The Value of Worshipping Community Today
"We are one body because we share in one bread: the value of worshipping communities in society today".
There is a familiar phrase in the Church of England's Holy Communion service, also known as the Eucharist: "Though we are many, we are one body because we all share in one bread." Using this phrase as a focus point, we will explore what this sacrament reveals about church community and why it matters in society today. This is not a ritual that individually provides communion to an individual, or even one that in aggregate provides communion to many individuals; it is fundamentally communal such that all those who receive become a whole greater than the sum of their individual parts.
Part I: Basics of the Sacrament
From the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer
Question: Why was the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper ordained?
Answer: For the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of the death of Christ, and of the benefits which we receive thereby.
Question: What is the outward part or sign of the Lord's Supper?
Answer: Bread and Wine, which the Lord hath commanded to be received.
Question: What is the inward part, or thing signified?
Answer: The Body and Blood of Christ, which are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord's Supper.
Question: What are the benefits whereof we are partakers thereby?
Answer: The strengthening and refreshing of our souls by the Body and Blood of Christ, as our bodies are by the Bread and Wine.
Question: What is required of them who come to the Lord's Supper?
Answer: To examine themselves, whether they repent them truly of their former sins, stedfastly purposing to lead a new life; have a lively faith in God's mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death; and be in charity with all men.
Part II: The Liturgy of the Service
Lex Orandi Lex Credendi, which translates as "The law of praying is/determines the law of believing", meaning that the patterns of prayer in the church set out the church's faith.
A typical Church of England Holy Communion service has three parts: A) The Gathering; B) The Liturgy of the Word; and C) The Liturgy of the Sacrament.
The 'four-action shape' of the (C) Liturgy of the Sacrament which we have today is designed to reflect each of the four actions of Jesus as the Last Supper in parts of the communion liturgy. (Wainwright, "Recent Eucharistic Revision," 284).
1. "He took bread and wine."
2. "He gave thanks over them."
3. "He broke bread."
4. "He gave bread and wine to the disciples."
"Though we are many, we are one body because we all share in one bread" is said during the fraction (breaking of the wafer) in part 3.
'The breaking of the bread can be seen simply as a means of breaking the bread or wafers into convenient pieces prior to distribution, a sharing-out of the one bread among the many who are one body, in the now well-known phrase from Augustine commenting on 1 Corinthians 10:17. It can also be seen as an imitation of the third of the dominical acts of the Last Supper, or as a symbolic representation of our Lord's broken body at Calvary." (Bradshaw, Companion to Common Worship Vol 1,129). See also 1 Corinthians 12
"From earliest times, the Eucharist has been a public and not a private affair, the assembly of the people of God and not the private devotion of individuals. In the Epistle to the Hebrews (10.25), Christians are warned not to 'forsake the assembling of (themselves) together'. The account of the Eucharist at Corinth (1 Cor 11.17ff) clearly envisages a corporate act of the local church, and Ignatius of Antioch similarly exhorts Christians to take care to assemble more frequently to give thanks (eucharistein) and praise to God. For Ignatius, the Eucharist is a sign of the unity of the people of God--there is one Eucharist as there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, one Church, on bishop, one altar. In the Didache too (in a passage which may refer to the Eucharist), Christians pray that the bread now broken and 'scattered upon the mountains' (referring to the scattering of Israel, cf Nah 3.18) may be reassembled into one; and for Augustine, Christians are to see in the many grains, ground by the prayers of exorcism, moistened by the waters of baptism and now united in the one eucharistic loaf, the image of themselves as the Body of Christ, the Church. For many of the Fathers, the eucharistic assembly is thus an image of the Church, the people of God assembled with their Head both receiving and awaiting their final redemption. Hence it is but natural that disunity among Christians (the formation of parties or sects) would have as one of its first signs the establishment of a separate altar with a separate bishop and that the reunion of Christians after schism (or with due penance performed after lapsing) should always be symbolised by the invitation to share in one another's Eucharist or, in the case of penitents, to return to the sacraments.' (Halliburton, R. J., "The Patristic Theology of the Eucharist," 202-3)
Church of England on the Church as Body of Christ, visible and invisible, living and the dead, one great congregation. See the Collect for All Saints Day: "O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship with the mystical body of the Son Christ our Lord ..." and Article XIX "The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same." (Davie, A Guide to the Church of England, 95-6)
Any discussion of the significance of the Eucharist/Holy Communion must be seen in terms of the single unified body of Christ, not in terms of an individual's benefit, or even of many individuals benefiting independently from each other: a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Part III: Six Significances of the Sacrament
"Yet in the days of the early Church, nothing less than a general communion was even contemplated as the conclusion if the Eucharist. In it the profoundly social character of Christianity is once more endorsed; for the communion in Holy Things towards which each has made a humble offering, is a 'bond of fellowship' between both each Christian and his Lord, and between all members of the Body, who here share at one altar the spiritual food. Thus, Communion is an essential part of full Christian worship, because in it the Perfect is not only adored, but approached and received under sensible signs. It is therefore a sovereign means to that created perfection to which God calls the spirit of man, but which man by himself can never achieve. It dethrones egotism, the inveterate enemy of the spirit of worship; and awakens awestruck gratitude and humble love by a method which the simplest can appreciate, but which the greatest saint will never understand." (Underhill, Worship, 120)
"There is nothing paddock-like or parochial, nothing individualistic or subjective, in the genuine worship of the Church. The scene is set within the great landscape of Eternity, and includes the upward sweep of adoration the invisible things of Him Who is invisible; so that all our various rites and methods are lost in the blaze of that light. This great claim of the Christian to participate in the worship of the supernatural world, introduces the whole Eucharistic sequence of memorial, sacrifice, supplication, consecration, and communion." (Underhill, Worship, 109-10).
