Thursday 9 April 2020

Zooming in on the Lord’s Supper? Some reflections… Part 2

A number of arguments have been made in support of continuing to offer the Lord's Supper:

- Arguments on the basis of current practice.

It can be argued that our standard practice of the Lord’s Supper falls short of the NT prescriptions, and so we should not be purists about its observance. Every supper is unsatisfactory in some measure: few churches actually employ one cup and one loaf; fewer still are close to the practice of actual meals together; instead, slightly dry morsels of bread and thimbles of grape juice are passed round. The mood is frequently one of quiet introspection, rather than attention to the corporate realities spoken of in one loaf and one body. And for a variety of reasons, attendance and engagement are not what they could be. So: the Lord’s Supper is already observed in a variety of less-than-ideal ways. So we can relax a little…

By way of response, I must admit I have a great deal of sympathy with these observations.[1] For those of us who argue that the nature of the Lord’s Supper as a corporate and unifying meal of the gathered means that we cannot observe now, it will be interesting to see whether our past practice lends those arguments any plausibility! There might, therefore, be an argument here to review our practice when we begin meeting again and make sure it embodies as best it can the nature of the Supper as given to us. How can we better reflect the corporate, unifying, and festive elements of the Lord’s Supper? I’m not sure though that there is an argument here for observing the Supper in even more irregular ways. Indeed, whatever its shortcomings, all of our current practice has fulfilled the basic essence of the Lord’s Supper: a shared meal of the gathered church, and I cannot see how a live streamed communion service or a synchronised meal over Zoom fulfils that basic criterion.

- Arguments on the basis of current exceptions.

Some appeal to the fact that communion is offered to believers who are housebound or sick, and that provides precedent for making the Lord’s Supper available now. Again, different churches will take a different view on whether this is an admissible practice in itself. What is striking about the Anglican Book of Common Prayer’s provision for communion in such cases, is that it still aims to preserve as many of those distinctives of the Lord’s Supper as possible. It is still be administered by an ordained minister, and ideally that minister would be able to take other parishioners with them so that the body is represented in that visit. It is only in very exceptional circumstances that the minister would go alone.[2] Even in those cases, we are talking about a person actually attending the sick person.[3]

- Arguments on the basis of the priesthood of all believers

It has been argued that the priesthood of all believers in the New Testament legitimates anyone officiating at home. There is an important Reformation principle here that undergirds much of the Protestant practice of the Lord’s Supper, but the Reformers would still have argued that it is the duly appointed ministers of the gospel who should oversee the table, and would see the sacraments as belonging to a separate sphere of authority: the church, not the home. Although some have invoked Luther on this point, it is interesting how he dealt with one related “what-if”:

“If a little company of pious Christian laymen were taken prisoners and carried away to a desert, and had not among them a priest consecrated by a bishop, and were there to agree to elect one of them, born in wedlock or not, and were to order him to baptise, to celebrate the mass, to absolve, and to preach, this man would as truly be a priest, as if all the bishops and all the Popes had consecrated him.” (Luther’s Address to the German Nobility)

Note that what happens in this scenario is the constitution of a church in the wilderness. The people have the right to ordain a minister (they are not stranded without a Pope on that score); but it is the ordained minister who then has the right to officiate. Luther does not support the view that this hypothetical wilderness generation can go ahead and serve themselves, by virtue of the priesthood of all believers.

[1] There is though sometimes an undue primitivism lurking here, that says our aim should only be to recover first generation Christian practices. Even within the NT we sees aspects of development and the formalisation of church offices and structures.
[2] In the BCP text, “In the time of the plague, sweat, or such other like contagious times of sickness or diseases, when none of the Parish or neighbours can be gotten to communicate with the sick in their houses, for fear of the infection, upon special request of the diseased, the Minister may only communicate with him.”
[3] For my money, I think the BCP has it right: that ideally someone who is housebound and wishes to share in the Lord’s Supper could do so if a group of church members attends their home, as a microcosm of the whole body.