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Christian History Home > News > 2001 > Divided by Communion

Divided by Communion
What a church does in remembrance of Christ says a lot about its history and identity.
Elesha Coffman | posted 8/08/2008 12:33PM

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Divided by Communion

File this under "Only in Evangelicalism": retired engineer Wil Greenlee has invented a Communion cup filling machine, reducing the average time it takes to fill a 40-cup tray from 5 minutes to 2 seconds. The time savings really add up at Greenlee's church, massive Southeast Christian in Louisville, which goes through 20,000 cups of juice in three weekend services. A process that used to take a 75-member prep team two nights to complete can now be finished in one morning, and with less spillage.

"Professional, worshipful, neat, clean and sanitary," Greenlee says of the improved routine.

For centuries, Catholic laypeople received only bread during Communion. No one knows exactly when the practice became common—worshipers in the early church shared bread, wine, and often a whole meal. But as the sacramental elements took on greater significance within Catholicism (they are believed to actually become flesh and blood upon consecration), greater pains were taken to preserve and protect them. By the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, when Hussites agitated for Communion in both kinds, the Catholic church was entrenched in its insistence on bread alone. This position was set by the Council of Trent, in the sixteenth century, then mitigated by Vatican II in the 1960s. The documents of Vatican II allow for Communion in both kinds in certain circumstances (a person's first Communion after baptism, for example), but many churches have extended the practice much farther.

The Eastern Orthodox church, like the Catholic church, asserts the "real presence" of Christ in the eucharistic elements, but it defines "real presence" differently. More accurately, perhaps, the Orthodox shy away from any strict definition. According to a handbook produced by the Department of Religious Education for Orthodox Church in America, "The Orthodox Church denies the doctrine that the Body and the Blood of the eucharist are merely intellectual or psychological symbols of Christ's Body and Blood. … On the other hand, however, the Orthodox tradition does use the term 'symbols' for the eucharistic gifts. It calls the service a 'mystery' and the sacrifice of the liturgy a 'spiritual and bloodless sacrifice.'"

Orthodox churches administer Communion in bread and wine, and in a unique manner. The bread rests on a round plate and the wine in a chalice, but communicants receive the elements on a liturgical spoon. One piece of consecrated bread is put into the chalice with a cup of hot water, symbolizing the reunification of body and spirit in the risen Christ. After Communion, sometimes members of the congregation are allowed to take some of the bread and wine, a practice that would be forbidden in Catholic churches and frowned upon in most Protestant churches as well.

Virtually all Protestant churches serve bread and a grape-derived liquid during Communion, but the similarities end there. The bread can be a regular yeast loaf, an unleavened loaf, paper-like wafers, or those tiny, square, oyster-cracker things. Among churches that used unleavened breads, some do so primarily because of biblical precedent (see Exodus 12, Deuteronomy 16, Luke 22, etc.), others because such breads have a longer shelf life.

Congregants might pass the bread, take it at the front of the sanctuary, or have it served to them individually. The grape beverage also might be passed in a common cup, distributed in single-serving cups, or kept in a chalice up front. The elements most often are ingested separately, but sometimes the bread is dipped into the cup, a process called intinction.

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