A Twilight Musing
A Lutheran friend of mine recently visited our church on what happened to be the once-a-month Communion Sunday. This was the first time she had participated in a “low-church” Communion service, and she was shocked and taken aback by the comparative casualness with which the elements of the Lord’s Supper were distributed and partaken of. The bread was tiny squares in a tray to be picked up with the fingers, and the grape juice (not wine) was in tiny plastic cups set in a tray, and both elements were passed down each row. I gave her some whispered explanation of these procedures during the service, and after the service she pursued the conversation further. “I couldn’t believe we were passing the Blood of Christ down the row,” she said. Her own Lutheran way of having Communion was much more formal, with communicants going up to the altar rail to partake from special wafers and a shared cup of wine (not grape juice), both held by an officiating clergyman or his assistant and presented to each communicant. Underlying her reaction was the Lutheran conviction that the bread and the wine, though not physically changing into the Body and Blood of Christ (as Catholics believe), are nevertheless invested with the mystical Presence of Christ.
All of this led me to some consideration of the differences between “low church” and “high church” customs of worship, particularly in regard to the Lord’s Supper (the common “low church” term for it), or Eucharist (most usual “high church” designation). Evangelicals may be seen as typifying the “low church” end of the spectrum, and Catholics as representing the other end. I think that the contrast between the two can be understood in reference to Paul’s recap of Jesus’ establishment of the Communion service and the Apostle’s comment on the church’s observance of it in I Cor. 11:17-34.
In Jesus’ words of institution, He made statements and gave commands. The statements were, “This is my body which is for you” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” The command in regard to both of these statements was, “Do this in remembrance of me.” In general, I think, the low church approach to the Lord’s Supper emphasizes the command, and the high church approach emphasizes the two statements concerning the elements. The low church focus is on the clearly understandable, intellectually uncomplicated instruction, whereas the high church takes Jesus’ two statements as the primary and most basic truth in understanding the act of Communion. To put the contrast another way, the low church interpretation and practice centers on the rationality of the command, whereas the high church focuses on the mystery of Christ’s supernatural Presence in the elements used in the observance. So we can see how the variance in modern observances of the Lord’s Supper reflect these two kinds of starting points in understanding its meaning and significance. High church communicants regard Communion as a mystical experience; low church communicants see it as primarily carrying out the command to remember.
What are we to say about the relative validity of these two approaches to the meal that we all see as one of the required corporate observances of the church? When presented with two poles of perceived truth, it is usually best to see the strengths of each of them and see how they can perhaps be complementary to each other and not merely an endless source of argument. As one who grew up in a low church setting, I appreciate that an informal observance of the Lord’s Supper has a sort of leveling effect, with minimal distinction between those who administer the elements and the rest of the congregation. This may be seen as practicing both the letter and the spirit of Paul’s instructions in I Cor. 17 that the Supper must show no distinction in the status or wealth of those who participate, for to partake in that manner would show that we “despise the church of God” (v. 22). At the same time, I have noticed over the years the hazards in the low church approach to the Lord’s Supper. In most evangelical Protestant congregations, it gets deemphasized by practicing it only once a month, or even once a quarter. On the other hand, even when it is observed weekly, the time and effort put into preparing for a meaningful presentation of it in worship tends to become secondary to other elements of worship, particularly the sermon.
There is no gainsaying the deep seriousness with which the high church participates in the Communion, or Eucharist, and Evangelicals need to observe and learn from their expectation that communicants will experience a special kind of connection with Our Lord as they partake of the bread and the wine, which Jesus Himself said are, in some sense, to be regarded as His body and blood. The chief danger in the high church practice is that to one extent or another it divides the laity from the people who administer the elements. This difference is most stark in churches in which only priests can officiate for a Eucharist, since they alone are empowered to speak the words by which the substances of the Supper are turned literally into the Body and the Blood of Christ.
I came away from the discussion with our guest about the Communion at our church with a renewed conviction that our congregation needs to have a deeper respect for the Lord’s Supper, manifested in the way it is prepared for and presented. In the absence of an established liturgy that typically uses set prayers and comments on the Communion to put it in context, Evangelical churches need to make sure that the planning of any service in which the Lord’s Supper is to be observed provides for sufficient time and a lead-in that show understanding of and respect for what is being done. High churches can profit from understanding that the observance of the Supper referred to by Paul was probably a gathering in a home, with all of the informality that would be expected in such a setting.
Since Communion is meant to testify to our unity in Christ as we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26), it behooves us to seek for common ground that brings together all of us who observe it in honor of Christ. If we eat and drink without humility before each other and without discernment of our Master’s Presence, we are “unworthy” and risk eating and drinking judgment on ourselves (vv. 27-34). Let it not be so among us.