Thursday, 27 August 2009

Bread alone?

The restrictions introduced as a result of the outbreak of swine flu have affected the way that churches distribute the bread and wine at holy communion. For Christians, sharing in the Lord's Supper is a vital and special aspect of our worship together, so a change in the way we do things is bound to stimulate interest and comment.

We're working under guidelines that have been agreed nationally, introduced in Leicestershire under the direction of our Diocesan Bishop. These are aimed at reducing the risk of passing on the flu virus and they allow us two options:
  • to distribute bread alone, reserving the wine for the minister who presides at the service,
  • or, to 'intinct' each morsel of bread by dipping it into the wine, so that everyone continues to 'receive in both kinds'.
The Diocese of Leicester's website now includes a paper by The Revd Alison Booker, which sets out some of the thinking behind the option to distribute bread alone. You can download it here.

It's a helpful document that covers a lot of issues and answers a lot of questions. But it appears to advocate distribution of bread alone as the preferred way of sharing communion. So I want to set out reasons why I believe that it's important that we continue to allow people to receive both bread and wine, through the permitted method of intinction.

First, scripture tells us that Christ commanded us to "do this in remembrance of me". That makes our interpretation and application of Christ's this extremely important. The work of the Reformers in making explicit its radical implications is no historical footnote. The whole community sharing bread and wine in remembrance of Christ's work of atonement means that the Lord's Supper is a constituting ordinance. It sits among a number of other things that we do in obedience to the Lord. For as much as we "do this in remembrance", preach the gospel, baptise disciples, love our neighbours, seek the Kingdom... we are Christ's church.

Second, these are practical things, which actively involve the whole Christian community. They can be seen, felt, touched, heard by everyone so that even those who cannot grasp theological formulations can 'get it'. In instituting this sacrament, our Lord did not explain at length. He took, gave thanks, broke, shared - and commanded us to the same. It's a scandalously gracious, recklessly unexplained giving! What 'we do' in remembrance remains, even for the most theologically informed, a matter of some mystery and inexplicability.

The third point flows from the first two, and is an observable fact: Reception of communion in two kinds simply matters to people, at a depth of meaning and significance which is hard to articulate. Members of our church tell me that it matters for them to receive the wine and I believe them. I do not wish to remove this from them, even if I could formulate a convincing teaching that circumvented it. Otherwise we run the risk of appearing to fob people off.

Fourth, the withdrawal of the cup from the people and its reservation to the president alone is inescapably one issue, not two. It is practically impossible to separate them. My understanding of my role as president at Holy Communion is essentially a functional one. I have the privilege and responsibility of presiding at the Church's celebration. As a presbyter at the Lord's table, I mediate nothing and make no representation of Christ to his people. It is his meal and our celebration.

It is so easy to create mistaken impressions of hierarchy and precedence that I find it necessary to consciously subvert them. It's my normal practice to be the very last person to receive communion, and to do so by kneeling at the communion rail at the end of the last line of communicants. I couldn't contemplate being the only one to share fully in the bread and wine. If bread alone were to be distributed to God's people and thought sufficient, then why does wine needs to be publically consumed by the priest? How do we avoid the impression that there is something essential to the ministerial priesthood that merits the wine?

An exclusively clerical consumption of the wine 'on behalf of the church' makes it harder to defeat clericalism in its other manifestations.

Fifth, the language of feasting and celebration belong to the eucharist. The liturgy of Common Worship colourfully and vividly expounds the rite as a joyful and glad thanksgiving - a foretaste of the heavenly banquet as well as the proclamation of Christ's death until he comes. Wine (alcoholic, of course) is a party drink. Sharing it as we do normally risks offending the sensibilities of some through its associations with inebriation and excess (something that puzzles friends in denominations and religions where alcohol is forbidden). We remember Jesus' willingness to feast at the same time. Sharing in wine puts us in Cana as well as at the Passover liberation party. Bread alone, however symbolic of daily nourishment, is not the same.

So these are my reasons for preferring intinction. It allows us as fully as possible, as equally as possible, to do what Jesus asks us to do. I look forward to the day soon when we can revert to sharing the chalice 'properly'. It's what the Church has done for centuries, including during periods of pandemic.

I'd be interested to know what others think. Do use the comment feature to share your thoughts.