Have I ever presided at the Lord’s Supper?

I’m greatly appreciating the responses to my last couple of posts, on Westminster/Wittenberg and assisted suicide. Do check out those comments threads: some very good thoughts in each of them. I hope to do a couple of posts later this week summarising some of the most helpful points from those threads. (No promises, mind…)

In the meantime, another “crowdsourcing” post, on “irregular” celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. This is partly spurred by a discussion on the BHT concerning “self-service communion” (don’t get me started), but I was musing on the first of these this morning anyway.

Case 1: lay presidency in the ex-Brethren chapel

Back before I joined the Lutheran church, I preached on a few occasions at a small “Christian fellowship” in south-east London. A Baptist pastor friend set up these gigs: the fellowship in question had its origins in the Open Brethren and had never had a full-time pastor. My Baptist friend was one of their regular guest preachers, and also used them as an opportunity for laymen with preaching potential to get some practice.

One legacy of their Brethren past was an admirable commitment to regular Communion services. On two occasions when I preached there, the service was followed by Communion – at which I, as the guest preacher, was asked to preside. With some misgivings – I have even more misgivings in retrospect – I stifled my Anglican scruples about “lay presidency” and presided as requested.

The elements were ordinary white bread and, as I recall, actual alcoholic wine (in a common cup). I read the words of institution from 1 Corinthians 11, added some thoughts based on the Heidelberg Catechism (this being my “high Calvinism” phase), and then the bread and cup were passed around between the members of the congregation.

My questions here are: (1) was this truly the Lord’s Supper, with the Lord’s body and blood present under the bread and wine (not that any of us there would have realised if it had been), and (2) how wrong, on a scale from 1 to 10, was I to do this? Clearly this was highly irregular from a Lutheran point of view, though it could be argued I was acting on the “call” of the congregation rather than presuming to act on my own initiative. (From an RC or Anglo-Catholic perspective, of course, this was not merely irregular but “invalid”. For what it’s worth, my answer is “wrong but forgiven” – I wish I hadn’t done it, but my conscience isn’t troubled over it.)

Case 2: the CU communion service

A similar case my wife mentioned to me over dinner, when I mentioned* the self-service communion thing (* that’s “mentioned” as in “started ranting about”). At university, the college Christian Union (of which E was a member – I was still making Richard Dawkins blanch at the fervour of my atheism) would occasionally celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Let’s assume that the words of institution featured.

So in this case we have a group of students, all laypeople, celebrating the Supper among themselves. Much the same questions as before: is this truly the Lord’s Supper, and are they right to do this?

Over to you!

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25 Responses to Have I ever presided at the Lord’s Supper?

  1. “The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord
    <>
    The Holy Supper

    32] After this protestation, Doctor Luther, of blessed memory, presents, among other articles, this also: In the same manner I also speak and confess (he says) concerning the Sacrament of the Altar, that there the body and blood of Christ are in truth orally eaten and drunk in the bread and wine, even though the priests [ministers] who administer it [the Lord’s Supper], or those who receive it, should not believe or otherwise misuse it. For it does not depend upon the faith or unbelief of men, but upon God’s Word and ordinance, unless they first change God’s Word and ordinance and interpret it otherwise, as the enemies of the Sacrament do at the present day, who, of course, have nothing but bread and wine; for they also do not have the words and appointed ordinance of God, but have perverted and changed them according to their own [false] notion. Fol. 245.”

    So according to our confessions which I am sworn to, you did not actually celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and for that you might be thankful.

  2. Ross says:

    Yes it truly was the Lord’s Supper, but of course the Lord’s body and blood are never physically present. (I say this having an Open Brethren heritage.)

  3. Phil Walker says:

    I think I’d walk straight out of a church which thought you can individualise communion. It’s oxymoronic.

    Given church polity isn’t completely tied down in Scripture (although principles of wisdom are certainly there), I don’t think lay presidency can be automatically ruled out. In fact, if you don’t have a problem with lay preaching, I can’t see why there should be a problem with the lay preacher presiding [1]. Ministry means the ministry of word and sacrament, and it would seem wise to allow for the possibility of (a) churches needing to cover a minister’s absence or illness, and (b) churches without full-time ministers being able to call such men as are competent to temporary ministry. So if a man is called to preach for one Sunday, he’s called for that Sunday. The ‘call’ isn’t a kind of brand that gets burnt onto your forehead, it’s a request by a congregation to a man to act as their minister, and it’s invariably got some kind of time-limitation to it.

