Communion: Who can come to the table?
Communion, or the Eucharist, has always been an essential and pivotal part of Christian Worship. It was Christ himself who instituted it at the Last Supper and it has been something to bind Christian communities together since the death of Christ. Chadwick in his book The Early Church notes about the importance of communion from the birth of church;
‘The unity of the scattered Christian communities depended on two things – on a common faith and on a common ordering of life and worship…Each Sunday they met for their ‘thanksgiving’ in which the baptised ate bread and drank wine in a sacred meal…this sacred meal was so deeply felt to be the essential expression of membership of the society that fragments of the broken bread were taken round to any who were absent through illness or imprisonment’
It is important from the outset of this essay to note that Communion, along with Baptism, has also been one of the most divisive issues within the church. Chadwick notes, in the section just read, that it was the baptised that received and shared in the sacred meal. The question of who can and cannot receive communion has been a debate in the church almost since it’s birth at Pentecost and with almost every answer, from a select few to everyone, all being conclusions that parts of the church have come to. My question then is who, today in the 21st Century, should be allowed to receive communion? And in particular, who should be able to receive within a Baptist church?
This debate about who can and cannot receive communion stems from the greater question of what happens within the act of communion. Communion for many centuries has been described as a sacrament. The 1662 Common Prayer book defines a sacrament is this way;
‘Question. What meanest thou by this word Sacrament? Answer. I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace…’
This is a generally accepted understanding of a sacrament. However this definition still does not define what is happening within the act of the sacrament itself. Traditional Catholic Theology, in which there are 7 sacraments: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, marriage, ordination and extreme unction, has claimed that these sacraments are a means of God’s grace and that within the acts of the sacraments God gives his grace those who are receiving them. This view was challenged by the reformers, most notably, Martin Luther. He wrote in his book The Babylonian Captivity of the Church:
‘There are only two sacraments in the Church of God, Baptism and the Bread; since it is in these alone that we see both a sign divinely instituted and a promise of remission of sin’
It is clear to see that Luther believes that the Sacraments, of which he states there are only 2, convey within them some ability to connect us to the promise that Christ gives us of forgiveness of sins. The protestant church has, since the time Luther, claimed that there are indeed only two Sacraments, Baptism and Communion, as these are the only two instituted by Christ himself in the scriptures. The protestant church has generally agreed with Luther when he wrote ‘I do not say this, because I condemn the seven sacraments, but because I deny that they can be proved from the Scriptures.’ What has differed within the protestant tradition however is the same question posed earlier, what is going on within the Sacrament? This is a major question as if one believes that there is something happening within the sacrament itself then it could dictate who can receive that sacrament and who cannot.
Baptists have generally been radicals within church history. Challenging the structures and practices of the established church and living on the margins of the Christian community. Baptists, from their inception, felt that the reformers, including Luther, did not go far enough in his challenging of the doctrines of the established Church. As Scott Bullard writes in the book, Gathering Together: Baptists at Work in Worship;
‘Baptists…owe their existence in part to another group of reformers, reformers who thought that Luther, Calvin and others did not carry their reforms far enough, and indeed they often came to oppose those reformers’
Baptists took the platform of the reformers and used it to jump further than they on many doctrines, including real presence within communion. Traditional Catholic theology holds that the Bread and Wine within the Eucharist or Mass physically becomes the body and blood of Christ, often referred to as transubstantiation, taking a very literal interpretation of the John 6:53 when Christ says ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’ The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 defined what the Theology of the Catholic Church was when it concluded:
‘…there is the same priest and sacrifice, Jesus Christ, whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine; the bread being changed (transsubstantiatio) by divine power into the body, and the wine into the blood’
Luther however wanted to refute this doctrine to say that the elements did not physically turn into the body and blood of Christ but that Christ was still, in some way, physically present within the act of communion, often referred to as Consubstantiation. The theological viewpoint that either grace is received through, or that the elements change substance, restricts who can or cannot receive, communion. In the Catholic tradition only Catholics may receive communion, not members or ministers of other churches. This is because the Catholic Church holds to a very literal interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:29-30 when Paul writes ‘For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement on themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill and some have died.’ With the understanding of transubstantiation, Catholic’s interpret this scripture to mean that those who do not discern that the elements become the body and blood of Christ, drink judgment upon themselves. As Bishop Brom of San Diago writes:
‘..another reason that many non-Catholics may not ordinarily receive Communion is for their own protection, since many reject the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Scripture warns that it is very dangerous for one not believing in the Real Presence to receive Communion; (1 Cor 11:29-30)’
Early Baptists however held a more Zwinglian view, often called Memorialism or Real Absence. This is the theological viewpoint that, as McGrath writes, states:
‘The bread and the wine become reminders of Christ in His absence, and a central focus for the church’s expectation that her Lord will one day return. There is no metaphysical difficulty about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, precisely because there is no presence to discuss.’
