Weekly Communion: One church's experiment

Should a church celebrate the Lords Supper every week? That's the question Blacknall Memorial Pres-hyterian Church (PCUSA) in Durham, North Caivlina, struggled with in the late 80s and early 90s. What follows is an account of their attempt to introduce weekly communion—with the hope that their experiences may be of value to others who are considering this change.

Blacknall Presbyterian Church is in many ways a typical southern Presbyterian urban congregation. It originated in the nineteenth century as a congregation of small-town, blue- collar, religiously conservative people, but by the late twentieth century it has evolved into a congregation made up largely of upper-income urban professionals of mixed ecclesiastical backgrounds. This new blending of religious traditions and social backgrounds has had a natural effect of bringing into question practices and beliefs that have been deeply ensconced in the church.

One practice that came in for review and challenge as the congregation diversified in the 1960s was the quarterly celebration of Holy Communion. In the 1970s Blacknall began to celebrate communion on the first Sunday of each month, and by the 1980s they added a second celebration as part of a "healing service" on the third Sunday evening of each month. By most southern Presbyterian standards, Blacknall had become quite "progressive" in its celebration of communion.

Yet some members questioned whether the progress had gone far enough. One of the key factors fueling their dissatisfaction was religious background: Some of Black-nail's newer members had been reared in traditions that celebrated communion weekly, and they found the absence of the weekly celebration more than an innocuous omission. The Presbyterian church requires that the Word be preached whenever the sacrament is celebrated, though the sacrament is not required whenever the Word is preached. For those who objected to a less-than-weekly celebration, the most persistent issue that kept arising was theological: If the sacrament "seals" the Word, as per Reformed doctrine, how is it defensible to separate Word from sacrament?

This theological question was raised in Blacknall's worship committee with fresh urgency in 1987, provoking a not-too-enthusiastic response from some of its long-time members. But the issue would not go away. By 1989 the worship committee had studied the issue and learned that weekly celebration of communion was not only the ancient church's normal practice but also the approach favored by John Calvin. The strong linkage of sacraments to the Word as "signs and seals" further cemented the argument of individuals who wished to move toward weekly communion. And the new Directory for Worship published by the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1989 brought a fresh sense of direction: Communion was explicitly acknowledged as being "integral" to the service of the Lord's Day.

A Summer Experiment

The worship committee recommended to the session that, as an experiment, Blacknall celebrate the Lord's Supper each week during the summer of 1991. It also presented the session with various reasons for this recommendation, the primary one being that weekly celebration of communion would better convey the sacrament's integral relationship with the preached Word.

As part of this recommendation the committee presented answers to various objections often raised in regard to weekly communion. These objections— that our monthly celebration of the sacrament is already more frequent than what is customary in many Presbyterian churches, that weekly communion diminishes its significance, and that weekly celebration would make the service too long—played an important role throughout our experiment with weekly communion.

Prior to the session's decision in April of 1991 in favor of trying weekly communion during the summer, the worship committee dealt with logistical concerns (such as serving methods) and with ways of informing the congregation of the upcoming change. The two pastors and the director of worship wrote a letter to the congregation offering the theological and practical reasons for the move to weekly communion. The letter emphasized the integral nature of the Word and sacrament and explained that the sacrament "seals" the preached Word, citing the Presbyterian Book of Order and Calvin's Institutes.

The concern about the length of the service was addressed by having the people come forward to receive communion (by intinction; that is, by dipping the bread in the wine) instead of being served in the pews, thus shortening the service by five to ten minutes. However, we retained our customary serving method for the first Sunday of each month, and we continued the third-Sunday-evening service of healing and communion.

The committee also prepared a brochure regarding more frequent communion, which dealt with such questions as why Blacknall should try weekly communion, what intinction was, and how those who are unable to come forward would be served.

A Step Back?

Our experiment with weekly communion lasted from June through August. In early August the worship committee included a questionnaire in the Sunday bulletin that posed some of the following questions:

■ Has weekly communion deepened or lessened your appreciation of the sacrament?
■ Was the move to weekly communion adequately explained?
■ Was intinction a meaningful approach to the sacrament for you?

