In recent months I’ve received the Eucharist a number of times in an Anglican church. Being a Pentecostal of thirty years’ standing, there are some key differences in the way Communion is celebrated in these two traditions that really stand out to me.
First, let me summarise how I’ve known Communion to be understood and practiced within the Pentecostal tradition with which I’m oh so familiar.
In the churches of which I’ve been a part, Communion has always been made out to be a Big Deal. There has been an air of solemnity about it, perhaps heightened by the fact that it’s often the only vaguely ritualistic component of an otherwise very free and fluid style of corporate worship. There are two features of the typical Pentecostal Communion that appear to be central:
- In many churches, while people may not be actively dissuaded from taking Communion, there is such an emphasis on the solemnity of the moment – and, indeed, often such an air of impending judgement around its misappropriation – that the whole thing can take on a very exclusive feel. We are cautioned not to “eat or drink judgement on ourselves”, and this can easily instil such fear that we decide we would rather not risk partaking until we are all confessed and repented up. To be clear, I’m sure the desire to “protect” people from judgement is well intentioned; but I fear it sometimes has the effect of keeping from the table those who most desperately need to be invited to come close.
- Communion in Pentecostal churches (at least in my experience) usually involves either going to the front to pick up a piece of bread and an individual cup of wine/juice, or waiting in one’s seat for individual servings to be brought round. This has the unfortunate consequence of making Communion into (or at least allowing it to become) a highly individualised experience.
Bearing in mind these common features of Pentecostal-style Communion, let me now outline a couple of features of the Anglican-style Eucharist that really appeal to me:
- I’ve been to two Anglican churches in recent months, and both have practiced what is often called an “open table”: in other words, all are invited to come and partake of the bread and the wine, with little or no regard for background (social, religious or otherwise), attendance track record, apparent spiritual understanding… or anything else, for that matter. For me, it has been a delight to sit in the pew and watch a motley procession of folk make their way up to the altar rail, from elegantly dressed and clearly rather well-to-do couples to scruffy individuals who look like they have probably wandered in after a night on the street. There is thus a great levelling that takes place at the table; and is this not a very good thing? After all, if Jesus was willing to share his last supper with the one he knew would soon betray him, should we not be willing to share our Communion rite with those who might otherwise be considered less than savoury?
- In every Anglican church I know of, if you want to receive the Eucharist, you have to go up to the front, kneel down, and wait for the bread and wine to be served to you. This goes against the grain of many contemporary churches, who hold proudly to the view that we should never allow another human being to intermediate between us and God. I understand that view. But the fact is that, in our human weakness, we often do need another human being to be God to us, to offer us the body and blood of Christ and pronounce absolution over us; indeed, this might be the only way we can truly open ourselves up to God. For me, there is something deeply and necessarily humbling about kneeling at the altar and waiting to be offered the bread and the wine. It is a reminder that the Eucharist is not something I can grasp or take. It is something I can only receive in humility and dependence; it is pure grace.
These, then, are just some thoughts on the Eucharist, that most important of Christian traditions. Peace be with you.
[ Image: Ian Britton ]