Certainly in the Supper the Spirit bridges the gap between believers on earth and Jesus in heaven. And despite our physical separation, we remain united with one another and with the whole church in the Holy Spirit.
The word creates the sacrament. Someone might ask, “Couldn’t the Minister consecrate (set apart) the elements remotely by his words broadcast to our house over the internet?”. Maybe a password could ensure that only families in good standing in the church could access the words of consecration, so the table would be fenced.
Perhaps for now, we might just note that The Book of Common Prayer Communion Service, one of the Reformed doctrinal standards of the Church of England, requires the priest to break the bread and lay his hands upon it and on the cup or every vessel, chalice or flagon in which there is wine to be consecrated.
Of course, some evangelicals will find it hard to get excited about BCP rubrics. I can understand that. Certainly there are weightier matters of the law, such as love and mercy, but that does not mean you should not tithe your mint.
The Bible would obviously trump the Prayer Book if there were ever a conflict and it is open to any member of the C of E to press for liturgical or canonical reform, but it seems to me that we should treat the Declaration of Assent and the Oath of Canonical Obedience with full seriousness. Apart from anything else, if we would like to see others held to account in other areas, that argument sounds much more compelling from us if we do not take a pick and mix optional approach ourselves.
I think it is safe to say that this situation of pandemic virus and internet provision is something the Apostle Paul and Thomas Cranmer did not foresee. But apart from that, as believers in creation and incarnation, I think they would have thought that physical presence and even touch really matter.
Of course the Coronavirus requires different ways of doing things and might help us to re-think Communion, but in my opinion it would not be wise to rush into innovations at this time of crisis.
Marc Lloyd is the Rector of Warbleton, Bodle Street Green & Dallington, and Rural Dean of Dallington.
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