One hundred and twenty people responded to the questionnaire, 65 percent of whom were in favor of weekly communion, 25 percent opposed, and 10 percent ambivalent.

The committee also held a special Sunday evening meeting to give people the opportunity to voice their opinions about the summer's experiment. Some of the favorable comments voiced there included a deeper appreciation of the sacrament and of the communal sense fostered by the practice of having everyone move forward to receive the elements. On the negative side, some people noted that celebrating communion every week diminished its significance, that the addition of the sacrament made the worship service too long, and that coming forward was hard for some people to manage.

In mid-August the worship committee reported the results of the survey and questionnaire to the session and presented the following three options:

■ to continue weekly communion
■ to return to our traditional first Sunday morning and third Sunday evening celebrations with the goal of starting weekly communion in January or June of 1992
■ to have weekly communion during Advent and Lent.

In its August meeting, the session was unable to decide between the various options proposed by the worship committee and instead requested that the committee draw up a plan to celebrate communion according to a liturgical calendar. The committee drew up a calendar that scheduled the Lord's Supper nineteen times a year, coinciding with major church days. At this point a consensus within the committee regarding the frequency of communion broke down.

Since Blacknall did not fully follow the liturgical calendar, introducing it for communion also meant changing other aspects of the services, such as our custom of preaching at length through a book of the Bible. Moreover, the senior pastor wrote a letter to the worship committee describing his reservations about continuing with weekly communion. He was concerned that the committee did not have a clear direction from the Lord, as shown by our lack of consensus. He also felt that the preaching of the Word was not left "unsealed" if the sacrament was not celebrated each week, that there was not strong scriptural support for weekly communion, and that the congregation's appreciation of the Lord's Supper would be heightened if the sacrament was not held weekly. He recommended that Blacknall continue its traditional method of celebrating the Supper.

In light of the senior pastor's views and the worship committee's lack of consensus, the committee recommended to the session that for the time being we continue our traditional frequency and method of communion. But the session appointed a subcommittee to continue studying the matter. In the spring of 1992, the subject resurfaced. Should we repeat the previous year's experiment and celebrate the Lord's Supper each week during the summer? The subcommittee on communion recommended against it.

Now, over a year later, the subcommittee on communion no longer meets to discuss the sacrament, and the worship committee has not returned to the topic. It appears that for the time being we will continue to celebrate communion at Blacknall on the first Sunday morning and third Sunday evening of each month.

Excerpt

ARE YOU CONSIDERING WEEKLY COMMUNION

If you decide to by weekly communion, you may want to keep several aspects of Blacknall's experiment in mind:

1. Make sure you have sound theological reasons for moving to weekly communion. Our worship committee did find a strong basis for weekly communion in the Reformed tradition and the Directory for Worship. Yet, as is evident from the senior pastors concerns, we did not discover a strong direction from Scripture, nor did we ever come to a real understanding of what is meant by the sacrament "sealing" the Word.

2. Recognize that the logistical problems created by such a change will be more extensive than you imagine. Although we tried intinction to shorten the length of the service (an important concern for those with children), our sanctuary is not really set up to make this feasible.

3. To prepare the congregation for the change, urge the pastor(s) to teach the congregation about the sacrament from the pulpit. Although we informed the congregation in writing of the reasons for adopting weekly communion, without teaching from the pulpit to back it up, the importance of the experiment never sunk in for many people.

4. Make sure the pastor and session or council are firmly behind the decision before you proceed. A significant amount of time passed between the end of our experiment and the session's decision about how to proceed. During this time the worship committee became entangled in discussions over the liturgical calendar, and its consensus in favor of weekly communion broke down. The senior pastor's letter was really the deciding factor in the ultimate decision to return to our previous practice.

Bruce G. McNair is an adjunct professor of history at Campbell Unviersity, Buies Creek, North Carolina, and a deacon at Blacknail Memorial Presbyterian Church.

 

Sheldon W. Sorge is the pastor of Royal Oak Presbyterian Church, Marion, Virginia.