UPDATED: Holy Communion: Choose Your Specialness

Note: Links are now updated (2/24/2015) since originally posted in October 2010.

From Harare to Manila, from Helsinki to Honolulu, and from Boston to Anchorage, United Methodists spoke with one voice a refrain heard across the globe when asked by members of the Holy Communion Study Committee about their experiences of Holy Communion in their local worship settings: "We want more!" 

Over and over again, from listening stations in cities to rural areas, of every ethnicity and nation and language we could reach at the time, what we were hearing was that communion often felt disconnected, off-putting, uninviting, routine, dull, too complicated, poorly understood and even more poorly led. 

And yet, for all that, it was still deeply and powerfully important in their lives. 

GBOD's video, "Living into the Mystery," documents the experience of laypeople in four diverse congregations where communion is celebrated well and with confidence and joy. You can view it online  here. And you can find ordering instructions for a DVD version here.

This blog entry isn't primarily about that video, though. I want you to know it's available, and that's relevant to the topic at hand. But that's not the main point.

The main point is we also heard something else. We heard that part of the more folks wanted was more frequent celebration of Holy Communion-- with weekly as a norm-- but also that there was real concern that if we celebrated Holy Communion weekly, it would become less "special."

John Wesley was hearing that same concern raised against his insistence that Methodists participate in the celebration of the sacrament as frequently as they possibly could. In Wesley's time, people said they feared their "reverence" for the sacrament would be "abated" if it were celebrated weekly or more. He answered that "objection" (along with many others!) in his sermon "The Duty of Constant Communion." 

Here's the relevant excerpt.

Reverence for the sacrament may be of two sorts: Either such as is owing purely to the newness of the thing, such as men naturally have for anything they are not used to; or such as is owing to our faith, or to the love or fear of God. Now, the former of these is not properly a religious reverence, but purely natural. And this sort of reverence for the Lord's Supper, the constantly receiving of it must lessen. But it will not lessen the true religious reverence, but rather confirm and increase it... [Thus] its abating our reverence is no excuse; since he who gave the command, "Do this," nowhere adds, "unless it abates your reverence" (emphasis mine).

In other words, Wesley agreed that if you do celebrate communion frequently, it will feel less special. 

Indeed, that is true of anything we do frequently. The more we do something, anything, the less we have to think about it consciously. We're no longer relying on "working memory," which is how we deal with new things and complicated problems placed before us. It's slower than other forms of memory-- but it helps us plod through. 

And the less we experience anything as "new", the less we produce the "feeling chemicals" in our brain that help us deal with newness as well. Some of these chemicals create a sense of  alarm and heightened alertness. Those intensify our focus on the new or not entirely familiar things in front of us. Others produce a sense of well-being or reward when we engage the "new thing" successfully. 

But once we've practiced something enough that it gets into our bones, our muscles, and our breath-- and in our brains into an almost "hard-wired" synaptic pattern, two things happen. First, with the synaptic pattern being well established, electrical activity to enable it goes down. And second, partly in response to the first,  our brains reduce the production of those "alarm and "reward" chemicals to almost zero, meaning the "feeling" we may have had the first time or the first few times we did it abates over time. Both holy fear and joy, the basic ingredients of the feeling we call "reverence," physically subside.

So in the end there's almost no getting around the physiological fact that we can't have it both ways. Holy Communion can either be "special" (because it is a relatively infrequent, or because we do it a very different way every time, even if we do it more frequently), or it can be offered with deep competence and graciousness because it's gotten into our bones, muscles and breath. 

But note I said almost.

The power of something practiced and "hard-wired" over time is that then you can make small changes, slight variations, that will introduce just enough novelty to re-engage the alarm/reward system without at the same time having to re-engage working memory, and thus make the whole event feel clumsy, forced or awkward.

This is how jazz musicians learn to riff. They learn everything they can about the basic song-- rhythm, cadences, melody, harmonics, syncopation and sound level-- practicing and practicing until it is in their bones, muscles and breath. The song itself doesn't change. But what happens with the song, after the combo establishes it a few times-- that's where the joy comes. And it's the little things that bring it. Not switching  up everything.  Variations on a steady and ongoing theme. The song itself doesn't change-- it just gets expressed differently, surprisingly.

So as you look at what we've all said we long for as United Methodists-- celebrations that are gracious, well-led, and engage us well in worship-- and reflect on our widely stated fear of losing the specialness of Holy Communion by more frequent celebrations, consider well the choice that lies before you-- a choice built into our brains and bodies.

Do you want a specialness that comes from infrequent celebrations, and so also persist in not being practiced enough to be competent and gracious every time? 

Or do you want the specialness that comes from frequent practice, a specialness that is experienced in the small variations that not only your presider, but your entire worshiping community can move into and appreciate because the Great Thanksgiving-- its words, its actions, its gestures, its meaning, and its music-- are already deep in your bones, muscles and breath, ready at a moment's notion to riff as the Spirit moves in your midst?

I know my choice.  What's yours?

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards
Director of Worship Resources
The General Board of Discipleship of
The United Methodist Church

Image Credit: Photo  by "wonker." Used by permission under a Creative Commons License