when we gather

During my first year of studying theology, a lecturer asked us to make a list of all the things that we thought must happen in the context of the eucharist. Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Roman Catholics — all were invited to make their list, and compare notes. I should confess: I forgot the sermon. I didn’t choose not to include it. I just forgot. And before you get your hopes up: I would not forget it now.

But I find myself thinking about the question again in a new context. This time it is not ‘what must happen for a eucharist’ but ‘what should happen when Christians gather on a Sunday?’

Now ideally, those questions would be one and the same. The eucharist is at the heart of Anglican practice and theology, and I wish that we could assume that every Anglican congregation could gather for the eucharist each sabbath day. But we can’t. There are too many congregations who must meet without a priest on a Sunday, and the question is, what should happen then?

Why do we gather, and what do we do once we get there? What is possible, desirable, and necessary?

I asked someone today how Dunoon came to decide to have communion from the reserved sacrament as the main pattern of worship when the priest wasn’t there. The answer was that it was just assumed that there would be communion. The question was how you could do it without a priest. Others may have different memories of the process in Dunoon, but this person will not be alone in their assumption. There must be communion — so how do you do it without a priest?

In Rothesay, the pattern is to sing Mattins when the priest is not there. No priest means no eucharist. No eucharist means no communion. That seems as obvious and as inevitable as ‘Sunday means communion’, and it is probably the more time-honoured pattern.

But whatever we choose, we need to be clear what we are doing and why. Someone somewhere once said to me, ‘oh but we had to have Reserved Sacrament. There’s no choir, so Mattins wasn’t an option.’ And that is where confusion starts creeping in. Choral Mattins (sung well) is a lovely thing. But those of you who have sat bubble tests will know that
‘choir : mattins :: priest : eucharist’ is a false analogy. They are not related in the same way.

So, I’m inviting you into a game of imagination. I would like you to try to set aside all your default settings. Clear your mind of past experience, and start with a clean slate.


It is Sunday.
An Anglican congregation is gathering for its main act of worship.
There is no priest.

What should happen?

What shouldn’t happen?

What beliefs, values and preferences shape your response?

You might also consider whether the worship pattern for the rest of the week is relevant. What if there were weekly communion at another time? Or — at the other end of the scale– what if there were hardly ever a priest? What should happen then?

I’m going to be off line for a few days. I know this is a busy week for lots of us. But I hope you can find some time to make suggestions.

More and more congregations find themselves having to make these decisions, and I’m not sure that as a church we’ve really thought about it enough.

14 thoughts on “when we gather”

  1. About to spend four days in the context of daily morning prayer, Eucharist and Compline, I know that together they will make a pattern which will become like breathing – and hard to break when we come home again. But having been brought up in the Presbyterian tradition, I know that it was the Eucharist which opened my closed soul and led me to belief after I’d given up on Christianity. I wouldn’t happily go back to a Sunday without Communion – not because of theology or whatever, but because of what, for want of a better word, I’m going to call the magic. And possibly that gives my answer to your question “What should happen?” Magic should happen. Communion should happen – and that would have a lower-case “c” if it wasn’t first word in the sentence. Mattins simply doesn’t do it for me – and it would feel like the beginning of the end.

    If there was no Eucharist I’d be off down to the RC church on a Sunday, I think.

  2. Ah, but there is no Eucharist on lay led Sundays. There is communion from the reserved sacrament. That is the difference we need to explore.

    What is ‘the magic’? What shapes it? defines it? characterizes it?

    Any why does it seem to you to happen in the eucharist, or in communion from the reserved sacrament (is that the same ‘magic’ or different?), but not in other forms of worship?

    It is worth remembering that many growing churches choose not to have the eucharist at their main service on a Sunday. I am not for a moment advocating this, but offer it as a reminder that for many, non-eucharistic services are offered as part of a growth strategy rather than ‘the beginning of the end’.

  3. If I could define “magic” it wouldn’t be magic! But it is characterized by a sense of “other”, and yes, it’s more apparent when it’s a Eucharist rather than a Reserved Sacrament Sunday (sorry – too late last night to be careful with language!). But it’s still there, at the moment of receiving the sacrament – this point of contact that can be no other thing. It can happen in other circumstances – usually to do with participation in music, or in total silence, just to be contrary, but is more elusive, somehow.

