Toward a Cruciform Theology of Communion

Note to the Reader: This theological paper was written three years ago.  For many of you, communion isn’t an important issue, and the length of the paper will be daunting (21 pages).  But if you, like me, struggle with the meaning and practice of the sacrament of communion, this may be of interest.

Part One: Sacrament or Vestige?


My computer’s built-in dictionary says that a sacrament is “a religious ceremony or act of the Christian Church that is regarded as an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace…a thing of mysterious and sacred significance; a religious symbol.”

That same dictionary defines vestige as “a trace of something that is disappearing or no longer exists.”  The specifically biological meaning of vestige isa part or organ of an organism that has become reduced or functionless in the course of evolution.”

What is the understanding of Communion in the United Church?  Does it function as sacrament or as vestige?  I have been drawn to the question at a professional level by the observation of the uneasy relationship to this sacrament within the mainline Protestant churches.  As one commentator has said,

…the Lord’s Supper is either neglected or treated as an onerous add-on to regular worship. Instead of seeing it as a source of healing grace, our congregations see it as an inconvenient extra 15 minutes that keeps them from the meal they really want to celebrate: the Sunday buffet at a local restaurant.[1]

My concern peaked last year when I lead a retreat for clergy and found a number of participants reluctant to celebrate the sacrament.[2]

But it’s the personal that moved me want to write this article.  Raised Roman Catholic and ordained 17 years ago in the United Church of Christ, I set aside my childhood understanding of communion but didn’t spend much time considering exactly what I’d replaced it with. The events of the last year—a deeper spiritual awakening, a re-visitation of my relationship to Catholicism, a commitment to the path of ordered ministry in the United Church of Canada, the experience of celebrating Communion monthly for the small local church where I worship[3]—have pushed me to understand just what I think is happening when I stand at the table. 

I say a commitment to the path of ministry in the United Church of Canada—but my perception of the church’s relationship, or lack thereof, to Communion has made that affiliation uneasy.  It was not clear to me that, for the United Church, Communion was still a “thing of mysterious and sacred significance…” or whether it had become just a “trace of something that is disappearing…reduced and functionless.”  I was dismayed by the few bland paragraphs on United Church website describing it.  The course text required for my worship class felt like a grade school primer when it came to sacramental theology, disposing of eight different theological stances to Communion in just over four pages.[4]  It was United Church of Canada ministers who balked at celebrating Communion on the retreat I led.  Nothing I read, nothing I observed, felt vaguely like my own experience of the holy mystery that was Communion.  The real question had become not so much about the United Church’s theology, but also about whether there was room for my experience and theology.

This article is divided into two parts.  Part One, “Sacrament or Vestige,” has three sections.  Section (A) includes a brief examination of the beliefs of the traditions that formed the United Church: portions of the writings of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, and Wesley, as well as commentary on their Eucharistic theologies.[5]  Section (B) looks at more contemporary sources—the World Council of Churches document on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, as well as United Church theologians Douglas John Hall, Charlotte Caron, William Kervin, John McTavish and Mac Watts.  Section (C) reports on a series of interviews with my colleagues in the Kootenay Presbytery, British Columbia Conference. 

Part Two, “Toward a Cruciform Theology,” is a summing up of what I found and a proposal.


Section A: The Reformers

The theological understandings of Luther[6], Zwingli, and Calvin cannot be understood without reference to Roman Catholic custom of the time.  At the time of the Reformation, the Catholic Church was suffering the effect of the uncoupling of symbol and reality—a change in the world of philosophy that had substantial repercussions for the understanding of Christ’s presence in the meal—and a growing distance between the two meanings of the “body of Christ.”  These cultural and liturgical changes resulted in practices that were abhorrent to the reformers: in their eyes, the Mass was viewed as a ritual reenactment of the sacrifice of Jesus, with congregation as spectators at a propitiatory offering rather than participants at a celebratory meal.  The centuries of contention about just how Christ was present in the bread and wine, combined with a confusion of metaphysical and empirical understandings, had resulted in an official doctrine that most understood as a crude form of transubstantiation.  For most Christians, the Body of Christ was now the Host rather than (or in addition to) the community.  Laypersons could worship but rarely receive; and when they did, it was only bread.[7]  Metaphorically, Communion sketched only a vertical axis between heaven and earth; in this practice, the horizontal axis connecting the community as the body of Christ was no longer visible.

