Body and blood of Christ

Years ago, I had a member of the Church of Christ ask me why Methodists only took communion once a month. I wasn’t as schooled in church history then (not that I claim to be now!) and I think I gave some awkward answer, based on something I’d heard somewhere, about trying to keep the sacrament meaningful and keep it from becoming routine.

That’s not actually the reason.

John Wesley, in fact, was a strong believer in taking communion whenever it was offered. His first point in one of his sermons (Sermon 101, if you want to look it up) is that Christians should take the sacrament as often as they can.

John Wesley, of course, was a lifelong and steadfast member of the Church of England. He never intended, and profoundly resisted, calls to form a new church; he saw Methodism as a reform movement within the Anglican church, and his brother Charles was even more steadfast on the point. So he was telling his followers to go to their nearest Church of England as often as the sacrament was offered.

But Wesley’s reform movement made heavy use of lay preachers — people who (like myself!) are not ordained but who are available to preach. The Church of England believed that only ordained ministers could bless the elements, and so it was not permitted for any of these lay preachers to serve communion at their gatherings.

When America won its independence from Great Britain, the Church of England (which was, after all, an official, government-sanctioned church) withdrew all of its clergy from the former colonies. The devout former colonists had to figure out how to move forward. Some of John Wesley’s followers asked him to ordain several Methodist leaders in order to create a new Methodist church in the U.S. Wesley realized that this was a pragmatic solution, born of necessity, and so he ordained some representatives, and Methodism in the U.S. became an organized denomination.

Both the Methodist movement in Great Britain and the newly formed Methodist church in the U.S. made use of “circuit riders” — preachers, whether ordained or not, with responsibility for more than one congregation. They would travel by horseback from town to town, leading services. That meant that a particular town might only get preaching once a month, maybe less often.

The Methodist church carried forward the Anglican policy that only an ordained minister could bless the communion elements, and the United Methodist Church still holds that policy today.

In rural areas today, the United Methodist Church still has multi-point charges, and my father has led many such charges in his career. On some of his early charges, there was at least one church that had worship only on alternate Sundays. I don’t think that’s as common now as it used to be, but I’m sure it still exists in places. Nowadays, it’s more common that a preacher with a rural two-point charge leads a service at one church at, let’s say, 8:30 a.m., then gets in his car and leads a service at the other church at 11 a.m.

It was the heritage of the circuit riders which led to the traditional practice of observing communion less than weekly. It’s not an official church policy, and in fact some leaders have been encouraging individual congregations to observe the sacrament more often, in keeping with John Wesley’s thoughts on the subject.

At the church I attend, First United Methodist in Shelbyville, we have communion only once a month during our traditional service. This summer, though, we’re testing out a new, more casual alternative service, and that service features communion every week. The alternative service has been a success so far, and while we’ve got to figure out some scheduling issues, I think it’s likely to continue this fall.

By the way, the UMC policy is that an ordained minister must bless the communion elements. That means saying the part of the communion liturgy that prays for the bread and juice to represent for us the body and blood of Christ. But that doesn’t mean that a layperson can’t hand out the elements or lead all of the other parts of the liturgy. In cases where an ordained minister is not going to be present for the worship service, it’s perfectly acceptable for an ordained minister to pray over the elements at some point a day or two beforehand, and a layperson to conduct the communion liturgy (acknowledging but skipping over that prayer of blessing) during the actual worship. There have been situations in this area where lay speakers have had to take churches for extended periods of time, and so this is a quite useful workaround that still allows the congregation to have the communion sacrament on a more-or-less regular basis.

So that’s the answer. Some Methodist churches take communion once a month because of tradition, not because of church policy — and the tradition is changing.

Some churches see a dip in attendance on communion Sundays. I’m not sure whether people have some issue with communion itself, or whether it’s just the case that communion sometimes adds a few minutes to the length of the service. The United Methodist Church offers open communion, by the way — anyone is welcome to participate. Some denominations offer communion only to members of that denomination. But at a United Methodist church, you do not need to be a member of the UMC or any church to receive the elements. You don’t even have to be sure of what you believe. It may be that the act of taking communion becomes an instrument of grace as you take steps on your faith journey.

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John I. Carney

John I. Carney

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Author of “Dislike: Faith and Dialogue in the Age of Social Media,” available at http://www.lakeneuron.com/dislike