What does Holy 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.

(First published 2016)


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29 thoughts on “What does Holy Communion do for us?”

  1. A few thoughts on an otherwise excellent post:

    1) I can probably count the number of times I’ve heard this prayer on the fingers of one hand and in my experience the awful “Almighty God, we thank you for feeding us” trite nonsense is overwhelmingly more common. The one time I do remember hearing it I thought it was very pompous and overly wordy. The “gave us grace and opened the gate of glory” alliterative jangle sounds the like sort of thing a precocious 10-year-old would come up with. fThis reflects a more general problem with Common Worship, where there are so many options that some perhaps quite important things that the liturgy says about God and the Church are never heard by the average worshipper.

    2) I am not inclined to give Common Worship much higher status than that which some Anglicans believe today, and if we want to think about what the Church of England has always believed, we should perhaps look elsewhere, most obviously at the Prayer Book. What does the Prayer Book say about the laity? Perhaps not much during the Communion Service, but elsewhere it sketches its own vision of the role of the laity in the church & the world, perhaps most notably in the Prayer for Parliament.

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  2. It’s a good question, and I cannot in all honesty say that Holy Communion does a lot for me. It is only a shadow of the conclusion to a meal that it started as, ‘until he comes’ means nothing to us where I worship (despite reciting the Creed every week) and the bread has been reduced to a thin, tasteless wafer, on the grounds that it would be too much trouble to provide fresh bread. This does not seem to me the right attitude. Since I cannot reconcile myself to so unnourishing a representation of the Saviour’s body (I Cor 11:29), I have recently stopped participating in the sacrament.

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    • Steven – for me the gift of communion is precisely that wherever I am, however uninspiring the service, however cold and empty the church, however stale the wafer or bread – something is given and something received from Christ that does not depend on me, the priest, my mood or the quality of the local baker. And I wonder how you are now obeying the teaching of Jesus ‘do this in remembrance of me’?

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      • My point is that we are not ‘doing this’ – though there is, now, some prospect of change. In my own devotional life I continue to remember (since you ask) and once a month I serve in another church where, in accordance with biblical instructions, bread is used.

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        • Thanks Steven. I don’t really any instruction about what shape or form of bread is to be used – except, being based on the Passover meal, is should presumably be unleavened?

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        • Thanks Steven. I don’t really any instruction about what shape or form of bread is to be used – except, being based on the Passover meal, is should presumably be unleavened?

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          • If we take Scripture seriously, then it should be bread, meaningfully corresponding to Jesus’s claim, “I am the bread of life.” I can’t see that a disc that tastes like paper does that. Indifference to this seems to me symptomatic of a much wider and deeper indifference.

            The symbolism is rich. Not only does the bread represent Christ’s body, and the wine his blood; there is also an implicit reference to the two harvests at the end of the age, the wheat harvest and the grape harvest. “Do this until I come.” The life is in the blood, and the new life is the life of the Spirit. So yes, in view of I Cor 5:7-8 and Eph 5:18, preferably the bread should be unleavened and the wine fermented.

    • I think that what counts is the remembering if 1 Cor 11 is to be believed. As a housebound person getting to a service, what ever the quality of the wafers on offer, is impssible so Itry to do “remembering” in other ways and try not to be spooked by the fact there’s been no “magic ‘fluence” put on the elements by a priest ie it really is just the simple down to earth remembering we were told to do in the first place.

      This reallystruck home to me many years ago in a French church where they had a meal together after the morning family service. At the start of the meal when I was expecting grace the leader picked up a piece of baguette from the basket in front of him, prayed and handed it round. Then picked up the bottle of côte du rhone and poured a glass and passed it. Sucj everyday things in Continental Europe. I expect this is the sort of thing you had in mind too. However what c1me to me was that it is the everyday and if necessary is could be toast and Marmite with a cup of tea if we’re actually serious about remembering. The trigger for the thought is not the vital part, nor even the timing really, just that the thought needs to be brought into being.

      Unless we really are into magic, in which case heaven help us.

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  3. “‘Have you ever reflected on this prayer, or been taught about its meaning?’ I asked.
    ‘Not once’ was the reply. ”
    This holds true for many things we say together in worship.
    Unless a person was fortunate enough to have an excellent preparation before confirmation, I have found it rare for the people of the pews to have ever had any of the creeds explained, and don’t seem to know many of the phrases out of context let alone what they mean. But suggest they attend a lenten or advent study, let alone a bible study midweek in any other church season and very few respond. I once suggested we could benefit from an all-ages Sunday school… and was met with blank stares. I am saddened. I think it is important to know what I am saying, to know that I can say it without contradicting what I believe, and to be sure that I can say Amen.