While the Reformers agreed on the error of the Roman understanding of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, the error of transubstantiation, and the error of withholding communion from members of the church, they fought with each other as well as with Rome about how Christ was present in the bread and cup.  

Luther’s early understanding of Communion is strongly tinged with Augustine: he focused on Communion as an outward sign (sacramentum) with inward significance (res).  The inward significance is the people made the Body of Christ.  As he says, “…Christ and all saints are one spiritual body…”[8]

However, Luther added a third component to Communion that made the outward sign and inward significance “operative and useful”: that component is faith. One’s faith does not make the sacrament real, but faith is necessary to receive God’s gift. 

Luther rejected transubstantiation but still held fast to a doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the elements, metaphorically retaining the vertical axis but restoring the horizontal dimension to Communion.[9]

Zwingli, in contradiction, argued for a spiritualist interpretation of the sacrament. The communicant feeds on Christ through faith; the sacrament is a token, a symbol, which points to Christ but does so representatively, not realistically.  There’s no body of Christ in the bread that will save us; the body of Christ already saved us by his death.  But the body of Christ is present in the act of Communion—in the souls of believers when they take spiritual food.

Zwingli found two foci in the Eucharist: thanksgiving and memorial.  Memorial is not just remembering, but is the capacity to render something remembered as ‘present’—and in this way does Zwingli find Christ present in the meal.  But he did not feel a need to find Christ in the meal very often!  His ideal was communion 4x a year.

Calvin came on the scene later and takes pot shots at both Luther and Zwingli for the limits of their understanding and for their mutual intemperance[10].  For Calvin, Christ is the only food that nourishes the soul; we’ve already been given all we need, but because humans are weak, God gives us visible signs like the sacraments.  Communion has three functions: as sign and seal of the promises made in the gospel, giving us certainty and assurance that we are saved; to move us to praise God; and to encourage holiness and charity.

Unlike Zwingli, Calvin reconnects the sign and the symbol, saying “to deny that a true communication of Jesus Christ is presented to us in the Supper, is to render this holy sacrament frivolous and useless—an execrable blasphemy unfit to be listened to.”[11]  But this does not mean that he believes in a local, bodily, or substantial presence.  For Calvin, the manner in which Christ is present is a spiritual mystery—“ a thing incomprehensible, not only to the eye but to our natural sense”[12]—the bread both representing as well as presenting Christ.  It is a metonymic relationship, wherein invocation of one part invokes the whole.[13]

One of the important gifts of Calvin was his revival of the patristic understanding that the Holy Spirit is not only the “agent of the presence of Christ, but also…the agent through which his presence and life are communicated…”[14] 

Calvin, unlike Zwingli, felt that the normal Sunday service should incorporate both word and sacrament, but the Genevan council only allowed quarterly celebration.[15]

John Knox, contemporaneous with Calvin, follows his emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit as well as the conviction that the Lord’s Supper should accompany the Word during Sunday liturgy.  Knox’s innovations were two: emphasis on extemporaneous prayer over set form, and use of an explicit epiclesis over both the elements and the congregation.

John Wesley’s movement was both Eucharistic and evangelical.  His 1733 sermon, The Duty of Constant Communion, was republished in 1788, at which time he added this comment, “I have not yet seen cause to alter my sentiments in any point which is therein delivered.[16]  In it, he argues forcefully that it is a Christian’s duty to receive communion as often as possible, since Christ commanded it.  One’s unworthiness is no excuse. The sacrament, for Wesley, was a means of grace that both converted and confirmed; for this reason, all who desired to receive food for one’s soul and who were aware of their own sin, could come to the table.  Together with Daniel Brevint, Wesley and his brother Charles brought a wide breadth of interpretations to the Eucharist, many of which had been neglected since patristic times, especially the understanding of the sacrament as a memorial (anamnesis) that brought the sacrifice of the past into the present to nourish the community, and connected it to the future reality of the kingdom.[17]

