What does Communion do for us?

Bread-GrapesI have been contributing to the Church’s Renewal and Reform stream on developing lay leadership, and one of the questions that has come up is: ‘What does the Church of England actually believe about the laity and lay leadership?’ I am not referring here to what some have called ‘ecclesial lay leadership’, that is, the leadership of lay people within the gathered church at services, such as being a Reader, leading the intercessions, leading small groups and so on, important though these are. I am referring to the vision (if any) that the church as a whole has of the leadership that Christians exercise in their daily occupations by virtue of being baptised followers of Jesus in an unbaptised world. (This is rightly called ‘leadership’, since a leader is anyone that others are following, and we exercise leadership when we influence others and society around us to change in the light of our faith in Jesus.)

To know what ‘the Church of England believes’ officially (rather than asking what the collection of people who happen to identify as Anglican think at any particular time), you need to look at the canons and at the liturgy, since this is where the C of E articulates its doctrine. This would include looking at canons and liturgy relating to ordination, exploring what light that sheds on the whole people of God. But a key part of the liturgy is the Communion service, and particularly the final movement (following Gathering, Liturgy of the Word, and Liturgy of the Sacrament) of the Dismissal. The Latin for dismissal is the origin of the Roman Catholic term ‘Mass’, so this is not an insignificant part of the service; the goal of gathering together, hearing God’s word to us and receiving the tokens of his grace in the bread and wine are that we might be sent out into the world, equipped and transformed.

The end of the service in the Book of Common Prayer consists of the Lord’s Prayer, one of two quite long thanksgiving prayers said by the minister, the Gloria (deliberately placed here so that we do not offer anything to God before we have received from him), and the blessing. The ASB significantly revised this: the Gloria moved earlier; the Lord’s Prayer came before administration; and two new thanksgivings were introduced, a shorter one beginning ‘Almighty God, we thank you…’ said together, and a longer one ‘Father of all, we give you thanks…’ said by the president. Common Worship tweaked this by offering both prayers to be said congregationally, with the result that the second prayer is now used very much more often. If we want to know what the liturgy thinks Communion has done for us, and what we are now prepared to do as we leave the service, then we need to reflect on this prayer.

Father of all…

The prayer starts by addressing God as ‘father’, the distinctive Christian address following Jesus’ own distinctive practice, so striking that it is preserved in the NT in his ipsissimum verbum ‘Abba’ from Aramaic. Our experience of God as father is obtained for us by Jesus’ death and resurrection and delivered to us by the presence of the Spirit in our lives.

The qualified ‘of all’ draws on some of the ‘universalist’ language we find in places like 1 Cor 15.22: ‘For as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive.’ But this can only be understood as referring to universal salvation by detaching it from all Paul’s other language about judgement and the need for a response to Jesus and reception of the Spirit of God. We should then read this as ‘We have experienced God as Father through Jesus by the Spirit…and that this experience is offered to all.’

…we give you thanks and praise, that when we were still far off you met us in your Son and brought us home.

This is a fascinating expression for several reasons. The first thing to note is that, where the first, shorter prayer makes explicit reference to Communion itself (‘we thank you for feeding us with the body and blood of your Son…’), this prayer moves straight past what we have actually been doing and focusses only on its theological significance—we have experienced meeting God.

But, even more interesting, it expresses this theology in terms parallel to the shape of the Eucharistic Prayer, using our understanding of salvation history. The ‘we’ who ‘were still far off’ is not the congregation gathered here, nor the particular people saying the prayer—after all, many of us had church backgrounds and might have had little sense of being ‘far off’ at any time in our lives. No, the ‘we’ here is the whole of humanity, and this is the story of God’s love for and action towards his world.

And this salvation story is expressed by borrowing the language from the parable of the prodigal son and the loving father in Luke 15.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him (Luke 15.20).

In receiving Communion, we have experience the running father, filled with compassion, throwing his arms around us and kissing us. And this is expressed in the kind of implicit Trinitarianism we find in all the gospels, but especially in John: in meeting Jesus, we meet God the Father, since Jesus is the presence of God tabernacled amongst us.

Dying and living, he declared your love, gave us grace, and opened the gate of glory.

The first phrase here is a reference less to Jesus’ earthly ministry (for which the prayer would say ‘living and dying’) and more a reference to his death and resurrection, as a complete act, something reflected in both Paul’s preaching in Acts and his theology in his letters. The triple phrase that follows combines the proclamation of good news, its significance, and its effective delivery to us. The language of ‘glory’ reflects the way John’s gospel talks of the cross, as the place of glorification of Jesus which reveals the glory of the Father.

