Old-fashioned Innovations: There's more than one way to celebrate the Lord's Supper

The worship team of our church met recently to discuss the Lord's Supper—not its theology or spiritual significance, but the mode of our participation. Should we sit in pews, the way we have done for the past sixty years? Should we consider gathering around tables, as our church's founders did in 1915? Should we come to the front and take the bread, dip it in the cup, and eat while walking back to the pew, as we have tried a few times (dubbed "dip and run")? Should we stand in a circle as we take the bread and wine?

Such questions may seem unimportant to those who hold that only "the spiritual meaning" of the Supper is crucial and that the mode of distribution is immaterial. That reflection is, however, only a half-truth. Certainly, the mode of distribution is secondary, but it is not immaterial. The mode will both reflect our understanding of the Supper and will shape its future meaning for us.

Each congregation ought to reflect on its practices, and whether they make changes or not, the distribution of the elements should not be (as an old baptism form says in a different context) "out of custom or superstition," but for sound theological and pastoral reasons.

Supper with the Reformers

Neither is such appraisal a mere thirst for novelty. A similar searching for the most fitting modes took place in the Reformation times of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The Reformers were united in wanting to correct the abuses of the Roman mass, but they disagreed on details. This disagreement extended also to the manner of celebrating the Lord's meal. Luther (and most Lutherans) was insistent that kneeling at the altar/table was the most appropriate posture for receiving the elements.

But those of Reformed persuasion disagreed nearly uniformly with Luther. They felt that it was virtually impossible to separate the kneeling from venerating the elements, and where Lutherans and Calvinists worshiped in the same or neighboring towns, they always clashed on this (and sundry other matters).

How did the Reformed receive the elements? Zwingli introduced the posture most radical at that time, but most familiar to us today: the people remained sitting (probably on chairs or stools, rather than pews) as the elders and deacons distributed the bread and wine. However, virtually no one else adopted this custom, which was considered too radical a departure from previous custom and not at all resembling a meal.

Initially the most common posture was standing at the table—most likely the practice adopted by Calvin in Geneva. The people walked to the table, received the bread and wine, and immediately returned to their places in the sanctuary. This "walking communion" was adopted in most French and German Reformed churches, and in many of the Dutch churches as well. A variation of this posture was practiced by a Dutch congregation in Frankfort am Main, where the people gathered around the table and remained standing until everyone had been served.

The other principal mode was sitting around one or more tables. This posture was first introduced in Oost Friesland and then adopted by a Dutch Reformed congregation in exile in London. Their influential pastor, 'a Lasco, wrote a fine defense of this practice, noting that sitting at table most closely resembled the posture of the original Lord's Supper, anticipated "sitting at table" in glory, best suggested the notion of God's people in communion, and was a picture of resting in Christ. (Their other minister, Wouter Delen, wrote a scathing attack on kneeling at the table, which he called superstitious and idolatrous and the practice of the antichrist. Since members of this congregation were living among kneeling Anglicans and under the kind protection of Archbishop Cranmer, Delen's colleagues pointed out that diplomacy was not his strong suit. He apologized—reluctantly.)

Sitting at table later became virtually the only form of communion in the Netherlands and is still practiced in many churches there today.

Which Elements?

Other communion practices also showed considerable variety. Although all Reformers practiced the partaking of both bread and wine (versus the Roman practice of bread only), some congregations allowed members to abstain from the wine if they could not physically tolerate alcohol.

The form of the bread was also optional. Wafers were used, especially in the first decades after the Reformation, as was unleavened bread. However, eventually most churches used "ordinary" bread.

The distribution varied as well. In some congregations the pastor broke pieces from the loaf and handed them to each member. Later, many congregations began precutting the bread. In other churches the members passed the loaf and the cup (always a common cup, of course). Some pastors spoke the communion formula to the whole congregation; others said to each parishioner: "Remember that Jesus Christ died for you," or "The bread which we break is a communion with the body of Christ."

In Zwingli's Pew?

This survey reveals a wide variety of communion customs, many of which have survived or been resurrected today (although we have, thankfully, rejected the practice of the men and boys coming to the table first, followed by the women and girls). I find it interesting that the most common posture in Presbyterian and Reformed churches today is the distribution in the pews. Just as these churches have largely adopted Zwingli's memorialist theology of the Lord's Supper, and his infrequent celebration, they have also adopted his mode of distribution—in all three cases settling for the most meager of Reformation options.

Churches today are free, of course, to adopt other practices as long as they are biblically valid and pastorally sound. But we need not be too inventive. In many ways we will be best served by knowing our worship history and gratefully borrowing from the past.

My preference from the Reformation options? Sitting at table(s) seems the most authentic, although this practice often presents logistical problems. The next best option is the standing in one or more circles, waiting until all in the circle have been served. In the circle the loaf and cup(s) are passed from one member to the other, with words such as "Remember that Jesus Christ died for you." A good four-hundred-year-old custom.

Bibliographic Note: Some of these customs are detailed in standard works on Reformed worship, such as fames Hastings Nichols, Corporate Worship in the Reformed Tradition. However, many of the details are buried in old German, French, and Dutch sources. I have found two books very helpful for the continental tradition: W. F. Dankbaar, Communiege-bruiken in de eeuw der Reformatie (Insti-tuut voor Liturgiewetenschap, Rijksuniver-siteit Groningen, 1987), and G. P. Hartvelt, Tastbaar Evangelie, (De Graafschap, 1966).

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 22 © December 1991, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.