I am reading John T. McNeill’s A History of the Cure of Souls as part of my preparation for my upcoming field exam in the History of Christian Formation. I just read the following passage:
“The parishes were divided into elders’ districts, in which each elder was to examine communicants privately before each communion service, and to bring about reconciliations between neighbors found to be at variance. Metal tokens were distributed to those qualified to take communion, and were presented for admission to the communion table.” (252)
The passage is broadly referring to sixteenth century Presbyterianism. As I read this passage a question popped into my head: Is this the reason that Presbyterians typically celebrate Communion quarterly and not more frequently?
In other words, I wonder if the history of the reason for infrequent celebration of the Eucharist in Presbyterianism may have been lost. I am ignorant of the reason that academic Presbyterians would give for quarterly celebration of the Eucharist. However, the main reason I have heard lay Presbyterians give is that receiving Communion too often makes it less special. My purpose here is not to get into why I think that is an inadequate understanding of Communion. Rather, it is to ask if anyone has any further insights into the reasons that Presbyterians give for quarterly Communion.
I am intrigued by the possibility that it was originally because there was a very complicated system for interviewing every member who wanted to take Communion beforehand, which would have made it impractical to do this every month. My guess would be that very few Presbyterian churches continue to do this today. If that is true, it seems possible that the original reason for only communing four times a year has disappeared, but the practice has remained in place.
And yet, I suspect that there is much more to it than what I have just laid out. Does anyone have any thoughts or expertise to share?