An Episcopal seminarian at Duke Divinity School recently asked whether there was a published guide that Evangelicals could use when presiding at Communion, concerned that no one ‘think something is happening that I don’t think is happening’. I’m not aware of anything short and simple, and this blog might be a good place where the traditional evangelical approach to Communion could be set out and discussed.

The place to start is with principles rather than practices, because there’s usually more than one way to put a principle into practice. For Evangelicals, the guidelines in Scripture are primary, of course, but it’s generally accepted that the explicit references to Communion in Scripture are so few that they have to be supplemented by the application of broader Scriptural principles, especially since Communion became separated from the kind of meal described in I Corinthians 11.20ff.

Foremost among these principles, I was taught, is this: Holy Communion essentially represents something that God gives us or does for us, rather than that we give God, or do for God. Christ’s linking of the bread and wine with his sacrifice of Himself on the cross provides the context in which everything at Communion takes place, and that sacrifice was God’s act not ours, and cannot be remembered appropriately by anything that stresses what we do rather than what God did.

So for centuries this has meant for Anglican Evangelicals avoiding any suggestion that in Communion the church somehow offers Christ’s sacrifice again. For the English Reformers, it was not a sacrifice but a thanksgiving for Christ’s sacrifice. The wording of the service, and the ceremonial of the service, was changed in order to reflect that. Some of that change has been undone in the American Prayer Books (all of them, not just the 1979 book), and one of the basic skills evangelical clergy have had to acquire is that of celebrating Communion in such a way as to prevent those present from buying into the ‘sacrifical’ idea.

The most obvious step in this direction is to omit the ‘fraction acclamation’, Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast. The words are scriptural, of course, but their context in Scripture is holiness of life, not Holy Communion, and they are almost bound to mislead when repeated right after the breaking of the bread. The rubric is very clear that the words are optional, and the Evangelicals I know avoid them like the plague.

Our reformers also made it clear that Communion should be celebrated in the context of a meal, as the last supper was, even if what we commemorate is the sacrifice of Himself that Christ made the following day and which the bread and the wine represent. ‘Do this’ could only mean eat and drink, and the context is therefore a meal which is at least representative of the meal at which He gave this commandment. Hence the evangelical preference for the term ‘table’ rather than ‘altar’, and, when practicable, the replacement of a solid object reminiscent of an altar with an actual table.

There are plenty of other things that can be done or not done, and other words and phrases that can be used and avoided by the celebrant in order to avoid the implication of Communion as sacrifice, and there will be other posts in this series that will explore them.