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    • (When I was confirmed it was a choice of BCP or Series 2! I don’t have much recollection of discussion of the liturgy in the preparation, although I do have a recollection of the vicar coming to Scouts to talk about this new-fangled Series 2. It was a long time ago…)

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  4. I would add to Kath Moller’s comment that we don’t get “taught” the liturgy in church (at least in evangelical churches) because all teaching in church is sermons based on Scripture and the liturgy isn’t in Scripture. If the liturgy is so essential, could we have a sermon series on it, rather than the three millionth sermon on the Good Samaritan?

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    • (Also a long time ago) a friend told me that his then-girlfriend’s father, a Baptist, when visiting somewhere, who attend the local Anglican church because there, however indifferent the sermon, he knew that in Cranmer’s prose and the structure of the BCP service he would be fed by words deeply connected to Scripture.

      Perhaps this suggests that there should be no disconnect between liturgy and Scriptural preaching and teaching. If the latter is done well, and the former alludes to Scripture, should not the liturgical words bring to the minds of the worshippers what they have learnt from Scripture?

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    • I agree Penelope as I hear at many installations “The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons” How many have ever even read the 39 Articles or noticed/reflected on, the difference in theology reflected in the journey from BCP through ASB to Common Worship?

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      • As I have said before, it would be good to have a thread on Canons A5 and C15 and on what those who have made the Declaration of Assent have committed themselves to believe and do.
        Phil Almond

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  5. I find it hard to believe ‘drink his cup’ refers to anything other than the wine of communion, although I suppose if that were meant it ought to be ‘drink his blood’ which sounds disgusting, (although some such words to appear in the prayer of humble access).
    Anyway maybe it is worth considering as an alternative to the usual prayer after communion.

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  6. Ian. Thank you for some helpful reflections on one of my favourite prayers – and one that summarises why for me, the Eucharist is the central, glorious expression of my faith.
    Some comments if I may. I think ‘All’ means ‘All’ and feel no need to qualify it. I am not sure why you do? Those who are in Christ know this (God’s Fatherhood) and live in the reality of it. Others are no less loved but have yet to discover it – so ‘Father of All’ is immediately missional in its implications and the rest of the prayer expands on the call to the ones fed at Christ table to be out there as witnesses to his light and life. I would prefer not to express this on the basis of our ‘experience’. Evangelicals are usually cautious on appeals to experience. And this does not depend on experience for it to be true. It is much deeper than that, though I am grateful for those moments when this truth is gloriously real. Finally, in passing, I just want to point out that serious theology (such as Talbott:2014) supporting a universalist conviction from scripture nowhere bypasses the teachings about judgment. That is another debate, but it is always lurking at the back of the room whenever Christians find themselves reading the word ‘All’! Thanks again.

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  7. Ian, how do you understand 1 Corinthians 11 28-31?

    This seems to be a warning of very severe judgment on believers, resulting in illness and even death. Does this still happen today?

    Peter

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  8. “What does it do for us?”
    The title is almost like an embrace of, or invitation to, therapeutic deism, while the remainder of the burden of article does not do so.
    What is/are the objective(s) of communion? Who is the subject?
    It is an act of community worship, of humble adoration, with a, togetherness, “oness” in Christ and an enjoyment of God.
    What it does for us is to take our eyes away from ourselves -CS Lewis Screwtape Letters shows the results of not doing so, at any gathering.
    There may or may not be a palpable Presence of God, of the outworking and inworking of the Spirit of God in humbling and new life-resurrection gladness, joy.
    A less than common and dramatic illustration of this was around the time of my personal conversion – some were “slain in the Spirit” as they stepped forward, and partook of the bread and wine. And this in a 13 Century CoE church building. I don’t know the liturgical form of communion used.

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  9. Ian, as great the theology of this prayer might be it comes after an act in which the church says laity are 2nd class citizens, not good enough to utter the “magic words”, unable to lead the church in following the command of Jesus to remember his death until he comes. And yet permitted to lead in other lesser things ?

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    • I think it is widely agreed that there was relatively little concerned with anything related to ‘eucharistic presidency’ in the NT period. The Lord’s Supper was a shared meal, and from 1 Cor 11 it is clear that this was an actual meal, and not a rarefied symbolic action.

      I for one would like to see us return to this practice.

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  10. In what way is the CofE ‘out of step with biblical theology’ exactly on Holy Communion? Is it utterly obedient to the command of Jesus to ‘do this in remembrance of me’? But to speak as if the issue can be reduced to ‘Biblical theology’ or ‘Church of England’ is not terribly helpful. For one thing there are an enormous variety of ways in which communion is expressed in the CofE – as there always have been in the wider, historic churches. Some highly ritualised, others very informal. Even local churches have a variety of practices for different occasions. What is the criteria for saying one or other is ‘Biblical’ or not? The measure of being biblical here cannot be a literal copying of what the NT church did for we simply do not know exactly what they did – how they worshipped and ’broke bread’, what words were expressed and by whom, how was it administered and even what they believed was happening as they did so? But ever since, down through history and around the world today followers of Jesus break bread in loving, faithful obedience. Whether in secret in concentration camps or publicly in the open air; around a simple kitchen table or in solemn ritual at the high altar; offered to the privileged rich and the destitute poor alike, marking a believer’s first steps of confirmed faith or as a final gift on the lips of the faithful dying, this same meal of bread and wine – the body and blood of Christ – has sustained and renewed the people of God throughout history. Today, as at Emmaus, Christ makes himself known. And it is wonderful and awesome now as it was then.

