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?
I don’t know about other traditions. I have wondered if in our own denomination the pattern of monthly celebration of communion developed when there were not enough elders to preside weekly. Perhaps that was the case for others.
In MAKING THE EUCHARIST MATTER, Frank Anderson, MSC says it was only in the 20th century that Catholic congregations returned to freuent Communion and that since the fifth century adult reception of the Eucharist was rare. (26-27)
The ease with which people encounter Christ in the sacraments seems to have a broad range, one place perhaps being determined by personality type, teaching, or personal experience, among other factors. It seems safe to say that if not commanded by Jesus to “do this,” a significant number would opt out altogether. And since they are not able to do that, they may be quick to embrace any theological or ecclesiological justification offered for infrequent practice.
Sheer speculation here!
Jeanette Block said:
It is my understanding that John Calvin wanted frequent, weekly communion, but the Swiss Cantons would not agree to that as it was deemed, “too Catholic.” Perhaps that is why it was done quarterly and just stayed that way due to traditiona. Many of my Presbyterian colleagues are moving to monthly communion.
Taylor Burton-Edwards said:
Jeannette is correct. It was canton/town councils that ruled for less frequent communion than Mr Calvin wished from the beginning. He, like Mr Luther and both Misters Wesley both preferred and practiced reception multiple times each week.
The issue for the leaders of the cantons was not apparently “specialness,” but rather that the preaching of the word (which they deemed more important) not be restrained more often than necessary.
It is also important to keep in mind that while the Roman Catholic churches had OFFERED communion weekly (and in the cathedrals, daily), it remained the case that communion was only required of parishioners 3 times per year and that this may have been more than many parishioners actually practiced. So requiring it four times was actually also an INCREASE.
The sort of discipline around the table described in the document you cited was simply an adaptation of what was required in the Roman rite as well. There, of course, the confession and reconciliation process was handled by the priest via the confessional (which all were required to go to prior to receiving Holy Communion). The Anglicans had preserved this same rubric– it was (and is!) in fact, the very first rubric regarding the administration of Holy Communion in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer– the very one that actually underwrote Mr Wesley’s decision not to admit Sophy Hopkey to the Table and that led to his being driven out of Georgia with civil charges pending.
What is different with the Presbyterians is that instead of the priest (or in their polity, the pastor/elder) doing the examining, this task was handled by “lay” elders. In that regard, it was no different than Mr Wesley assigning the same task to class leaders. So in fact, there would have been no practical reason why this arrangement would necessarily taken any longer than it did for Methodists– who also required a token or a ticket for admission not only to the table, but to the service of Holy Communion, and whose stated policy (if not actual one) was to celebrate communion weekly.
Sonya Yonge said:
Now that I am Catholic, it is wonderful knowing that I confessed my sins and I take God’s Body and Blood to heal my wounds and wash away my sins. I need him weekly. Before Jesus we sacrificed Lambs to the altar and now we have a Holy Priest to pray over bread and wine like Jesus asked us to do in order to remember Him and Him remain in us. He is now the Lamb! When you eat this bread and drink this cup, you shall live forever. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life, the true bread sent from the Father. This is the bread come down from heaven. Eat my flesh and drink my blood, and I will raise you up on the last day.” I don’t need molecules or science for this statement. All I need is faith in Jesus and what he told us.
Sonya Yonge said:
When we pray the Rosary, we say the Lord is with Her, Mary. When Jesus was on the cross, He asked His desciples to take care of His Mother, Mary the Mother of God! I take care of her when I say the rosary and that has to comfort her. “Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of death. Amen. There is alot more to the prayer including the Lord’s prayer. We gather everyone together in union with Christ. It’s my Holy Family Reunion and I take great pride in them.