Zwingli’s view that Christ himself instituted this meal and said the words ‘This is my Body’ whilst being physically present with the disciples, which means that it of course can not be physically his body, otherwise Christ would have had to physically give them part of his flesh to eat, and therefore it has to be taken metaphorically. This understanding of communion as a memorial of Christ is the theology adopted by the Early Baptists and continues to be the predominant theology today.
This view, that the bread and wine remain simply bread and wine and that the purpose of the ordinance of Communion is to remind us of the sacrifice of Christ, has lead Baptists to be generally more inclusive about who may share in this meal. The early Baptists did however hold that it was only for the Baptised members of the church, in other words those who we know, that should be able to receive. Even with this predominant view though, there were still those advocating for even more inclusivity at the table. Humphreys in his essay ‘Baptists and their Theology’ writes of this discussion;
‘In the second half of the seventeenth century, Baptists debated questions related to open membership and open communion. William Kiffin of London held the majority view that membership should be restricted to baptized believers and communion should be offered only to members. John Bunyan of Bedford argued for open membership and open communion. Bunyan wrote: "I do not deny, but acknowledge, that baptism is God’s ordinance; yet I have denied, that baptism was ever ordained of God to be a wall of division between the holy and the holy."’
This discussion around who should be able to share continues today in many parts of the Baptist church in the UK. The question posing the church today however is predominantly around the role of children in communion and whether children should be allowed to receive the bread and wine. Children play a far greater role in the life of the church than they used to. With the decline of afternoon Sunday schools and the will to involve as many people as possible in the active life of the church and in particular the worship services, there has been much reflection on who can and cannot come to the table. Holmes in his book reflects the position British Baptists have often taken when the person residing invites people to receive the bread and wine:
‘The open communion position in British Baptist churches leads to an invitation being offered ‘to all those who love the Lord Jesus in sincerity and truth’, or similar.’
There has however been a significant number of modern British Baptists who would and do go further in their invitation to the table. Revd. David Kerrigan, General Director of BMS World Mission, in the BMS World Mission magazine Catalyst, reflects on the role of communion in church life and mission and poses the question ‘Can we be braver and more faithful with Communion?’ he continues his reflections by speaking of Jesus who shared his first communion meal with Judas and Peter, the one who would betray him and the one who would deny him. Kerrigan reflects on the times Jesus eats with Levi and the hated Zacceus, posing the question if this is who Jesus had around the table, who should we allow around the table? Kerrigan ends his reflections as such:
‘If we believe new truth can she break through from God’s word, which we do, dare we allow our prophetic imagination to see something new here? If this is true, can you imagine how we can wonderfully renew our understanding of Communion? To see it as a feast where we invite our neighbours and friends to share our food and, at the heart of it, break bread and drink wine, explain to them what it’s about and invite them to take part.’