Despite the vast differences in the theologies of the Reformers, a few similarities should be noted.  For them, Communion was a gift of God; Eucharist should be available more frequently to the laity; Christ was present in the communicants who were formed into the body of Christ, as well as present in some sense in the elements (except for Zwingli); and the sacrament was particularly efficacious, being given to Christians to strengthen the soul.  Like Luther, the rest of the Reformers held on to a vertical axis—the heaven to earth connection of Communion—but brought emphasis to the horizontal axis—the people as the body of Christ.



Section B: The World Council of Churches and Contemporary Canadian Theology

         The WCC statement on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry was published in 1982 affirms that Eucharist is a gift from God, commanded by Christ, using visible signs to communicate God’s love in Jesus Christ; it is the central act of the church’s worship.  While one act, it has many meanings: thanksgiving, anamnesis, invocation of the Spirit, communion of faithful, and meal of the kingdom.  The document recognizes and affirms the diversity of liturgical expressions, but asserts that faith is deepened by the celebration of communion, and that it should take place at least every Sunday.[18]

         Douglas John Hall’s Confessing the Faith emphasizes the communal aspect of the sacrament.  While speaking of dialectic between individual and community, he argues that emphasis must be placed on transformation of many into one; an emphasis so strong that it calls into question “all privatistic practices of the sacrament.”[19] Hall accentuates the tenuousness of community in present culture, and argues for an engagement with Communion that reflects less on what’s happening to the elements and more on what’s happening to those receiving.  Communion, therefore, is first and foremost relational, bringing the community into relationship with Christ and with each other. 

Hall argues that the biggest problem with sacraments in our time is that as a culture we lack a presupposition of transcendent mystery.  Holding that the “tone of the church’s theology and practice of the sacraments” is set primarily by society, he finds the loss of sacramental thinking in the church a reflection of the rationality and secularity of our own era.  Reduced from symbolic enactments of Christian faith that connect to mystery, sacraments have become social rites.[20] 

Charlotte Caron’s Eager for Worship is intended as a beginning introduction to worship; the Eucharist is dealt with in fourteen pages that include history, discussion of elements, frequency, and symbols, as well as theology.   Within a list of Communion principles labeled generically Protestant, Caron introduces as United Church theology the understanding that “communion occurs in the transformation of the people through sharing bread and wine in the name and presence of Christ.”[21]  She goes on to quote Harold Fey, who says Christ is not in the elements but standing beside the believer.  How or why this became United Church theology is not explained, but the statement serves to distance UCC Communion practice from any argument for presence—spiritual or actual—in the elements—as well as within the believer.[22] 

Her list of eight theologies begins with a theology of remembrance that is focused on Jesus’ humanity rather than divinity.[23]  Likewise, in her theology of community, “[t]he broken bread represents the brokenness of humans who, in sharing communion, become one body empowered to do God’s work in the world.”[24]  There is no mention that the broken bread might symbolize the body of Christ himself as well as the people.

Her overall summary of Communion is that it is “one means of practicing the presence of God…one means of grace…one means of articulating the fact that holy moments blossom forth in our lives.”[25]

Two short articles in Touchstone rounded out my research.  In the first, John McTavish accuses the church of treating the sacraments like conjuring tools; he argues that Christ is already present, and Communion does not make him more so.  Communion, in his eyes, is the perverse intrusion of Mystery religion into Christianity. [26]  Mac Watts agrees that Christ is already present, but points out the biblical warrant for the practice, as well as scholarly consensus on the earliness of the liturgical practice.

In the second article, William Kervin, following Miriam Therese Winter and John Dominic Crossan, advances an argument for re-visioning the Lord’s Supper as one of the many meals that Jesus shared.  His radical table fellowship and ministry should be part of the communion focus, as well as his death and resurrection; this will necessarily bring the issues of justice and marginalization to the communion table.[27] 

The United Church of Canada theologians I read agree, with their strong emphasis on the community being formed into the body of Christ, with the Reformers and the authors of the WCC document.  Communion is primarily a relational act for these theologians, and there is great concern about who is invited, both literally and figuratively, to the table.  Their emphasis is almost exclusively on the horizontal axis of Communion.