"St Thomas Aquinas spoke of the Eucharist as a re-praesentatio of the passion and the Council of Trent used the term repraesentatur, which, I think, should be translated as 'actualize.' ... 'perpetuate'--the church perpetuates what Christ did at the Supper and on the cross .... . Anamnesis, it is widely maintained nowadays, means much more than just remembering a past event: it recalls into the present the reality of the past event. ... All told, when we are talking about the liturgy as mystery making present the reality of the past events of Christ's redeeming work, we are talking about anamnesis." (J. D. Crichton. "A Theology of Worship." In The Study of Liturgy. p16)
The Patristic emphasis was on Christ being both priest and victim, and on being caught up in sacred time, looking forward to the second coming. The eternal aspect of Christ making intercession not an eternal sacrifice in heaven (the patristic Fathers don't speak that way). (Halliburton, "the Patristic Theology of the Eucharist, 206)
"For in the Intercession of the Liturgy, though no detailed petition or individual need is too homely to be brought within its radius, is always a corporate action; a reminder of the fact that the Communion of Saints and Communion of Sinners is one Body, and that within that Body the true interests of one are also the interests of all. There is no separation here between the Church visible and the Church invisible: it is as reasonably to seek a place in the supplications of the Saints as in those of an Intercessory Guild." (Underhill, Worship, 116)
The Mystery of the Divine Presence
"The real starting point of the Christian Mystery is not the memorial of a Death but the recognition of an enduring Life. ... Indeed it is the fact of the Life which endorses the sacrificial and redemptive character of the death. In the primitive Eucharist, it would seem the disciples experienced, in a specially vivid manner, that continuing real Presence among them in the living Lord -- 'working with them' as the conclusion of St Mark's Gospel says – which is accepted as the established fact by the New Testament writers, and was specially known 'in the breaking of the bread.'" (Underhill, Worship , 116)
Part IV: Implications for Practice, Community, and Society today
1. Holy Communion/The Eucharist is both essentially communal and an essential act of the Christian church, making it at heart a worshipping community.
2. Being in essence a worshipping community with Holy Communion at its heart sets the Church apart from many other communities and associations that exist today. To name a few examples:
i. It is not transactional; Membership and any benefits are not conditional on what one can pay or offer (unlike paying for a service, or being employed, or joining many clubs).
ii. It is not a meritocracy; membership is not based on merit or worth (unlike, e.g., universities and some organisations).
iii. It exists, in part, to benefit people who are not its members.
iv. It is not a hierarchy where 'lower' members exist to serve and benefit the 'higher' members.
v. It is simultaneously where God's divine presence explicitly breaks into the world and where those who are in need of salvation, forgiveness, and healing gather. That is to say, it is both heavenly and caught up in sin and brokenness.
vi. It is not unified by uniformity of the body, but by diverse members taking part in the same life-giving Holy Communion together with God.
3. The pandemic raised questions for which answers had already been found during earlier predicaments in the church's history.
i. For instance, in the medieval period it was common for the laity to only receive the host/bread and the priest to partake in both bread and wine. The established that receiving only the host/bread and not the wine, though not ideal, still enables one to fully partake in the sacrament
ii. For instance, the practice of 'spiritual communion' was developed for people who were present in church but could not receive the sacrament for whatever reason, to 'spiritually commune' through prayer while others received. This established that if one cannot receive the bread and wine the priest handles at the altar, one does not supplement with alternative food/drink but instead 'spiritually communes.' see https://www.chelmsford.anglican.org/spiritual-communion
The Church of England. "A Catechism." The Book of Common Prayer. Accessed April 25, 2022, https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/book-common-prayer/catechism.
Davie, Martin. A Guide to the Church of England. London, Mowbray/Continuum: 2008.
Halliburton, R. J.. "The Patristic Theology of the Eucharist." In The Study of Liturgy, edited by Cheslyn Johnes, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Edward Yarnold, 201-208. London, PSCK: 1978.
Spinks, Brian. "Anglicans and Dissenters." In The Oxford History of Christian Worship edited by Geoffrey Wainwright and Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, 492-533. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 2006.
Underhill, Evelyn. Worship. London, Eagle Publishing: 1991.
Wainwright, Geoffrey. "Recent Eucharistic Revision." In The Study of Liturgy, edited by Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Edward Yarnolds, 280-88. London, SPCK: 1978.
Cottrell, Stephen. "Spiritual Communion." Diocese of Chelmsford, the Church of England in Essex and East London. Accessed April, 25, 2022. https://www.chelmsford.anglican.org/spiritual-communion.