Kerrigan argues then for a radical inclusivity of anyone who wants to partake in the bread and wine to be allowed to. In the same Magazine Revd. Anthony Clarke, Fellow at Regents Park College, Oxford, specifically looks at the issue of children receiving communion. He, along with Kerrigan, looks at the narratives of Christ eating with various characters within the gospels and how these can shape our understanding of communion. Clarke presents the feeding of the 5000 in John’s Gospel as a Eucharistic text. Clarke argues, that within this narrative there is the blessing, breaking and sharing of bread and that within the same story we have the quote used earlier in the essay about eating the body and drinking the blood of the Son of Man, John 6:53. Clarke writes of the John 6 narrative:
‘If John 6 fulfils the function of the institution of the Lord’s Supper [as there is no other account of the Last Supper in John’s Gospel writer input], then the context of the crowd if quite different to that of the upper room, suggesting that the invitation to the table is open and welcoming. The bread is offered to all on the basis of sheer grace’
Clarke then suggests that far from there being criteria that must be met to share in communion, such as Baptism by immersion as practised by the early Baptists, the table is open to all who are willing to receive from Christ and this is based on His grace and His grace alone. Clarke also reflects on the synoptic accounts of the Last Supper. Although there is some disagreement within the narratives as to when exactly the Last Supper took place there is agreement within the synoptic accounts that it took place within the time of Passover. Clarke notes that Christ and His followers were guests within someone else’s house for Passover, they were being hosted, they were not the hosts. This may seem a trivial point however when coming to the communion table we are guests invited by Christ as the host, yet in the synoptic accounts, Christ is a guest. This could have some significance to who we allow to the partake in communion as if we look radically at this idea of guest and host one could argue that Christ was vulnerable and inclusive by being the guest of a household whilst sharing the first communion meal with his disciples. This meal took place within the Passover feast, of which Clarke writes ‘Here was a traditional meal, all-age inclusive, and in which the youngest person had a key role.’ In a traditional Passover feast the youngest person will be the one to ask questions of what is going on so that the story may be recited and passed down. Clarke then is suggesting that this was not a restricted table that only certain people could be involved in but that this was to be an inclusive meal to share the story of Christ with everyone who was willing to receive.
Throughout this essay we have looked at the traditions surrounding who can and cannot receive communion and, in part, why that is. I have to conclude; from looking at modern scholarship and the Eucharistic narratives within the scriptures that communion should be a place of radical inclusion to all those who want to receive from Christ, regardless of age or tradition. Clarke sums this up perfectly when he writes ‘Communion…should be a place of radical welcome and inclusion. Not based on the cultural basis of avoiding offence, but on the biblical and theological basis of the prevenient grace of God who offers his love in Christ, which then seeks our response’
McGrath, Alistair. Christian Theology: an introduction, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011
Ward, Pete. Mass Culture, Oxford, BRF, 1999
Holmes, Stephen, Baptist Theology, London, T&T Clark Int., 2012
Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church, London, Penguin, 1993
Hatch, Derek & Kennedy, Rodney eds., Gathering Together: Baptists at Work in Worship, Eugene; OR, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013
Cummings, Brian. The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559 and 1662, Oxford, OUP, 2011
Kerrigan, David. Can we be bolder and braver with Communion?, Mission Catalyst, Volume 2, 2015, Page 2. Accessed on 22/07/15 at http://issuu.com/bmsworldmission/docs/mission_catalyst_2_2015_communion_o
Clarke, Anthony. Who is invited? Rethinking Communion, Mission Catalyst, Volume 2, 2015, Pages 9-11. Accessed on 22/07/15 at http://issuu.com/bmsworldmission/docs/mission_catalyst_2_2015_communion_o
Humpreys, Fisher, Baptists and Their Theology, 2000. Accessed on 21/07/15 at http://www.baptisthistory.org/baptistsandtheology.htm
Bishop Brom, R. Who can receive Communion?, Aug. 2004. Accessed on 21/07/15 at http://www.catholic.com/tracts/who-can-receive-communion
Canon 1, Fourth Lateran Council. Accessed on 22/07/15 at: http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/lateran4.asp
Luther, M. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, .68. Accessed on 19/07/15 at: http://whitehorsemedia.com/docs/BABYLONIAN_CAPTIVITY_OF_THE_CHURCH.pdf
 Chadwick, H. The Early Church, .32
 eds. Cummings, B. The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662, .429
 Luther, M. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,.68. As viewed on: http://whitehorsemedia.com/docs/BABYLONIAN_CAPTIVITY_OF_THE_CHURCH.pdf
 ibid. .49
 Bullard, S. Gathering Together; Baptists at work in worship, .97.
 Canon 1, Fourth Lateran Council. As viewed on: http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/lateran4.asp
 Bishop Brom, R. Who can receive Communion?, Aug. 2004. As viewed on: http://www.catholic.com/tracts/who-can-receive-communion
 McGrath, A. Christian Theology: An introduction, .420.
 Humphreys, F. Baptists and Their Theology, as viewed on: http://www.baptisthistory.org/baptistsandtheology.htm
 Holmes, S. Baptist Theology, .147
 Kerrigan, D. ‘Can we be bolder and braver with Communion?, Mission Catalyst: Issue 2 2015 .2.
 Clarke, A. Who is Invited? Rethinking Communion. Mission Catalyst Issue 2 2015, .10.
. Clarke, A. Who is Invited? Rethinking Communion. Mission Catalyst Issue 2 2015, .10