    That doesn’t answer any questions about the wisdom of getting any old Tom, Dick or Harry in to do the preaching and presiding for the day. But it’s permissible, unless you got Scripture to say otherwise?

    CUs, on the other hand, shouldn’t be celebrating the Lord’s Supper—if we’re being charitable and assuming they did so. They shouldn’t be baptising people. They’re not churches, and not celebrating the Supper is one way of very firmly establishing that fact.

    [1] In fact, the only reason I can see is a belief in a sort of ‘magic’ which attaches to a man when he’s ordained, which ‘magic’ allows him to confect the Supper with a bit of hocus-pocus. I choose my language carefully, for that is the Roman doctrine, of course. Is it Lutheran?

  4. J Random Hermeneut says:

    I can’t see why there should be a problem with the lay preacher presiding [1]
    In fact, the only reason I can see is a belief in a sort of ‘magic’ which attaches to a man

    To flesh out a [the?] Lutheran approach… It is is Christ’s Word and ultimately Christ who presides. The minister is apostolic (i.e. “sent one” — sent by Christ, his “shaliach”), commissioned by Christ. And so the question is not “does he have some magic power to do such and such” but rather, does he have the office and authority so speak for, to represent, Christ?

  5. John H says:

    Thanks JRH. So what does this mean “where the rubber hits the road”, in terms of the situations under discussion?

    Thinking in terms of:

    – churches that have a view of the ministry we would regard as problematic (e.g. RC notions of priesthood)?

    – churches that have a rather more informal approach to calling ministers than Lutherans would follow (e.g. an independent evangelical church that calls pastors without any process of “ordination”)?

    – churches with no pastor that ask laypeople to stand up in the pulpit/at the table for them?

  6. J Random Hermeneut says:

    That is where I defer to the Systematicians. It is their job, not mine, to clean up all that sort of mess. Mine is to put things into Greek and Aramaic terminology, thus rendering questions understandable. 🙂

    More seriously, though. Lutherans have never questioned the validity of RC orders per se, but rather (as you point out) offer an evangelical corrective to a particular notion of priesthood (note that, historically, some Lutheran churches retained the title “priest”) The point of ordination is not to confer some “indelible character” that enables a priest of himself to “confect” the sacrifice of the Mass and offer Christ so as to propitiate God’s wrath on behalf of the living and the dead. Once we’re over that hurdle and understand things from the evangelical perspective of the apostolic ministry of the Gospel it’s smooth sailing…

    I don’t know enough about the perspectives and self-understanding of groups 2 and 3 to comment helpfully at this point. I more or less have opinions, but the internets are no place for those.

  7. J Random Hermeneut says:

    I more or less have opinions, but the internets are no place for those.

    To clarify, I mean the internets are no place for my opinions! I’m perfectly happy to have them chock full of all manner of others’ opinions. I’m just leery that I’d personally be adding heat, rather than light, to the discussion.

  8. Phil Walker says:

    does he have the office and authority so speak for, to represent, Christ?

    If he was permitted to preach as a layman, then that has already been conceded.

  9. John H says:

    Phil:

    If he was permitted to preach as a layman, then that has already been conceded.

    I think that is begging the question. I have some sympathy with the idea that if you permit someone to preach then you have no basis for prohibiting them to administer the Supper. But then that’s neither “lay preaching” nor “lay communion”, but a different form of ordination.

    So similar questions arise re my preaching experience, though I think there is a place for letting people “try out” preaching as part of a process of discernment as to whether they have a calling to preach the gospel.

    However, a different question arises with the Supper, where (for Lutherans) there is the question of whether a true Supper has in fact taken place in those circumstances. (This is probably almost unique to Lutheranism: for non-Lutheran protestants, the question of whether Jesus’ body and blood are present on the altar doesn’t arise; and for EOs, RCs and A-Cs, lack of episcopal ordination is a slam-dunk argument in support of saying “no”.)

  10. John H says:

    A third scenario has just come back to me, which I almost put as an update to my post, but I’m too much of a coward. Will bury it in the comments instead. 😉

    At our previous church, the Lord’s Supper would typically be administered by two members of the congregation, one of whom would “give thanks for the bread”, the other “giving thanks for the wine”. I may have been one of those laypeople from time to time.