May we who share Christ’s body live his risen life;

There is an ambiguity here about ‘sharing the body’; does it mean the physical sharing of the bread we have just done, or does it (as most scholars now think about 1 Cor 11.29) refer to the participation in the body of Christ by all those who believe? The ‘living his risen life’ has echoes of Romans 6, where Paul argues that the movement into the water in baptism signifies our participation in Jesus’ death by the death of our ‘old’ self, and the movement out of the water signifies our participation in Jesus’ resurrection (‘from the waters of death’) so that the life we now live is that resurrection life of Jesus, in anticipation of the age to come. The movement from ‘sharing’ to ‘living’ has a parallel in Gal 5.25; if we have been given life by the Spirit/Jesus, let us walk by the Spirit/live Jesus’ resurrection life.

we who drink his cup bring life to others;

The parallel of the ‘cup’ to the ‘bread’ might suggest that both are references to Communion. But in the NT, to ‘drink a cup’ means to undergo an experience, particularly of suffering, as in Mark 10.38. So as we suffer because of our obedience to God, after the pattern of Jesus’ faithful testimony, we nevertheless offer the word of life to others.

we whom the Spirit lights give light to the world.

This third saying within this group brings the work of the Spirit in parallel with all that has happened, in line with Anglican understanding of the ‘epiclesis’, the invitation of the Spirit in the Eucharistic Prayer, which is on the people and not the elements, and so that we might understand and receive aright. ‘Giving light to the world’ picks up on Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that we are a light, but the implication is that the light shines in the darkness, which is expressed in powerful binary contrasts throughout John’s gospel.

Keep us firm in the hope you have set before us, so we and all your children shall be free, and the whole earth live to praise your name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Following the pattern of the Eucharistic Prayers, we move from the past (what God has done in Christ for us and our reception of that), the present (what we face in the world as we go out) to the future—the ultimate future of the hope of Jesus’ return, and the universal elements we find throughout Scripture that the whole world will, in some sense, be redeemed and transformed.

This, then, is what the Church of England believes about the role of the ‘laity’, the people of God in the world. We have experienced the unique grace of the Fatherhood of God in Jesus by the Spirit, and we are to offer that to all. We live distinctive lives which proclaim not our goodness, but the grace of God, bringing light into dark places, demonstrating a shared life in a broken world. And we live in hope that God will complete his purposes, and that one day ‘the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever’ (Rev 11.15).

This is a high calling, and one that our practice has not always reflected. But is it one we actually understand? I was discussing this with a (lay) friend, who has been a lifelong Christian and a member of the C of E for 25 years. ‘Have you ever reflected on this prayer, or been taught about its meaning?’ I asked. ‘Not once’ was the reply. As Stanley Hauerwas argues, we do not need to invent new initiatives, or grasp new strategies, so much as learn to be what we are. This challenges each of our traditions—for evangelicals to use this liturgy, for Catholics to teach this liturgy (and not just assume it will do its work), and for liberals to believe this liturgy. Then, perhaps, the whole people of God might find what they need to be faithful witnesses in the world.

Father of all,
we give you thanks and praise,
that when we were still far off
you met us in your Son and brought us home.
Dying and living, he declared your love,
gave us grace, and opened the gate of glory.
May we who share Christ’s body live his risen life;
we who drink his cup bring life to others;
we whom the Spirit lights give light to the world.
Keep us firm in the hope you have set before us,
so we and all your children shall be free,
and the whole earth live to praise your name;
through Christ our Lord.

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6 thoughts on “What does Communion do for us?”

  1. Thank you, Ian, for reflecting on this prayer. It is so much better than ‘Almighty God, we thank you for feeding us…’ which I have never been able to say because it far too obviously suggests something which I don’t believe, presumably reflecting the old ARCIC fervour? But this great prayer raises the point about how to say something which is true (and Biblical) yet may be misunderstood by many people (not excluding myself) who take it merely as it sounds without further thought.

    There is a tendency among Christians to speak in ways which are well understood among themselves but not to others. However, I don’t think the answer lies in attempts to ‘dumb down’ which simply replaces one problem with another. And the attempt of some clergy to interpret or modify a liturgical prayer as they are saying it can be irritating, unintentionally implying a superiority of intellect over the congregation (and disrupting the rhythm of the prayer). I am sure when people fail to understand things or misinterpret them the true reason most often lies not in a lack of ability to comprehend so much as the lack of good (or any) teaching. And where better than the pulpit to enlighten and remind us about what we are unthinkingly saying and doing in our liturgical worship?

