“We’re not Episcopal or Catholic.”
“There’s not enough time to get it in during the hour of worship every week.”
“Hey, even the churches that do it every week have a hard time keeping it fresh; their folks get bored with it too.”
All of these are responses I’ve received from Methodist pastors and lay people when I bring up the issue of practicing Holy Communion on a weekly basis. We’re taught that John Wesley took Communion everyday of his life. He includes Holy Communion as one of the means of grace. So why is it that, by and large, modern Methodists practice the sacrament on a part-time basis?
I recently ran this question as a Facebook status update. It’s very fascinating to read the various responses. Some lay people joked that “we have to beat the Baptists to lunch.” This is funny but very true. It speaks to the importance (or lack thereof) we’ve given the institution in our weekly worship if it immediately brings to mind jokes about getting out of church late.
Methodist preachers who were circuit riders in the early days of the American Methodist Movement could only get around to their churches about once a month. Legend has it that for that reason, Methodists got into the routine of practicing Holy Communion on a monthly basis (and that’s the most often for many churches). Some pastors had up to 12 churches and so ordained clergy were on;y present once a quarter. For this reasons some may still practice on a quarterly basis.
Others will admit that we also avoid it because “it will hurt attendance” so we can’t do it too often (yes, I was actually told that by an ordained Methodist clergy person).
The Early Church set the precedence that Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, is more than just an aspect of worship–it’s the defining act that marks us as Christians. It is the reenactment of the incarnation of Jesus, the recounting of his sacrifice, and our call to “be for the world the Body of Christ redeemed by his blood.” For the early church, an “open table” policy was not practiced because one had to be a Christian to take part in the meal. Personally, I don’t think that aspect of the practice is theologically feasible in the 21st Century. Some may disagree. But the importance of the Table is no less reduced.
Justin Martyr (ca. 150) designed a basic Order of Worship that flows from Word to Table. One cannot have a service of Word without the observance of the Table because the sharing of the meal by the Body of Christ is the utmost response to the Word in the context of the act of worship. In other words, according to this view worship is not a full worship experience without a participation in the Lord’s Supper.
So why is it that the majority of our congregations do not adhere to this emphasis? Do we not recognize this as a change in church practice? If we cite history for our reasoning, then the greater question is “which history is most important?” The Protestant Reformation brought more of an emphasis to the Word part of worship, but the downfall of this has been an American Protestant culture that is suspect of things too liturgical. Either way, these are important questions to be asking ourselves; much more important questions on worship substance rather than the tired, old questions of style.
Part 2 of this post:
What are the underlying meanings of worship and how do we miss them by failing to practice this sacrament on a weekly basis?