Updated: Jun 8, 2020
I spent my early Christian years in fairly typical evangelical churches that most readers would recognize. I am grateful for many of the things that came with this experience. I owe important parts of who I am to these faith communities.
One thing I am not grateful for from this upbringing, however, is some of the teaching I received around Communion. To make a long story short, Communion became something I dreaded and avoided. To hear more about this, check out my sermon on June 7.
Welcomed By the Anglicans
This all changed for me in a lasting way, however, when my wife Brenda and I moved to Toronto so I could complete master’s studies at Wycliffe College. The things that I learned in the classroom there were wonderful. Perhaps even more formative, however, were the things I learned in the chapel of Wycliffe.
Brenda and I (and our daughter Holly, who was born a few months after we arrived) lived in a small family apartment at Wycliffe. From Day 1, we were intentional about immersing ourselves in the Wycliffe community—particularly in the worshiping life of the community. The Wednesday Eucharist service quickly became a fixture of our weekly routine.
Wycliffe is rooted in the Anglican tradition, so to be honest, it took some time for us to track with the unfamiliar liturgy. But we were committed to learning, and the fruit that resulted was worth every awkward moment of juggling between the service bulletin, the hymnal, and the Book of Alternative Services.
Unlike the evangelical services I was used to, it was the Eucharist (a.k.a. Communion)—not the sermon—that was the centrepiece of these worship gatherings. This was good news for Brenda and I, who were first-time, sleep-deprived parents at the time. Most weeks we didn’t have the mental stamina to track with a forty-five-minute sermon. (Thankfully, the Anglicans typically gave us a twenty-minute homily). We did have the capacity, however, to engage in the tangible act of eating and drinking the Eucharistic elements.
And here is the key point: The way we were invited to participate in Communion in that setting was so unlike anything I had experienced in my church upbringing previously.
First, there were not trays of crackers and juice passed around in individual portions. Instead, each person was invited to the front of the chapel to receive the elements with a personal greeting: “This is the body of Christ given for you, Cory.” “This is the blood of Christ shed for you, Brenda.” Communion had never felt so welcoming.
Secondly, the mood of the ritual was distinctly different than anything I had typically associated with Communion. In my experience, Communion was a pretty gloomy time. The focus was on my sin (note the individual emphasis). One dare not make a sound or look around. The business of self-examination was underway, and it was serious business.
In those Wycliffe chapels, however, Eucharist was a joyful time. Students, faculty, and staff brought their spouses and children to chapel. As student worshippers (many holding infants) waited to receive the elements, they shared small chit-chat with one another in line and smiles with faculty and staff in the seats watching them and their babies go by. At first, all this informal interaction struck me as a bit irreverent. Communion was supposed to be solemn! But what my Anglican friends taught me is that Communion is a celebration. A deeply spiritual experience each week was not only receiving the bread and the wine myself, but seeing the officiants (Wycliffe faculty and students training to be priests) welcome our infant daughter Holly to the Communion table and pray a blessing over her.
This experience in the Anglican tradition has deeply shaped both how I practice Communion today, and how I hope to invite others to practice it. Here are some key ideas that I would invite the VBC community to consider adopting into its own practice of Communion.
Suggestion #1: Practice Communion Weekly
First, let’s practice Communion weekly (once pandemic circumstances allow). If we truly desire to be a story-formed people (as the title of our current sermon series exploring 1 Corinthians suggests), I can’t think of a better way to create space for us to regularly rehearse and be shaped by God’s story.
Suggestion #2: Centralize Communion in our Corporate Worship
Secondly, let’s elevate Communion to the apex of our worship gatherings. As good Protestants, of course we want to emphasize the teaching of Scripture. But let’s remember that not everyone is equally equipped or interested to engage the theological minutia that comes with lengthy sermons and biblical exegesis. But everyone—those with even a basic understanding of Christian teaching and even those with physical or mental exceptionalities—can encounter God in Communion if we are intentional in how we frame and host the ritual.
Suggestion #3: Let the Children Come
Thirdly, let’s invite our children to participate in Communion. I know this will represent a theological controversy for some and a logistical headache for others. Many Christian denominations limit Communion access to those who have “accepted Christ as their Lord and Saviour,” or perhaps even to those who have been baptized. I am sympathetic to both of these positions. In fact, I have held both of them in the past.
However, my views on this have changed as I have become a parent and as I have come to better understand Communion as having its roots in the Jewish Passover. (Remember that the Passover was the context in which Jesus and his disciples celebrated the original Communion meal). And if we remember the roots of the Passover, we will recognize that teaching children the faith was precisely the purpose of the Passover meal (Exod. 12:24-27). With this linkage between Passover and Communion in mind, it makes little theological sense to me why we would prevent children from coming to the Lord’s Table. Wasn’t it Jesus himself who said in another place, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14)?
With this in mind, Brenda and I are not waiting for our children to say any particular prayer before we officially count them as followers of Jesus. We are raising them to believe they already are part of God’s family, and so we welcome them to the Communion Table with us wherever possible.
A Closing VBC Story
One of the most profound worship moments at VBC for me came during a Saturday night church service a couple of years ago when I watched Nalanda serve Communion to our sons Michael (then aged 3) and Thomas (then aged 2), who without being told both knelt down in front of her to receive the bread and the juice. It was the kingdom of God come near as another adult besides their parents communicated to them that they were part of God’s family.
With these things in mind, I invite our faith community to consider what kind of spiritual formation might take place in our midst if our children are welcomed at the Table, if we elevate Communion to a central focus of our gatherings, and if we do this weekly.
1. This Communion culture is not an unconscious one for the Anglicans. In one of my Systematic Theology classes at Wycliffe, Dr. Joseph Mangina provided a helpful comparison between the ethos of “Eucharist” in the Anglican tradition and “Communion” in more typical evangelical settings, noting some of the differences I raise here. While we need not get hung up on terminology, the comparison was a lightbulb moment for me as I compared my two experiences.
2. My approach to parenting here has been influenced by Ivy Beckwith and her book Postmodern Children’s Ministry: Ministry to Children in the 21 st Century.