On other fronts, though, there is great divergence between the WCC and the UCC.  I’d argue that McTavish would deny that the Lord’s Supper is a gift of God; Caron does not seem to see it as “the central act of the church’s worship.”[28]  The issue of presence is dismissed out of hand in what feels like a scramble to distance one’s self from the concepts of transubstantiation and consubstantiation; Communion’s role in strengthening faith is explicitly rejected by McTavish and seems to be implicitly rejected by Caron. Only Hall addresses the relationship of Communion to faith; he is also the only one who discusses with any depth the issues of remembrance and transcendent mystery.  For all but Hall, the vertical axis of Communion seems almost nonexistent.


Section C: Theology on the Ground

The Kootenay Presbytery is a tiny jurisdiction of primarily rural and small town churches in British Columbia[29]; there are 11 persons serving in ordered ministry.  Using a short questionnaire, I interviewed 9 of them, as well as the conference minister and two clergy spouses.  My sample[30] included six ordained, three diaconal, and one designated lay minister; they ranged in age from early 40’s to late 60’s. Half of the respondents were second career ministers.  Straight, gay, and lesbian, the majority were in long term marriages or relationships. These are the questions posed to my colleagues:

1.  In what religious tradition, if any, were you raised? 

2.  What was your experience of communion as a child?

3.  Has this changed as an adult?  How? 

4.  How often does your congregation celebrate communion?  In your view, is this too often, not often enough, or just right?  In view of congregation, is this too often, not often enough, or just right?

5.  What’s important to you about celebrating communion?

6.  What if anything makes you uncomfortable?

7.  What do you do with the leftovers?  Are you comfortable with that?


         Most participants were raised in the United Church of Canada, but other backgrounds were also present: Missouri Synod Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and no religious background prior to adult life.  For some, childhood remembrances of Communion were somber or even terrifying, while others were unaware of the sacrament because it was for adults.[31]  One admitted to being bored while another spoke of his sense of exclusion and loss at not being able to partake.

         For all, their adult experience of Communion is different; as one would expect, most name it as a richer event.  Some speak of mystical depth while others are relieved not to be confronting transubstantiation, exclusion, or pressure to be good enough.[32]

         Most pastoral charges celebrate monthly, with a range from twice monthly[33] to every other month.[34]  For 8 of the 11 ministry personnel, Communion does not happen often enough; for one, it’s just right, and for two, it’s too frequent.  In general, clergy are more likely to want to increase frequency than are their congregations.  As one said, “For me, it’s the other side of the coin in worship.  We’ve lost the rhythm of the word proclaimed and the sacrament enacted, and we’re just now reclaiming it.”

         The theological understanding of Communion as the building up of community was firmly rooted in all respondents, although expressions of this varied.  One characterized it simply as a meal to make community as Jesus made community, while others spoke of feeling part of the “uncounted numbers” of the communion of saints who had participated in this meal, “transcending time and space.”  The image of open table and radical inclusion was important for most ministry personnel, and one person spoke of Communion as a time of feeding the world.  Although the term “the Body of Christ,” was used only twice, the concept was alluded to frequently.  One minister said, “It’s probably the only time I can look out and know that most of the people are feeling the same thing—that they’re part of something holy.”

Although most respondents were clear about calling the act “symbolic” and one said, “It’s not magic,” it was also clear that some experiences were not purely symbolic.  One spoke of Communion as “thin moment”; another said it was a time of special closeness to the Spirit.  One spoke of reconnection with the mystery of life and death and the presence of Christ, and the hope he felt.  Two people recounted their experience of being pulled to commit to servanthood as the gospel stories were recounted, and the realization of where that commitment might lead.

         The discomforts expressed were related primarily to theology.  One spoke about the suffering he felt at being excluded from the table by certain denominations; another spoke of their difficulty with substitutionary atonement[35], while a third mentioned that she couldn’t use the words of institution because of the emphasis on body and blood.  Several said it was difficult to celebrate when a congregation’s understanding of the sacrament was stuck in death and sadness.

