My sabbatical studies this summer focused on the theology and liturgy of the Communion Service in the Book of Common Prayer. One of the books which I found most helpful was Michael Horton’s A Better Way – rediscovering the drama of God-centred worship. Horton has observed how American church services have broadly followed two paths: remaining traditional but dry and so withering on the vine or; innovating, with all forms of entertaining worship styles, which gives an impression of life but which miss the point of church gatherings.
Horton believes that an absence of robust theology of preaching and communion lie at the heart of the problem and I now agree with him. Horton didn’t need to persuade me on the need for expository preaching in the context of good biblical and systematic theology but my understanding and practice of communion have not matched the attention I have given to preaching and I suspect this is true of most evangelicals of my generation.
The following Venn Diagram represents what I think the bible teaches on Communion and I’ll say something about where I have moved from and how the BCP service might be used in church life.
A memorial of the death of Christ. Communion is a memorial service as Jesus said “This is my body, which is given for you, do this in remembrance of me.” Luke 22:19. We are to remember Jesus, his death for sin and the bread is a visible reminder of his body, as often as we eat and drink together.
The spiritual presence of Christ. Christ is spiritually present at communion, not so that the bread and wine are changed or indwelt, but as faithful believers eat the bread and drink the wine with faith in their hearts in Jesus, who they have just remembered, the Holy Spirit unites those believers with Christ in the heavenly realms. Communion is a means of grace by which believers remain in Christ and he in them (John 15:4).
Covenant renewal between Christ and his people. Jesus said “drink this, all of you, this is my blood of the new covenant.” (Luke 22:20). All the promises of God are yes in Christ (2 Cor 1:20) and so the conditional and unconditional covenants of the Old Testament are fulfilled by Christ and in Christ. When faithful believers meet for communion, they confess that they have not lived their side of the covenant but know that God is faithful to his side.
My practice of communion tended toward bare memorial, which added little to the word of God in the bible as I can always remember Jesus without eating bread and drinking wine. This practice might possibly be a Newtonian reaction, equal and opposite to the horror stories of Christians worshipping the “host” (from the Latin for “sacrificial victim”). We hear of the bread being stored in an Aumbry or lifted up and adored, because of the belief that Jesus is, or is in, the host, which seems little more than an act of idolatry, perhaps panemolatry.
The covenants which are fulfilled in Christ are corporate as well as individual and this is where I believe my practice was missing. The gathering of the church is for renewing the covenant together and for true unity, being one body as we all share in one bread (1 Cor 10:17).
The BCP communion service has both of the first two aspects; a memorial of Christ’s death and his spiritual presence with his people as they feed on him by faith with thanksgiving. The communal renewal of the covenant of grace is also clearly evident. The invitations and exhortations, which mysteriously vanished in Common Worship order one, are designed to ensure that notorious covenant breakers are not permitted to receive communion, whilst those with a tender consistence are assured of God’s love and faithfulness. The renewal of the covenant focuses on a change of heart and behaviour so that Christ’s church is healthy, loving and evangelistic.
A memorial alone is dry boned worship. The spiritual presence alone is idolatry. The covenant renewal alone is legalistic ceremony. But when rightly understood and put into practice, all three come together to form full and true communion between Christ and all his faithful people. I can now see how all three are there in the BCP service and I look forward to putting it into practice.