An Unexpected Benefit of Weekly Communion

We practice weekly communion in
my congregation, and one of the
unexpected benefits has been
the spiritual empowerment of my elders.
They are becoming active ministers within
the context of our services each week.

When I accepted the call to this congregation
eight years ago, I was up front
with my desire that I wanted to institute
weekly communion. My predecessor
had prepared the way with seasonal
weekly communion, such as every Sunday
in Lent. The consistory went along
with my request. For the first few years,
we repeatedly heard from members who
opposed it, and occasionally the consistory
expressed second thoughts. Eventually
the congregation accepted it, though
I suspected that if I were to leave, they
would revert to the monthly communion
which is typical of the eastern branch of
the Reformed Church in America.

But this has now changed, and I
think they would maintain weekly communion
even if I left. This is mostly because
our elders have taken ownership
of communion as central to the meaning
of their office. Our elders feel that Holy
Communion provides them an opportunity
each week to practice real ministry,
and they like it.

Two recent events signaled this. Last
summer, when I was on vacation, the
guest preacher had not expected to celebrate
communion and felt unprepared,
so the elder in charge that week just took
over at the table, read the liturgy, and celebrated
the sacrament. The same thing
happened the next week, and in neither
case did the elder report having felt put
upon.

The second event was last Lent. During
Lent we switch to a more penitential
pattern of communion distribution. In
years past I had carefully prepared the
elders beforehand, including choreographing
their positions and activities.
But this year, on the first Sunday of Lent,
I realized too late that I had forgotten to
prep them. So during the passing of the
peace I went to the two senior elders and
told them we were supposed to switch to
the Lenten pattern and I had forgotten
to warn them and prepare them and I
was sorry and what should we do. The elders
looked at me calmly and said, “Don’t
worry about it. We can do this.”

This sacramental empowerment
of my elders may have something to do
with our usual communion distribution.
The congregation gathers in a large circle
around the table for the “Eucharistic
Prayer,” with the elders flanking the
table. After the prayer, I serve them first,
and then they serve the communicants,
working their way around the circle, two
of them putting a piece of bread into each
pair of cupped hands, and two of them
assisting the passing of the cups from
communicant to communicant.

They take their time. They bend
down and bless the children. They stop
and bless people who signal their request for it, and they lay their hands on them.
They lean over and quietly offer a short
prayer or a formula of blessing. During
the Easter season, two of our elders staff
a “healing station,” where, after communion,
people come and kneel and receive
anointing with oil and prayer.

All this means that our elders make
personal contact with our worshipers every
week, and that this contact is sacramentally
based. The weekly communion
is empowering their office and ministry.
This confirms a high view of Reformed
church order, and it makes all the sense
in the world for them to be ordained.
Another benefit has shown up in our
elders meetings. When we do the “solemn
inquiry” of going through the whole list
of our members and adherents, name by
name, the discussion has become noticeably
more spiritual and pastoral. Our elders
know our people face to face, and
have touched them and prayed for them
during worship.

Yet another benefit is that this is good
for mission. This winter, a woman named
Annette started attending our church.
She sat by herself and was always quick
to leave after the benediction. I will not
describe her, but I will say that she had
cause to be shy and feel uncertain of
her acceptance. She finally consented to
breakfast with me. She told me she had
tried the other churches in the neighborhood
but she stayed with us because
she said we were the friendliest church.
I thought, how could this be, considering
that she never talked to anyone. But at
the next Holy Communion I figured it out,
when I watched an elder–not the pastor–put bread directly into her hands,
speak softly to her, and then touch her
and bless her.

Now, of course, many churches practice
weekly communion without empowering
their elders, not to mention those
sacramental churches that don’t have
elders. What’s also required is a general
commitment to the edification and empowerment
of consistory members. And
no doubt it makes a difference how the
communion is served, and whether the
form of distribution encourages ministry
or not. The combination worked for us,
and it has had the further effect of enhancing
the spirituality of our congregation
as a whole.

My father was an RCA pastor, and I
remember that once he took the elders
to the home of a parishioner with cancer
who had requested the elders fulfill the
injunction of James 5:14. I’m sure that
the reason I remember it is because it
was so rare. Can the injunction have
been so rare when the apostle recommended
it? I doubt it. In the previous
verse he exhorts the suffering to pray
and the cheerful to sing psalms, which
means that he is exhorting them to do
what they already did frequently. I suggest
that the active ministrations of the
elders were no less frequent, that in
the early church the ministr y of elders
was not the exception but the rule, and
that their ministr y was primarily not
in occasional preaching and teaching
and committee work as in praying and
anointing and blessing.

In my father’s churches we children
knew who the elders were because they
sat up front, because we had to go before
them to profess our faith, and because
they served us communion in our pews
four times a year. We recognized them as
powerful, but we didn’t think of them as
ministers. We thought of them as the rulers
(and judges) of the church, the only
ones entrusted with communion. So it
has been in the Reformed tradition. But
doesn’t it make sense that the officers
entrusted with judgment and ruling the
church should ground their authority in
the actual practice of ministry within the
weekly gathering of the congregation?

John Milton wrote, “New presbyter
is but old priest writ large.” He meant it
for ill, but we can take it for good. “The
priesthood of all believers” is usually a
negative against Catholicism, but it also
means that we all should exercise our
priesthood. It further means that there
are priestly aspects (and prophetic and
royal aspects) to the offices of pastor, elder,
and deacon. The elders of my congregation–our presbyters–are now functioning
as priests in our worship each
week. It is a wonderful benefit which I
doubt we would have realized without
weekly communion. It took a while, but I
recommend it to you.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church in
Brooklyn, New York.