         The question about leftovers was to check, by the back door, what people really felt regarding presence.  Some had no idea what happened to the elements, since the elders usually handled them.  The consensus was that the bread should be used somehow, even (or especially) given to the birds.  While for one person this appeared to be a concern about wastefulness, more often it was a reflection of the perceived unseemliness of throwing out the element just used for Communion.  One person mentioned that she would take it with her if she were doing visits at the nursing home, while another spoke of “prolonging the sacrament” by sharing the leftovers as people talked after church.

The cup, because of intinction,[36] was usually full of crumbs.  Several expressed discomfort with pouring it down the regular drain, but most felt this was all right.  A number took this question as an opportunity to note that the UCC don’t believe in the “real” presence.[37]

All of my colleagues were clear about Communion’s role in forming community—that Eucharist makes Christ’s presence known between and among us.   For some, there was also a whiff of presence (though certainly NOT bodily presence!) in the elements as reflected in their experience and their behavior with the elements.

 In general, my colleagues were more likely to reflect the WCC and the Reformer’s desire for frequent Communion than were the UCC theologians. While not using the exact terms, a good number of my colleagues were clear that frequent Communion was a source of grace to them—one even told me that he sought out chances to receive.  Some were ready to assert that Sacrament was as important as Word, although no one called it the centre of worship.  In general, while the horizontal axis of Communion is alive and well in the Kootenay Presbytery, so too is the vertical axis.


Part Two: Toward a Modest Cruciform Theology of Communion

Section A: Summing Up

If I had to rely on my reading of the United Church of Canada’s official website I probably would have concluded that for the UCC, Communion is a vestige.  The website statement is about as bland as it comes: “The meal uses the symbols of small pieces of bread and a taste of wine or juice to remind us of Jesus’ last supper with his followers and of God’s enduring love.[38]  It reads as a social rite designed not to offend, rather than a religious ceremony of life-changing proportion.

There is also the great gap between the stated norm of worship—“Unity of Word and Sacrament”—and the reality in most United Churches. The “norm” is actually the exception, and it seems to function more as a negative injunction—one should never have the sacrament without the Word—than as a positive directive to include both in regular worship services.

If I had to rely on my reading of United Church of Canada theologians, I would be unsure just what Communion means for the UCC.  That the United Church embraces a strong concern for just relationship is evident from Charlotte Caron’s text and the writings of William Kervin and Douglas John Hall.  However, I find little indication that either Caron or Kervin believes that Communion has any power other than that which humans give it.  John McTavish’s open scorn for sacrament is an even stronger message, although it is opposed by Hall’s discussion of transcendent mystery and Watts’ invocation of biblical warrant.  If Communion is a sacrament for these theologians, it is a sacrament focused almost exclusively on the horizontal axis.  Although it’s not stated, I assume this stance is the result of a desire to present a corrective to the more conservative churches’ separation from—even enmity with—the greater community.

In my peers I see the full range of opinion that I found in United Church of Canada theologians, but something more.  That something more, variously described as grace or joy or connection or Spirit or the Christ, is not what we as humans bring to the sacrament but what the Holy offers to us when we receive loaf and cup. There are many ways to name this: as a converting ordinance, as the enactment of community that changes us into Community; as the anamnesis that connects us in and through time and space; as the thin place where we can fall into the arms of the God who longs to heal us; as the space that opens for commitment and self-knowledge; as the hope that is born for the Kin-dom that is here and is coming.  Above all, I found that most of my peers preserved and treasured the gift of mystery that makes Communion “a thing of mysterious and sacred importance.”


Section B: Toward A Cruciform Theology of Communion

From my admittedly limited vantage point, it appears that United Church of Canada theologians are engaged in a battle to assure that the church remember and live out the Reformation principle that the Body of Christ is present in the community.  This concern for justice and inclusion is first and foremost in discussions about Communion, and seems to function as an important corrective to privatistic (read: fundamentalist) religion that is focused exclusively the individual’s relationship to God.  However, this focus seems to preclude, for most, any substantive discussion of the transcendental reality of Communion. 