    Now you see why I just call it “magic”. I’m hopeless at defining it. But as far as I’m concerned it’s what sustains me. And it makes no difference to me whatsoever to reason with me – I can reason with myself!

    And yes, this is a personal, subjective thing and has nothing whatsoever to do with church growth or outreach.

  4. Well, I don’t think it would be constructive to go down the path of discussing all the problems that relate to the RS for a main service just here, though it is a good discussion at the right time.

    So – I’ll start the other end. A blank sheet of paper. Me walking into a familiar place and congregation, to share worship. What are my priorities?

    Prayer – and space for silent prayer, unhurried space. Being with God. Prayer to me is the great mystery and the great privilege. It makes me acutely aware of being part of a priesthood, of sharing with and in Christ and his work. So prayer is inseparably linked to church.

    A bible reading, and a chance to reflect on that reading. In an ideal world, a good sermon. Failing that a discussion or silence. Another way of listening to God – orientating myself. Without that, I might lose my sense of what God truly is – wander off the path. Besides to me the bible is an unfailing delight. I love it, I really do. Odd for a liberal, friends tell me, but I really do adore it.

    Some joint communal activity – its being communal is more important to me that what it is. I am always confident of what is called the ‘vertical’ element in worship (me and God) and always worried that the horizontal may be lacking. I know I’m very trying, and I always ask myself – am I wanted here? Soooo – it is very very good to have something done as a group, because that reassures me – I want to be part of a church, not just a solitary worshipper after all – so saying or singing something together helps me a lot. It also helps if it is something I can join it, and very complex music makes that hard – so something simple I can do, please.

    I also want what is hard to put into words, but a sense that the person leading any part is doing it from the depth of their being. And I want a sense that the whole thing is held in the hands of God, and the angels are delighting in it. I want intent. I want peace and laughter. I don’t need it to run smoothly – some very meaningful services don’t and some smooth ones lack meaning.

  5. For me, communion is all-important – communing with God in the company of other believers. Yes – and communing with them, sharing the experience with them.
    Certainly I appreciate the difference between the Eucharist , priest led, and communion, layled, in the Anglican form of worship. But the Reserved Sacrament has been consecrated by the priest – that is its very nature – so those receiving ‘communion’ on a Sunday when the priest is absent are sharing it with the congregation present when the priest carried out the consecration.
    I can understand Chris’s use of the word ‘magic’ – it is a form of magic – an unbelievably special one – and when I attend a service without ‘communion’ I feel at the end iof the service that I am still waiting for something to happen!

  6. Interesting thought to ponder – looking back 25-35 years. Most SEC churches had Matins for the main service on Sunday (from the 1929 prayer book) with the Eurcharist on major festivals, and maybe once a month (if you were lucky). I can remember when I attended a Glasgow south side SEC church in the late 1970’s there was uproar amongst the congretation about the loss of Matins. It was only when I starting attending a west end SEC church that I experienced weekly Eurcharist as the main service.

    So what is the time homoured pattern?

  7. Ok, the problem for an island community, theologically, is that if the community uses elements from the previous week’s community they are, logically, receiving communion twice at the same service. It seems extraordinary to me to suggest that it is a whole heap better if the elements come from another service the week before, and it is extremely difficult for the community to have elements consecrated that week because of the time difficulty.

    The community does very much appreciate the opportunity to lead its own worship, and services led by laity from outside lose this element of involvement. I would suggest if this were to be the pattern the lay person would have to take steps to integrate his or herself into the community. Even those who lead worship somewhat lacking in self confidence do know the community, and lead out of it, as part of it. That is, in itself, a kind of magic.

    This is important. I remember vividly and shudder over the long period when a ‘mass priest’ parachuted into the community each fortnight to ‘do the magic’. I’m sure the majority were lovely people – they knew nothing of the community and and nothing of its strengths and weaknesses. In many and various ways this showed itself, and the results were, on occasion, awful. I remember only too vividly the person who arrived SO late that the congregation had waited, started on [and nearly finished] evensong, and then had the priest arrive, to ask, nonplussed what they did now. The answer – that as we had just about accomplished a reasonable attempt at the liturgy of the word, it would be a very good idea to take that as accomplished and move on to the liturgy of the sacrament was an explanation at least one member of said community felt they should have been able to take as read.