    Great and memorable liturgy is rarely comprehensible for most of us in full without effort but the reward can be possession of a lifelong treasure.

  2. Regarding: “May we who share Christ’s body live his risen life; we who drink his cup… ” – in the context of a Eucharist, this has to refer at least in part to the bread and the wine, otherwise it’s just a general prayer that could equally well have been prayed on any occasion.

    What I like about the prayer is that it places the Eucharist in context: we remember that “you met us in your Son…” “before the creation of the world,” which is why we are able to come together to celebrate today. And someone with a sense of having been inside the Kingdom from an early age, can still know that that is only through grace, and can therefore sincerely include himself or herself in “when we were still far off.”

  3. Thanks for an interesting reflection, Ian. However, I think that your exegesis is dubious in a couple of places. May I suggest back to you that the “Father of all” phrase needs to be exegeted in light of the prodigal son allusion that follows. It locates those who have not yet been “brought home” – i.e. those who do not share in this feast which anticipates the one to come – as sons (and daughters) lost as strangers in a strange land. The “all” must have a universal reference in the context of the metaphor, lost sons are still sons.

    The other is that you might theologically wish to downplay the eucharistic metaphors in “share Christ’s body” and “drink this cup” but the parallelism and the liturgical position make them primary, I would judge. That doesn’t rule out a wider set of connotations, but it does stress that there is something about this meal which should lead to that behaviour.

    I would also disagree with the oft-stated “majority” of scholars on 1 Cor. (I’ve never done a head count, but given the preponderance of Protestant scholarship, it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a majority, nor that their theological commitments were at least needing to be surfaced.) I rather think both aspects of “discerning the body” are present in the logic of the discourse. The immediately preceding reference is to the institution narrative, the immediately following one picks up the eucharistic language and moves it into social language. It is a “both-and” not an “either-or”; the sacramental meaning should align with the ethical practice. You discern neither the body you eat, nor the body you are, when they misalign as badly as at Corinth.

    Or at least that’s my two-pennyworth! But thanks for a really interesting article.

    • Thanks Doug for the comments. On the issues you raise:

      1. It is pretty commonplace in much theology to talk of humanity as children of God. But it is striking that this idea is *completely* absent from Scripture; God is *nowhere* called a universal ‘father’, as this is his distinct relation with a. Israel and most notably b. Jesus, for whom it was a highly distinctive understanding. I think it might be possible to infer something near to what you are suggesting from Luke 15, but the NT writers never appear to do this.

      2. On the eucharistic metaphors, this prayer is quite a contrast with the shorter one ‘Almighty God’ and by comparison has its focus away from the reception of the elements. At the very least, the phrase points away from the action of reception to its theological meaning.

      3. On 1 Cor 11, see Thiselton’s comprehensive analysis. The reason why this change of view has been so persuasive is that a conclusion based on better analysis of Paul’s language has highlighted the fact that earlier readings were a projection of later theological ideas back onto this phrase (and this phrase alone—it stuck out like a sore thumb). There is simply no evidence whatever that the Jewish Paul would have had that kind of ‘sacramental’ view of the elements; everything else in this passage counts against it, and there is no evidence to support the view from anywhere in Acts (see the very different focus in Acts 2.42ff) or in Paul’s writing. That this is the only discussion of the matter in Paul is in itself telling.

      That’s my two-pennyworth in return!

      • Thanks for the bite back.
        On 1. I don’t think that answers my point, which was not about which idea was justifiable directly from Scripture, but what was intended (*authorial intention fallacy klaxon*) by David Frost when he wrote the prayer. I still maintain my reading of the prayer, which is different from an argument about the Fatherhood of God as a theological concept.

        On 2. I don’t think we’re disagreeing on the substance that this prayer is richer and more subtle.

        On 3. I continue to disagree. The “Jewish Paul” is a modern scholarly construct which is heavily contested in almost every area. (Ask Mark Nanos!) Your reading doesn’t IMO account for the way in which “discerning the body” acts as a rhetorical bridge from the institution narrative to the metaphors in chapter 12. As for Thiselton’s “comprehensive” analysis (which often means exhausting and exhaustive) Tony is a very doughty Protestant evangelical, and his eucharistic theology belies his subtle appreciation of semiology in textual contexts. I disagreed with him regularly in person on this 30 years ago at St John’s: I continue to disagree with him today. And there a great many things that only get discussed in one or other Pauline letter (especially the Corinthian correspondence) which are unique, so I don’t find that argument remotely persuasive!

        Back at you, my friend!


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