A friend asked me to talk to her about the Reformation understanding of Communion.  When I recounted what the practice and understanding of the Catholic Church had been at the time of Luther, she was stunned; then she was astounded by the gulf between the theologies of Luther and Wesley and her own experience of Protestant communion.  “Wow,” she said.  “It’s like the Catholics cut off their own arms and then the Protestants cut off their own legs.”

 I would like to suggest that what the church needs today is a cruciform theology of Communion, a theology that pays attention to both the transcendent mystery of the sacrament as well as the immanent presence of the Body of Christ in the gathered community.  We need a Communion theology that invites the entire community to the table, but that table has to have a host—a host who gave his life to provide the meal.

I found, in the writings of theologians and in conversation with my peers, an interesting defensiveness.  As Reformation Protestants, we are quite articulate about what Communion is not: it’s not real presence, real body and blood, transubstantiation, or consubstantion.  We are quick to distance ourselves from anything that smacks of Catholic or Anglican practice.  But this eloquence about what we don’t believe is not matched by an eloquence concerning what we do believe.  Much of the church seems stuck in an Enlightenment mindset, treating the world as if the only things that are true are those measurable by science, perceptible to the naked eye.  It’s interesting that the church has been so slow to use the realities opened by quantum physics—those same realities of which the mystics have been speaking for eons—to discuss the sacrament. 

Refuting transubstantiation is easy.  Speaking, as the reformers did, of the real presence, and of the sacrament as a converting and healing ordinance, is much more difficult.  For this conversation, we need language of heart and knowledge of bodies; the analysis of the rational mind will not get us there. 

I would like to suggest that what we need to regain a cruciform theology of Communion is re-engagement with the traditional words of the Communion service: This is my body, this is my blood.

As a church beginning to live on the margins, as a church that claims relationship with those who suffer, we acknowledge that there is a transcendental connection between those who suffer in their bodies and the Christ.  Caring for the stranger, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, freeing the captive, and caring for the dying—these works of love are all about bodies.  The one body we aren’t actually very comfortable with is the body of Jesus.

Much of the world lives at the level of body and blood, and the sacrifices of daily life in the two-thirds world can entail much more than inconvenience: they are often literally matters of life and death. We see this clearly when we acknowledge that someone has given their life for others—Chico Mendes and Oscar Romero, human rights workers in the Philippines and Mexico, the “disappeared” activists of Argentina.[39]  We may also understand that our complacency and connection in the web of corporate sin makes us complicit in their deaths.  If, for instance, my pension plan invests in a gold mine, and a person protesting the poisoning of local water by the mine tailings is murdered by the mine’s goons, I am involved.  That person literally died for my sins because their death helped assure the profits that keep me comfortable.  Because we are human, none of us are without blood on our hands.

Even closer to home, the sacrifices of daily life involve bodies.  Any parent knows that there are times that you choose to let your body be broken and poured out for your children.  Caring for a partner with Alzheimer’s involves the same extraordinary willingness to move beyond personal desire for comfort.  Readers could probably add dozens of examples; most of us are capable of recognizing these works of deep and selfless love.[40] 

         But when it comes to talking about Jesus, most of us don’t seem to get much past a grade school understanding—“Saying Jesus died for us means I killed Jesus”—an understanding that we necessarily and correctly reject.  A sophisticated, humble understanding of the giving of body and blood seems lacking in our theology.  The idea that Jesus understood what was happening to him—that his was not just a death dictated by political leaders, but a death caused by the web of deception and fear that still causes death, and that he forgave us for our all too human complicity in this web—well, that seems a bit much.

When my father—who suffered from crippling depression—got up and went to work every day in order to support his family, he literally gave his life for us.  He didn’t need us to know how much he suffered, but it was a source of great joy for him, and for me, when I finally began to appreciate his extraordinary gift.  It was only when I was old enough to willingly accept pain so others would not suffer that I began to accept, without shame, the sacrifice he made for me.  Before that, I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge what he’d done, because I didn’t want to feel guilty.

