Sunday, June 20, 2010

You Can't Have One (Without the Other)

The subject isn’t “Love and Marriage,” but “Word and Sacrament.”

That Word and Sacrament belong together in Christian worship should go without saying. For many people, in the pulpits as well as in the pews, however, it is anything but a forgone conclusion. Week after week the Word part of the service is present, but the Sacrament is absent.

For many planners and leaders of worship, elders and musicians as well as clergy, it is acceptable to cut the service short by omitting the Lord’s Supper. I suppose it does save a little time and a bit of fuss in cleaning up, if that’s what’s most important.

All of this in spite of the fact that biblical and historical precedent have witnessed to the norm of Christian worship as both proclamation of the Word in Scripture and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Those who skip Holy Communion on a Sunday are seriously out of step.

It really takes both, Word and Sacrament, for worship to be complete. Leave out one, and you have a fragment of worship.

This came home to me in a different way when a colleague of mine and I were asked at the last minute to co-preside at Communion at a presbytery meeting. On arrival at the meeting, we discovered that there was nothing else to the service—just Communion, starting with the Invitation to the Lord’s Table and ending with the Charge and Blessing. Most times there would be scripture and sermon before, but I assume that got crowded out of the agenda by other pressing business.

Having only Communion for worship is a liturgical short-cut that I suspect is used more widely than some of us would like to know. Small group gatherings, at retreats, church committee or board meetings, camp and conference events are all likely suspects.

I had experienced this before as a pew-sitter, but not as a presider. That day, I particularly realized that you can’t really have one, even if it is the Sacrament, without the other, and call it complete worship.

The Lord’s Supper without the foundation of the proclaimed Word is cut loose of its moorings. It can drift into sentimentality where participants share the meal as a sign that they are good friends. They might as well have sent out for pizza; that would have accomplished the same thing.

Or, the Lord’s Supper can become a nice symbolic activity pointing back to a biblical story of long ago. Without the Word of the Risen Christ proclaimed, the breaking of bread and sharing the cup become old stuff and not present reality.

Or, the Lord’s Supper, without the balance of the Word, can turn into naked ritual, something to be done because…, well, just because. It can even morph into a magical kind of thing—if we do all this as prescribed, we will receive some sort of personal benefits. Remember that “Hocus Pocus,” as a magical incantation, is derived from a spoof of the words "Hoc est enim corpus meum" in the Roman Catholic Latin mass.

At any rate, as I find worship with no Communion to be truncated, worship that is only Communion starts in the middle, and is equally inadequate.

Where have you had “Communion-only” worship? What did you think about it? How did you feel about it?


  1. I have never led a service with Communion-only worship. I also believe Word and Sacrament belong together. Proclamation of the Word can take many forms, though. Scripture must be read. Then, it can be preached or reflected upon by the gathered congregation (I think of this as Campesino style in the manner of Ernesto Cardenal). I wonder, though, depending upon the context, can it be sung, reflected upon through guided meditation, interpreted through liturgical dance? Are there other means of proclamation that would ignite the hearts and understanding of the congregation? Maybe we don't think creatively enough. Or don't take enough time to do so.

    Something is missing for me when the Eucharist is not celebrated. I wonder, though, if others struggle with that 4 letter word time? In a Service for the Lord's Day Service in the congregation I serve, I sometimes feel the pressure of squeezing everything into an hour. I'm not advocating for a much longer service- i don't think our tradition will sustain it. On the other hand, would I wish for weekly Eucharist if it added another 10 minutes to the service? Yes, I would. I have seen transformation at the table- worth it, I think.

  2. I would like to hear how many of you readers hav observed, participated in, or presided at a communion service that used pouring lip chalices. Our son and his family attend such a church, and we have grown to love it. It eliminates much of the preparation, it remarkably quick, much quicker that the passing of bread followed by passing trays of cups.

    Let me try to describe it. After the "Holy things for holy people, six or eight persons come forward, set trays of empty little shot glasses on each side of the central aisle. Four servers come to the head of that central aisle, two with broken half loaves of bread and two with chalices that they have filled at the Table. As the communicants come forward, they receive andeat the broken piece of the bread, then move to that table and take an empty glass, present to the other server who pours the wine into the glass which the communicant drinks, and then returns to the pew, or stands in devotion either at the chancel or back in the pew. The additional two people, members of the youth group in our son's church, stand ready to refill the chalicesfropm the flagon, and to replace an empty tray of soiled glasses with a tray of clean ones

    Narry a drop is spilled. Though unhurried, the lines move very rapidly. Four or five persons can be served every ten seconds, each being addressed as "Body of Christ" and responding "AMEN." Eyes have met, and real personal connection has been made with minister(s) and elder(s). I have used this means in small congregtions and in the Montreat Conference for Worship and Music. I hope there are readers of this blog who can comment on their experience with pouring lip chalices.

  3. I wish I could comment, Arlo. I have no experience with a pouring lip chalice (though I did look it up.) Much to my joy and delight, our session, at their own initiative, voted to have communion by intinction every time we celebrate.
    I'm just completing a retreat at Weston Priory (Vermont), which I highly recommend. Th monks offer the common cup. I have noticed there are times when people choose intinction even in this context. Perhaps that is when they're not feeling well.

  4. The pouring cup is used at the nearby Lutheran church I attend. You can pick up a small glass on the way to the Table and the deacon will pour the wine into it. A regular chalice is also used as a common cup for peoplewho prefer that. If you want intinction, you retain the bread until the pouring cup comes by and dip in that. All three altrnatives are offered each Sunday, and it works smoothly and efficiently, with eye contact between minister and servers and those serves, and the same liturgical dialonge Arlo mentioned. The pouring cup is an option that deserves more usage.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!