    However, as I recall, it was largely a matter of random happenstance as to whether the words of institution got used anywhere along the line. No words of institution = no Lord’s Supper. And even if someone did happen to read one of the biblical accounts of the institution, I still think this was sufficiently far from the Lord’s institution of the Supper as to not to count as the Lord’s Supper in the first place.

    That sounds a bit brutal and intolerant – hence burying it in the comments for “plausible deniability” 😉 – but I don’t think what was going on there was valueless. It was using bread and wine^w grape-juice as an edifying reminder of our Lord’s death for our sins; and that’s all any of those present had in mind anyway. The bread wasn’t the Lord’s body and the grape-juice wasn’t his blood, but people would have been appalled at the idea that they were.

  11. Chris Jones says:

    Christ told us where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them; but there is a good deal more involved in the “in my name” part of that than is commonly supposed. When we gather in his name, we are claiming to gather by his authority and to speak and act in his place. It will do no good to say that we are gathering in his name when in fact we are gathering to carry out our agenda.

    So when we purport to gather “in his name” it is vital that we actually have his commission to do so (i.e. that we are not self-appointed), that we carry his message (not our own), and that our gatherings follow his agenda (not whatever we feel like). That’s why we stress the importance of “rightly called,” “the Gospel rightly preached,” and “the sacraments rightly administered.” To “gather in his name” means to come together as the Church in the liturgical assembly, under the presidency of an Apostolic minister rightly called, who preaches the Gospel according to the Church’s rule of faith and administers the sacraments according to the Church’s rule of prayer.

    A gathering of Christians which does not have all those elements is not, strictly speaking, the Church. For it is in this rightly-ordered liturgical worship that the Church is constituted and realized. And apart from the Church there can be no sacraments.

    Was this truly the Lord’s Supper? I don’t think we can positively say that it was not (as they say, “God is not bound by the sacraments, but we are”). But we certainly cannot be sure that it was, for the reasons outlined above. The words of institution are not a magic formula which work (dare I say ex opere operato?) outside the covenant of the Apostolic Church.

    How wrong were you to do this? I think it is interesting that your “Anglican scruples” applied to celebrating the sacrament but not to preaching the Gospel nor to worshiping with a group which, whatever it may have been, was not (from an Anglican point of view) the local Apostolic Church. And, I have to presume, your scruples would not have prevented you from receiving communion (celebrated by whomever) in this congregation. Everything else about your participation in this congregation shows that you believed it to be an authentic Church, even though (again from a strictly Anglican point of view) it was nothing more than a conventicle. If you believed it to be an authentic Church, then you led its worship (including the sacrament) according to that Church’s own discipline. The fault, if there was one, was in worshiping in fellowship with a congregation which you knew (or ought to have known) was not an Apostolic Church.

    But of course as a Church Society/Reform guy (rather than a Tractarian like myself), you never would have thought in those terms.

  12. John H:
    “That sounds a bit brutal and intolerant – hence burying it in the comments for “plausible deniability” 😉 – but I don’t think what was going on there was valueless. It was using bread and wine^w grape-juice as an edifying reminder of our Lord’s death for our sins; and that’s all any of those present had in mind anyway. The bread wasn’t the Lord’s body and the grape-juice wasn’t his blood, but people would have been appalled at the idea that they were.”

    I’ll get a little bit more brutal and intolerant here for the sake of argument i often can’t shake from my head. You are correct that the bread wasn’t the Lord’s body etc. However, I don’t think it is as harmless as all that. I can’t shake from my head that as sincere as they may be, they are making a mockery of the Lord’s Supper and that isn’t nothing. Perhaps they don’t mean to make a mockery of it, but they certainly aren’t taking the New Testament in the blood of Christ, near as seriously as they would take Grandma Schmidt’s last will and testament. That often gives me pause for thought.

  13. Phil Walker says:

    I think that is begging the question.

    Well, it is certainly saying the question has already been begged. There is a difference. 😉

    Sounds like your previous church had even stronger Bretho roots than the one in your post.

  14. John H says:

    Phil: Sounds like your previous church had even stronger Bretho roots than the one in your post.

    Its pastor (the friend I mentioned in my post) was ex-Brethren.

    Chris: You’re right about the effect of being at the Church Society/Reform end of things. Most Anglican evangelicals, particularly at the “conservative evangelical” end of things, would feel far more spiritual affinity with evangelicals from other traditions than with Anglo-Catholics or liberals within the Church of England. Open communion is more or less taken for granted, and the idea of saying that a non-Anglican evangelical church is ipso facto “non-apostolic” would be anathema.

