Updated: Jun 16
None of us predicted we would be where we are by the middle of June. Our premises are still closed and most of us have acquired some new skills in social media. Back when the lockdown started, there was an intense online discussion (mainly among clergy, to be fair) about the provision of Holy Communion in an era of social distancing. A few denominations quickly approved online celebrations and some Methodist Churches in other parts of the world were quick to follow. Now that Church Councils are beginning conversations about the possibility of reopening premises, some have already taken the decision to remain closed until September at the earliest. That will mean over five months without public worship (and therefore without a celebration of the Lord’s Supper).
In ‘normal’ circumstances, this would constitute ‘Eucharistic Deprivation’, a curious Methodist phrase that is rarely used outside official reports and committees. I want to offer my own personal thoughts and reflections on this situation.
HEALTH WARNING: THIS DOES NOT NECESSARILY REPRESENT THE OFFICIAL POSITION OF THE METHODIST CHURCH IN GB OR ANY COMMITTEE OR EMPLOYER.
In ‘normal’ circumstances, Holy Communion would be a public act of worship, conducted in a Methodist chapel and presided over by an ordained Presbyter in Full Connexion. It is important to remember that the Presbyter presides over the celebration of the people. It is the community of faith that is the celebrant, not the Presbyter.
Since Methodist Union in 1932, our denomination has worked to a set of principles regarding the Sacraments, but with a pragmatism that recognises the resources we have. In 1946, the Conference received a Report on the Lay Administration of the Sacraments which included these affirmations: -
There are two divinely appointed sacraments - Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Provision for their orderly and regular celebration must therefore be made.
The general usage (in the Methodist Church) is that ministers* should normally preside.
The principle of duly authorised lay administration is upheld.
* - for minister read presbyter in this instance.
Since that time, the British Conference has never been in a situation where only ordained presbyters are presiding at every celebration. This is not because of theological slackness or a desire to fundamentally alter the role of the presbyter (though some in our church would wish it so). Rather it is borne of sound theological principles:
That Holy Communion is a divinely-appointed means of grace and, as such, is a duty and a privilege of every Christian. John Wesley reckoned he was suffering deprivation is he couldn’t receive communion at least every three days and has bequeathed us a reverence for the Sacrament as a place where we might encounter the risen Christ. For this reason, it seems that Methodism has focussed its energy on ensuring that all members are able to avail themselves of this means as often as they need. Any ecclesiastical procedures, therefore, must serve to meet that need above all else.
That Methodists uphold an ‘ordered liberty’ when it comes to the conduct of public worship. That means a trust placed in those who lead worship to do so under the guidance of the Spirit, upholding the highest standards and in accordance with Methodist principles and doctrines.
That means that celebrations of the Sacraments are normally presided over by an ordained presbyter, because of ‘good order’ and not anything inherently sacerdotal in the Office. Put another way, presbyters are the usual but never the essential ministers of the Sacraments. This is not an affirmation we share with Anglican colleagues and we should be clear about that.
Methodism has never sought to regulate what goes on in members’ homes. There is a priority of individual conscience, common to the Dissenting tradition in these islands, that, again, trusts Methodists to live out their discipleship in authentic ways. To my mind, this means that worship conducted in a member’s home is not ‘public’ and is entirely up to the member to construct and conduct. There is an encouragement, however, that a member’s devotional life be conducted on a daily basis and resources are provided to assist in that.
Finally, the Deed of Union argues against systems of speculative theology. I take that to mean that CPD and Conference Reports and Statements are there to set standards against which members can assess their own practices, rather than laws restricting and regulating behaviour.
So how are we to apply those principles in the context of lockdown and closed chapels? Here are my thoughts:
Household Communions are the most effective way to respond to this particular occurrence of Eucharistic Deprivation. That means the members of a particular household gathering to celebrate together the Lord’s Supper and receive this particular means of grace to their comfort.
The principle of Presidency still applies - namely that things should be done decently and in good order. Someone within the household should take responsibility for presiding over the celebration.
In order to maintain a sense that the Lord’s Supper is a meal that expresses our connexion to the wider church, the Order for Communion in a Home from the Methodist Worship Book might be used and perhaps households could coordinate to hold their gathering at a particular time and date.
There are many facets to the Eucharist, and it is impossible to emphasis them all in one service. For this reason, I think it’s important to use elements that are readily to hand in the house, and not try to source special bread and/or wine for the occasion. Ordinary bread and water would suffice, to emphasise the ‘ordinariness’ of this Sacrament, that it symbolises God’s provision for our bodies and souls each and every day.
Finally, none of this sets a new precedent that is expected to continue beyond the current crisis. When it is possible to participate in the Lord’s Supper with our fellow Christians, we will embrace that fuller expression of our communion with joy.
I want to end with a quote from the Conference Report of 2003, Holy Communion in the Methodist Church, I think what I’ve offered here is consonant with what it says in paragraph 129. I leave it with you to see if you agree:
The primary focus, then, of the on-going debate has been not the importance and significance of Holy Communion, which is widely though not universally endorsed, but the question of who can preside at the Service of the Lord’s Supper. The debate has been between those who, on the one hand, believe that presidency is the sole prerogative of ordained ministers (with concessions under strictly limited circumstances marked by ‘local deprivation’ and/or a ‘missionary situation’) and those who believe that more widespread provision should be made for suitably qualified lay people to be authorised, subject to the principles of orderliness and supervision. However, the principle laid down in the Deed of Union of 1932 that regulations about presidency at the Lord’s Supper are matters of church order rather than fundamental doctrine has never been abrogated.