The challenge of communion

Monday, 16 May, 2011

Graham Cray's monthly e-xpressions column.

One of the ways by which we can recognize whether something is church, is whether 'the Word and the Sacraments' are present. Scripture is studied, so that disciples can understand what Jesus wants them to know and do, and act accordingly. Communion is celebrated to rehearse what Jesus has accomplished and set our eyes, minds and hearts on his coming kingdom. If a fresh expression is really church it will develop to a stage where Holy Communion (under whatever name a tradition uses) is part of its regular pattern of worship and discipleship. This is for the most basic of reasons. Jesus told us to share bread and wine in this way in remembrance of him. It's that simple! But when it comes to Holy Communion it can get complicated. What sort of complication can depend on the stage of the fresh expression's development, and the particular tradition from which it comes.

Many fresh expressions begin as communities of enquirers, people exploring faith in Jesus or returning to faith in Jesus. Ideally they do not begin as worship events, but when the time comes for gathered church and worship to take shape, communion would normally be part of that shape. How often can be a tricky question. Traditional churches whose main Sunday service is always communion can be experienced as members-only gatherings and no longer offer services where it is easy to be 'just looking', but this is vital for fresh expressions. The Lord's Table is meant to be an expression of God's generous invitation and hospitality, but it can be made to appear as a fence telling people to stay outside. As church takes shape there is a question of the style or culture of a communion service. It needs to be something the wider church would recognise as communion. I think it also needs to bear some of the family characteristic of its parent denomination, but it also needs to be incarnational, true to the culture of the fresh expression. We need 'messy communion' - not something overlong and overformal dropped into the middle of Messy Church!

Then there is the question of who can lead or preside? Many denominations are involved in planting fresh expressions and not all of them require an ordained minister to preside, but many do. If a minister is regularly involved there is no problem. In the long term we should expect God to raise up ministers from among the indigenous leaders of many fresh expressions. But for the moment there can be a difficulty.

There are a number of possibilities.

The leader or leaders of a fresh expression are not necessarily the ones who should preside. Leading the mission and the mission community are not the same thing as leading worship. An ordained minister can relate to a fresh expression, attend when they can without having to take responsibility and then act as a key link to the wider church when they preside. There needs to be a real connection between fresh expressions and the rest of the Church and this could strengthen it. When a fresh expression is linked in to a more traditional local church or group of churches it is possible to have a celebration of communion at one church, including, in its turn, the fresh expression and then each of the others has representatives who take the bread and wine to the other churches in the team. Churches in a more catholic tradition would be happy to use the reserved sacrament.

Each fresh expression needs to find a way forward that is appropriate to its own cultural and denominational tradition and it is the responsibility of the leaders of each denomination to address real issues being raised by innovative mission. This is not a time for breaking the rules, but it time to ensure that new Christian communities can be fed by both Word and Sacrament!



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