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    • Thank you David for that lovely, lyrical exposition of the spiritual significance of Communion.

      But I don’t think you are quite right in saying ‘we simply do not know’. There is quite a lot we know:

      a. that the breaking of bread took place in the context of a meal, following the example of the last supper, and illustrated in Acts 2 and 1 Cor 11.

      b. that there is no indication that the elements had any particular ontological status. (‘discern the body’ in 1 Cor 11.29 is a reference to the congregation as the body of Christ, as Thiselton has demonstrated.)

      c. that the focus of the act was a symbolic remembrance which also gave hope, following the pattern of the Passover meal, which both re-enacted the Exodus events but also looked to God’s future deliverance

      d. that there was, therefore, no interest at all in ‘presidency’, and there is certainly no sense at all of ‘offering a sacrifice’

      e. that meeting together included the public reading of Scripture, some sort of exhortation/preaching/teaching from a recognised and authorised leader (perhaps and ‘elder’), but also prophetic words from anyone. (See Colin Buchanan’s Grove booklet https://grovebooks.co.uk/products/w-229-worship-in-the-letter-to-the-hebrews)

      f. meetings would normally have been in larger homes, but might also at times have taken place in seme-public places (see the work of Eddie Adams and Peter Oakes)

      g. this all fits with continuity with first century synagogue practice, where all sorts of social and educational things also happened at the same time. But early on, followers of Jesus changed their day of meeting to Sunday to recall and anticipate the resurrection.

      Even in the less sacramental traditions, what we have now is far more structured, regulated, ritualised and rarified than this early practice. And I think something Jonathan is highlighting is that it is also much more structured, regulated, ritualised and rarified than anything else in ‘ordinary’ life, which makes it culturally distant from the unchurched in a way that early practice was not.

      I think that is *one* reason why the ‘new’ churches, with their informality, are growing. The cultural divide is smaller.

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      • Hi Ian. Thank you for your typically full and stimulating engagement. I didn’t say we knew nothing. But whilst accepting I could be heard to be understating the case I think you overstate and in a wonderfully Anglican way the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. For example when you say there was ‘no interest at all in presidency’ you are surely arguing from silence – and perhaps too importing the terms of a debate from later history. You use word ‘rarified’ twice of (presumably only certain expressions of) contemporary Eucharistic practice. I still argue it is much more varied but also do not accept this always leads to a sacramental remoteness from ‘ordinary’ life. That is not my experience. I have friends in new churches how deliberately seek out more sacramental worship form time to time because their default informal expressions of it feel so un-nourishing. So informality (and ‘real’ bread) does not always lead to the engagement we need. It can be excruciatingly over-spiritualised and remote. Culture plays an important part. We are an almost aggressively informal culture and so it is not surprising if forms of ritual and sacramental feel remote. But that is not in itself a comment on their importance. I need persuading that informality is by definition good for us and that would urge that ritual and symbol are crucial ways we human beings mediate meaning in our lives. We lose them at our peril. So whilst I rejoice in some very fine ‘new’ churches in my corner of the world and I agree that the cultural engagement is a key. But I still think they need, in their time and way, to seriously engage with sacramental theology – and some clearly are, along with a curiosity about traditional, monastic spirituality too. Interesting times.
        …. brief but grateful.

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        • It seems to me that silence on the point is good evidence of there being ‘no interest at all in presidency’ – an argument from silence is not necessarily a weak argument.

          The concept of the eucharist as sacrament, in the sense of something ‘structured, regulated, ritualised and rarified’ seems to be a product of the religious spirit which took over when the State incorporated Christianity as its official religion. I don’t think Ian is suggesting that the time in the communal meal when partipants remembered Christ’s sacrifice was marked by ‘informality’, if by that you mean lack of reverence. The form of religion is not of course to be confused with the substance.

          Covenants in the pre-Christian world were sealed by a solemn celebratory meal. At the Last Supper the Lord instituted a new covenant. Queuing up individually to receive a papery wafer and a thimble of wine or fruit juice does not reflect this covenant aspect and, I would suggest, is less ‘sacramental’ in a positive sense than the NT paradigm.

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  11. My comment was not about the formality or informality of the communion but simply that in this act of remembrance the church highlights its view that there are two classes of communicants. And then in the next breath the church tries to say how important lay leadership is. It cannot have it both ways?

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