Not, by Christ’s Ordinance, Reserved

“The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved,” Articles of Religion, 1563

What do you do when you want to share the Lord’s supper, but you don’t have a proper person to lead the service? Depending on the church to which you belong, the “proper person” may be called a priest, a bishop, an elder, a pastor, a minister or something else. For some churches, this isn’t an issue; any member of the church can preside at communion. Let’s assume for a moment, though, that you think that some persons are called to take special leadership roles within the church, and that presiding at the Lord’s table is one of those roles. What do you do if that person is not available?

There are a couple of situations where this becomes a problem. First, how do you share communion in the church if the authorized communion leader is not present? Second, how do you share communion with those who are living in nursing homes or being treated in hospitals?

One solution has been to “reserve” a part of the bread that was used in church’s ordinary communion to use in these occasions. When church members go to visit those in hospitals or nursing homes, they can take some of the bread that the congregation shared together on Sunday morning. Or, if on some Sunday morning, the right person cannot preside at the communion table, then the church can simply bring out its reserved bread for the congregation to use.

Why, though, should this be necessary? Primarily, I think, because of the belief that something happens to the bread when the worship leaders prays over it. As I argued yesterday, however, the bread is bread. It is bread both before the worship leader prays and after the worship leader prays. Communicants receive the body of Christ because they eat the bread with faith in Christ’s promise: this is my body. Nothing happens to the bread itself.

I also argued that the sacrament of communion consists of many parts, not just the eating of blessed bread. Reading God’s word together, sharing in the peace of true fellowship, recalling the words of institution, offering bread, giving thanks to the Lord, breaking and giving the bread: these all are part of the sacrament. Without them, I don’t think you have communion even if you have previously blessed bread. With them, it doesn’t matter if the bread has been previously blessed. The bread of heaven is always fresh; it is never a “leftover.”

If I am right about these things, there is no need for reserving bread for use later.

When the body assembles for worship, the congregation either has the leadership it needs for communion or it doesn’t. If the proper worship leader is rarely available to lead the assembly in communion, perhaps the church ought to look at its theology of church leadership to see how it is equipping itself for ministry. I personally believe that the church’s spiritual leaders should preside at the communion table, but I also I think that churches have a great deal of freedom in how they organize their life and leadership. I would personally change the way I equip and ordain people to lead congregations before I would give up the idea that every celebration of communion should be sacramentally complete.

Those who can’t physically leave home should also receive real communion. The pastor should preside. Some other members of the church should be present. Scriptures should be read. Thanks should be given and the words of institution recalled. The bread should be broken and shared.

If there are truly too many church members who cannot attend worship for the pastor to visit them in a reasonable time, I am not opposed to deputizing laity for the purpose of leading communion in hospitals and nursing homes. If home communion is to be an extension of the church’s sacramental ministry, make people the connection, not bread. Let attendance at the church’s last observance of communion be required of those who take communion to the home-bound.

Regardless of who leads communion, however, let it be complete. The power of communion is not in bread alone. Let there be a proclamation of God’s word. Let there be prayers of praise and thanksgiving with the words of institution. Let there be a breaking and sharing of bread so that those who believe can receive it by faith.