Not so long ago, most Reformed (Calvinist, including Presbyterian) churches had Communion — Supper — services once a month.

Today, that tradition is changing, with more churches embracing a weekly Supper.

Those churches which have not yet done so say that the frequency of the Supper might diminish its significance to the congregation. Along with this is the rationale that, during the service, congregants will choose to reflect on either the preaching or the Supper but not both. Others say that their church’s tradition has always been for a quarterly or monthly Communion service. All of these are reasonable.

However, there is also a poor excuse, which is that the distribution of the Supper takes too much time! This lady, commenting on a Gospel Coalition post exploring the subject, supports frequent Communion. She rightly takes issue with the ‘not enough time’ excuse, pointing out:

this is the one thing the Lord commanded we do to remember Him and what He did. If you don’t have the time, please feel free to cut out the collection of money, the silly dramas [some Reformed churches feature short plays during their services], the endless singing about how great God makes you feel (not Glory to God in most contemporary Christian music), the light show, the “howdy” (greeting…where everyone walks around talking about anything but Jesus). You can’t spare 10 minutes out of the weekly hour to remember what Jesus did for you? SHAME!

However, there are deeply rooted historical reasons why Communion has been infrequent in Reformed churches.

Calvin, Zwingli and Knox

John Calvin believed in weekly Communion:

the Lord’s Table should have been spread at least once a week for the assembly of Christians, and the promises declared in it should feed us spiritually.

However, he was unable to persuade the Geneva City Council of this principle. At this time in history, large European cities often legislated on matters spiritual as well as temporal. The Council approved monthly Communion.

In Zurich, Ulrich Zwingli took the view that the Sacrament was but a mere memorial of the Last Supper and offered no means of grace. Appalled, Martin Luther took strong exception to this and told Zwingli that ‘another spirit’ moved through him.

Nonetheless, Zwingli set a quarterly Communion observance for his followers: one Sunday in the autumn, followed by Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.

John Knox promoted the Geneva pattern of Communion in his Order of Geneva (1556). Six years later, the First Book of Discipline adopted by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (1562) was issued. It called for a Zwinglian quarterly observance in Scottish cities and twice a year in countryside churches.

Communion Seasons

By the 18th century, Presbyterians in Scotland received the Sacrament rarely. Many only received it annually for the following reasons: suspicion of clergymen, lack of ordained ministers and a shortage of bread because of widespread poverty.

Scottish Presbyterian Communion tokenThese annual commemorations of the Supper turned into what were called Communion Seasons. The faithful began by fasting on a Thursday, attending a church service on Saturday where they received their Communion tokens, receiving the Sacrament the following day and a thanksgiving service on Monday.

If these remind us of revivals, that is indeed how they turned out. The same weekend format was adapted for American revivals, with a certain amount of religious enthusiasm.

Presbyterianism in Colonial America

By the end of the 18th century, Presbyterians in the American colonies held opposing views with regard to the frequency of Communion.

Whilst the 1787 Directory of Worship for American Presbyterianism stipulated the annual Communion Season, a Scottish-educated minister in New York City disagreed. In his 1797 book, Letters on Frequent Communion, John Mitchell Mason argued that the showmanship of the revivalist approach detracted from traditional Presbyterian piety. He advocated weekly Communion as a consistent means of grace.

Reformed Communion historically

There was one issue with frequent Communion, not only in the Presbyterian Church, but also in the Reformed congregations.

Those wishing to receive the Sacrament were required to attend preparatory classes at their church in the days before each Communion Sunday. Ministers and elders gave tokens to those whom they had deemed worthy. The recipients were then required to present the token at the service.

These circumstances made frequent Communion services impractical.

Today’s experience

Although Communion tokens have long been history, Reformed clergy and congregations still struggle with the frequency of Communion services.

The Revd P Aasman of the Canadian Reformed Church in Grand Valley, Ontario, explains that his denomination’s Book of Praise contained a lengthy Communion liturgy and now has a shorter form. However, he writes, even then, congregations are reluctant to participate more often:

Both of these things (the length of the form and the manner of celebration) support infrequent communion and, therefore, need to be adjusted before positive change can be made.

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church is concerned that their congregations might have a Zwinglian view of the Sacrament as a memorial with little to no means of grace. OPC elders D. G. Hart and John Muether posit that increased frequency of Communion services are not guaranteed to alter those perceptions where they exist. Whilst they conclude that these services should ideally be weekly, they also warn:

weekly communion might tempt partakers toward a deadening familiarity with the sacrament …

Personally, as a former Catholic, now Anglican, I would agree that frequent reception of Communion, sadly, does become overly familiar and loses its significance. That is a terrible admission to make, however, it is true. I have also seen it in other Catholics during my time. When I first became an Episcopalian, my church had monthly Communion services. (That said, the 8:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. services were always for Holy Communion as were Wednesday evening services.) I felt better prepared spiritually for less frequent Communion. I could also concentrate more on the readings and sermons during Morning Prayer Sundays. My weakness, but no doubt others’, too.

I spent quite a bit of time seeing how often Presbyterian churches have a Communion service. Here are but three examples in the PCA: one has it quarterly (the Supper elements have been prepared by the same family line for 150 years!), another has it monthly and a third has one weekly.

It will be interesting to see what the future brings in this regard.

Advertisements