If we can learn this compassion for and acceptance of the extraordinary gifts our parents give us, if we can see the sacrifices of the martyrs of El Salvador and Brazil and the Philippines as intentional, why then do we not allow Jesus to understand his own life and death as a gift, and to accept that seriously? 

At this point, some may say that there are vast differences of culture and worldview between the first century Jew who was crucified outside of Jerusalem and Canadian Christians of the twenty-first century; this is true.  Nonetheless, there is a deep truth about personal sacrifice that we seem hesitant to recognize in liberal Christianity.

When we use the traditional language of body and blood, when we consciously recall the transcendent Mystery at the table, we invoke something that the intellect cannot fathom.  The heart alone knows what the rational mind cannot grasp. Tidying up Communion so we don’t feel uncomfortable with “outdated” language or embarrassing concepts or unexamined repulsion means that we leave out the host of the table.  We leave out Jesus, who died because he loved us so well.  

We will not rejuvenate the church or the sacraments by throwing out the ancient words and understandings; instead, when we dig deeply to reclaim their rich meaning and bring that power back to the community, we make it possible for the community to enter into more profound relationship with the God who throbs at the centre of all life.  This is not a matter of thinking.  It is a matter of heart.    

For most of my peers—clergy in rural areas who struggle to live a theology of the marginalized church—and for me, Communion is a sacrament rather than a vestige.  The reformers’ “converting and healing ordinance” forms us by means of a sacred and mysterious vertical moment when the Holy draws near, as well as by the felt presence of the living Christ that draws us more deeply into the horizontal life—life in concert with the communion of saints, living and dead, suffering and rejoicing, seeking and finding, across all time and all space.   Communion makes us the body of Christ; and in some way that the rational mind cannot comprehend but the heart recognizes, Communion is the body of Christ. One dimension without the other is inadequate.  We need both meanings; we need the full sacrament.









[1] Andrew C. Thompson, GEN-X RISING: Recommit to Communion as means of healing grace, The United Methodist Reporter.  April 15, 2010.   http://www.umportal.com/article.asp?id=6616

[2] One person let me know that if I had suggested that we use Tibetan singing bowls as our ritual there would have been much more enthusiasm.

[3] My work is no longer in regular parish ministry, but in retreats, teaching and writing.  The pastoral charge to which I belong has had no minister for 17 years, and has been without the regular practice of Communion for most of that time.  I am one of the members of the congregation who take a turn leading the service; and when it’s my turn, we celebrate Communion.

[4] In fairness to the writer, it was an introductory text.  In fairness to me, the author wove in and out of personal opinion, history, church practices and theology without ever using her turn signal.

[5] Apologies for the very short and necessarily inadequate summary of Reformation theology of Communion.

[6] While the formation of the United Church of Canada did not incorporate Lutherans, Luther can hardly be ignored when speaking of the Reformation: he sets the stage for all that comes after.

[7] William R. Crockett’s Eucharist: Symbol of Transformation (1989) was invaluable for this section.

[8] This quote appears in Crockett’s Eucharist: Symbol of Transformation and is taken from Kilian McDonnell’s John Calvin, the Church, and the Eucharist, page 25.  (1967).

[9] In a beautifully simple passage, he says, “For my part, if I cannot fathom how the bread is the body of Christ, yet will I take my reason captive to the obedience of Christ and clinging simply to his words, firmly believe not only that the body of Christ is in the bread, but that the bread is the body of Christ.”

[10] One could make similar observations about him; his condemnation of Roman clergy is pretty vile.

[11] John Calvin, Short Treatise on the Supper of Our Lord.  http://www.the-highway.com/supper1_Calvin.html

[12] Ibid.

[13] In contemporary cognitive linguistics, metonymy presents both itself and “brings along” the whole that it references.  So a kiss can be understood as metonymic for love; or saying “from soup to nuts” implies the entire dinner.  Calvin is careful to deny this is simply a linguistic relationship, but his argument actually brings faith back into the equation although he doesn’t name it as such.

[14] Crockett, Eucharist, 159.