    The “Anglican scruples” to which I referred came from my previous involvement in slightly more “high church” circles, in particular through involvement in church music (choirboy, organist). This aspect of my upbringing is one reason I never sat entirely comfortably within the conservative evangelical tradition.

    Bror: I don’t think it is quite right to say that these churches are failing to take the Lord’s Supper seriously. It is a tragedy that so many churches have lost sight of what the Supper is and what it means, but they are sincere (though mistaken), and I hope (and believe) that Christ extends the same mercy to them in that failing that he extends to the Lutheran church in all its failings.

  15. John,
    There is no doubt in my mind that forgiveness extends to all. But doctrinal error, and failure to take Christ at his word, is a grievous sin that ought not be washed over with platitudes. And what they preach concerning the Lord’s Supper seriously undermines the gospel by which they are forgiven in Christ. We should not take the breaking of the second commandment so lightly.
    I think the greatest plague we deal with today in the Church Universal is doctrinal indifference. Perhaps the polemics of the past were at times over the top, and uncalled for. But it is better to be hot or cold then to be lukewarm. Today we seem to give more thought to the spiritual implications of smoking then to the failure to discern the Body and Blood of Christ. And that is unfortunate.

  16. John H says:

    Bror: I am well rebuked. But it wasn’t meant to sound as platitudinous as it did: when I say “mercy”, I mean “mercy”, and when I say “tragedy” I mean “tragedy”.

    And I agree that indifferentism towards the doctrine of the Supper is as big a problem as wrong belief about the Supper. I’ve had my fair share of online debates about the Supper (most now buried somewhere in the currently-unavailable archives of the “old” Boar’s Head Tavern), and a fair proportion of that time has been spent trying to convince people that it matters what people believe about it; that we can’t just put in some vague limbo of “secondary matters”.

    People often cite the line about “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty”, but what they forget – or choose to ignore – is that the Lord’s Supper falls within the first category, not the second.

  17. John,
    We’re brothers in the faith. Sorry your worthwhile endeavors have fallen pray to cyberspace. It is definitely a tragedy, and very unfortunate that so many today can’t see the importance of their Lord’s Last Will and Testament, written as it were in his very own blood.

  18. Ryan says:

    This might be an ignorant question, but can anyone point directly to a passage in the New Testament that clearly indicates that the Lord’s Supper *must* be presided over by an ordained elder/minister/priest? (There may be one, I just can’t think of any at the moment)

    How could such a rule have been managed in a first-century church that was mostly house churches and small groups of people gathered together?

    I personally attend a liturgical church and have a great appreciation for the place of a liturgy and order (and find that I miss weekly communion greatly when in less “structured” church settings). I also couldn’t agree more that this sacrament is central to the faith and must not be taken lightly.

    However, having taken communion at least once with a close group of friends and fellow lay students who were involved in leading a parachurch student ministry, I would say this: although I had some uncertainties about the exact “process” of it, I don’t believe it was in any way a mockery or somehow less sacred. I would say that I was perhaps even more careful then to discern what was present and what was going on than I sometimes am on Sunday mornings in liturgical communion.

    I am reminded of the many passages in the Old Testament prophets where God essentially says (forgive the paraphrase), “It’s not the ritual and outward form I’m ultimately after. It’s the heart behind it.” Clearly in saying this, God was not contradicting himself and suggesting the sacrificial ritual form he had established with great care was somehow insignificant. Rather, he was pointing out that it had always served a greater significance behind it (or under it, if you like!). This then would be my criterion for whether a manner of taking the Eucharist is appropriate or not: does it serve the greater significance, which is simply Christ crucified for us?

    Ultimately though, I feel like if I’m trying to defend a particular way I’ve approached the Lord’s Supper, then I don’t think I approached it with the right heart. It’s something we approach in humility and neediness and expectation of God’s mercy, not in self-defensiveness or self-justification. (Not that I get that from anyone here, but I felt myself sliding in that direction in this response…)

  19. Possibly the most common verse, Ryan, would be 1 Corinthians 4:1, 1 Cor. 4:1 (ESV)
    “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”
    The mysteries being more than just the sacraments to be sure, but not less.
    To answer you question as to how that would be possible in the first century, I will remind you that Jesus himself instituted the office of pastor originally contained in the Apostolic office, and that a large part of Paul’s ministry was training pastors. Acts 14:23 (ESV)
    And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
    Titus 1:4-9 (ESV)
    To Titus, my true child in a common faith:
    Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior. [5] This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— [6] if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. [7] For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, [8] but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. [9] He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

    In Titus you see that the elders are bishops (overseers) and God’s Stewards.