[15] This probably had more to do with a political battle between the council and Calvin over who got to decide who was worthy to receive Communion than any theological consideration of the council.

[17] Early in Crockett’s book, he explores Brevard Child’s understanding of remembrance—as a contemporary encounter that has “a profoundly ethical thrust that transcends a purely objective cultic action.” (26.) The past and present have continuity, not because we repeat the original event but because remembering allows one to enter into the original events and their redemptive reality.  This is very close to the understanding of cognitive scientists that our present is constituted not only by the situations and states that we are currently experiencing, but also by remembered events and states.  See Gerald Edelman, The Remembered Present (New York: Basic Books, 1990), particularly Chapter 5, Perceptual Experiences and Consciousness.

[18] Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, World Council of Churches, 1982.

[19] Although he doesn’t say what he means by this, I am assuming he is speaking about the Catholic practice where priests are required to celebrate Mass every day whether the congregation is present or not.  He argues that the sacrament can’t sustain community if the community is not present.

[20] Douglas John Hall, Confessing the Faith, 1996.  Pages 307-309.

[21] Caron, Eager for Worship, page 54.

[22] Standing next to one is not the same as within one, and carries a very different theological understanding.

[23] Her presentation of remembrance feels far from Zwingli, Wesley, and any sense of anamnesis.

[24] Ibid, 67.

[25] Thereby downplaying any view of Communion as a particularly Christian form of grace, I’d argue.  Page 68.

[26] This is an interesting argument but cockeyed.  McTavish doesn’t acknowledge that all spiritual practices, including Communion, are designed to make us more open to the Holy; and in every practice, not just Communion, it’s God who chooses to reveal God’s presence.  One cannot force Presence; one can merely hope to be made more aware of the Holy that is always present.

     I was a little stunned by the contempt with which McTavish spoke of other’s beliefs regarding Communion–in contradiction of the WCC’s plea that “…each church should respect the practices and piety of the others”!  (Section III, No. 32, page 16.)  I wonder if, had the subject been a First Nations ritual, he would have expressed himself quite so disdainfully.

[27] William Kervin, “Beyond The Last Supper: The Institution Narrative Revisited,” Touchstone, 27:2, May 2009.

[28] One could argue that I’m misreading Caron, and it’s true that I’m using an argument from the negative.  But since she regularly interjects her opinions about different aspects of worship, it seems reasonable to assume that if she’s discussing something like frequent celebration of Communion and she doesn’t express her opinion, she’s probably not in favor of it.  It may be that her work as a diaconal minister has some bearing on this.

[29] The largest town is approximately 10,000 people.

[30] Totally unscientific but of significant size!

[31] One respondent remembered the distribution of Communion cards to members in good standing, who then had to bring them to church on Communion Sunday; another remembers non-members being asked to leave at Communion time.

[32] In general, though not uniformly, increased education about the sacrament was related to perceived depth of experience.  Often depth of experience seemed to be contagious—one member of a couple affecting the other, or a mentor whose approach affected a student.

[33] A shared parish with the Anglicans.

[34] Although one congregation within a larger pastoral charge refuses to celebrate more than four times a year!

[35] “Because,” this person told me refreshingly, “I don’t understand it.”  That remark led to a great conversation.

[36] The usual practice in this Presbytery.

[37] This is the point where I heard a few disparaging remarks about transubstantiation and consubstantiation; we certainly seem haunted by our need to say what we DON’T believe.  It’s harder to say what we do believe.

[38] http://www.united-church.ca/beliefs/overview#4

[39] To name a very few examples.

[40] I’m not saying that every sacrifice is selfless or healthy; but the contemporary tendency to characterize self-giving as masochist or co-dependent is a pathologizing of one deep Christian path to holiness.


1 thought on “Toward a Cruciform Theology of Communion”

  1. Thank you so much for this deeply thoughtful working-out of a theology for communion. I am preparing a communion education curriculum for our UCC church in Massachusetts, and was stunned to find practically nothing from the denomination that would help lead children (and adults, for that matter) into a deeper understanding/experience of the sacrament. I would love to share your thoughts with our Board of Deacons (with attribution, of course!) blessings, Caroline M

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