    I don’t know what you back ground is Ryan. But our discussion on discernment was not so much about who was presiding as it was what the congregation and the pastor together believed, taught and confessed. The question isn’t are you liturgical enough, the question is do you believe it is the body and blood, or a mere representation. But I do think that a couple college kids with no genuine and unifying confession of faith amongst them, taking it upon themselves to celebrate communion are taking a fairly cavalier attitude towards many aspects of the church and her doctrine, not just the Lord’s Supper. I suppose we all do those stupid things in our youth. Sometimes I still do them.

  20. Jordan says:

    My 2 cents… Questions like this don’t have much of a point in the abstract. Sure, we have to consider the validity / lawfulness of a given eucharistic celebration before we join in it (as a church or as an individual), and that will necessarily entail the kinds of considerations others have noted. Similar analysis would be used when a person presents himself for baptism and it is unclear whether he has been baptized before.

    However, even then the only conclusion we can ultimately reach is how to comport ourselves. I don’t think we can really reach firm conclusions about how God might have chosen to use something according to his own mysterious purposes.

    “Veni, Domine Iesu.”

    Jordan

  21. Ryan says:

    Thanks, Bror, for the detailed response. I will have to do some study on those passages you mention. Good stuff to ponder!

    My understanding of the original question was whether or not “irregular” celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, being defined especially by “laypeople celebrating… amongst themselves” were valid.

    I realize part of defining “valid” involves a discussion of the role of the physical and spiritual presence in the sacrament. I was however deliberately trying to avoid barrelling headlong into a transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation vs. “in, with and under” vs. symbolism debate, partly because I’m not really certain where my own beliefs fall here, and partly because much smarter people than me have wrangled over that for a long, long time.

    This is not intended as a denial of the issue’s importance, only a recognition that I’m barely qualified to discuss it.

  22. Ryan,
    You write: “This is not intended as a denial of the issue’s importance, only a recognition that I’m barely qualified to discuss it.’
    Nonsense. Read the pertinent scriptures and come to a conclusion. Read the words of institution and think is there any valid reason I should doubt my Lord and Savior, my God when he says this is my body… this is my blood? I think you will find that if you don’t first rationalize away the full divinity and humanity of Christ, there is no reason whatsoever to doubt it. Is means is, unless you’re Bill Clinton, Zwingli or Calvin.

  23. Bernard says:

    You may find the perspective of a Roman Catholic interesting.

    The Roman Catholic Church does not permit ‘intercommunion’ in fully ‘eucharistic’ services (with consecration by a priest), except in special circumstances. A little known fact is that there is however, no barrier to non-eucharistic sharing with other Christians, including bread and wine.

    At Pentecost 2000 I was at a united service at which the local Roman Catholic Bishop, Anglican Bishop, and Methodist Superintendant stood at the front of the congregation, and a ‘non-eucharistic’ celebration took place in which Jesus death was remembered and bread was shared around the congregation. I had it passed to me by a local Baptist, and passed it on to a member of the local independent New Church.

    I have since ‘presided’ at breaking of bread in a house group context. I have been quite clear. (1) I am not trying to enact a Catholic Mass (this bothers no one, they weren’t planning on attending one). (2) I am not pretending to be a Catholic Priest (also obviously not a problem). Other Roman Catholics havbe not attended, but they have never found anything objectionable (including clergy), when I have explained what I have done.

  24. John D says:

    Last night I visited my grandmother, who is in a Presbyterian hospital. While I was present, a (female) Roman Catholic Eucharistic Minister entered and offered my grandmother the Eucharist wafer, which she received. I thought of this post and that no matter how objective you regard the sacrament, doubt of its validity will remain.

  25. Bernard says:

    Regarding John D’s post.
    From a Roman Catholic point of view. A Roman Catholic Eucharistic minister does not in any way preside at the Eucharist. He or she takes part in a Mass at which a Roman Catholic Priest presides. Then as a lay participant at that Mass he or she takes consecrated hosts to people who cannot be present at the Mass, thus enabling them to participate in it. It is a role of Baptismal Priesthood, not Ordained Priesthood. Therefore the Roman Catholic Church does not limit it to men.

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