    For me, a service where believers meet to focus on God, to pray, to listen and to be in company with each other is a good service. It is not some kind of damp squib. When we spend time as a line-in community we do not, after all, have a Eucharist as each and every service.

    I find prayer an amazing magic, never dulled by being a not-less-than-twice daily magic.

    Look, I now have another important requirement. That worship is led by somebody who is, in some way, a part of the community. Not of necessity resident, but a living part of its psyche, its angel if you prefer.

  8. Equally, I do not want to dismiss communion from the reserved sacrament. It can be incredibly moving. I remember when my horse was killed in a horrific accident, how the priest brought me the RS – and at an exhausting time of year. It was so incredibly moving to be linked with the congregation I was to distressed to join in person, and to feel the love of God and of man flowing out to meet me.

  9. Hi, just surfing through. Interesting post, and it raises a question. As someone who was raised Presbyterian but is now Episcopalian, I have never understood why, in absence of a priest, a layperson cannot “do” communion in the Episcopal church? Is the teaching about the “priesthood of all believers” different between the denominations?

    Thanks in advance for your insights!

  10. Lots of interesting stuff here.

    Thanks for carrying on while I was away.

    At this precise moment (Sunday evening at 7pm) my brain will not process any more, but I will join in the conversation again soon (and that includes trying to respond to Peg’s question, unless someone else beats me to it).

  11. Ok, at last I’ve found a moment to try to respond to Peg’s question.

    I don’t think the teaching about the priesthood of all believers is significantly different in different denominations, though the understanding of ordained ministry might be.

    ‘The priesthood of all believers’ refers to the idea that together we make up the body of Christ and share in the one priesthood, the one ministry that is Christ’s. This does not mean that everyone is individually a priest, but that together we all share in Christ’s Priesthood.

    In the Episcopal Church (and the RC church, the Orthodox church, et al.) we make a distinction between the priesthood of all believers, in which we all share, and the ordained ministry, to which some are called and for which some are set aside to live and act in the community of faith in particular ways. The ordained priest is called to, and given the gift of authority to, preside over the eucharist, to pronounce blessing and absolution.

    The eucharist is offered by the whole church: priest and lay together. A priest cannot celebrate without others present. And others cannot celebrate without a priest present. For churches with a three-fold order of minsitry (bishops, priests, and deacons), the priest’s role as celebrant speaks of the continuity between the local and universal church; this congregation here now, and the church throughout time, and (ideally) reflects the priest’s role as the one who can hold and offer the life of the community because (s)he holds the community’s stories by sharing their lives and offering pastoral care. This dynamic is different, of course, with visiting clergy, and fails utterly with the ‘mass priest’, but it is still an image of priesthood worth holding onto.

    We do not — in the episcopal church– believe that anyone can ‘do’ communion because we believe that sacramental ministry is focused and enabled by ordained ministry, and that it is right and necessary for a priest to preside and consecrate.

    (take it as read that wherever it says priest, I mean ‘or bishop’. It all starts with the bishop.)

    In the Church of Scotland, there is a different understanding of ordained ministry, but it is still the case that ‘not anyone’ can ‘do’ communion. ‘The Minister’ — i.e., the teaching elder– presides over communion with the elders and congregation. Again — it takes the whole church, ordained and lay.

    That’s far from a perfect summary of the theology of priesthood and the eucharist, but hopefully it is enough to go on for now.

    Corrections and refinements welcome. There are several people who might be reading this who should be able to offer a better summary than I just have.

  12. Not better, but it might be helpful to add that Luther’s comment was that the priesthood is the common possession of the whole church.(that is, the body of Christ). Therefore the role of priest cannot be exercised without the explicit permission of the church – if you take and use a common possession without the permission of the whole of those to whom it belongs you are guilty of theft. He was thinking of the permission of the local congregation, first and foremost (because that is where, in his time, the conflict was). We tend to be less congregational in thought (but a situation where priest and people are at loggerheads cannot be long sustained) but the argument, I think sheds some light. Because it is an office of the whole church, the whole church is involved.

  13. A belated thanks to you both! Your comments really help clarify my understanding. Seeing communion as the coming together of all of the body, lay and ordained, is truly sacramental and it’s a beautiful thing.

    And I think it’s true there’s a different view of ordained ministry b/t the churches, and I’m still kinda getting used to the greater formality and structure of the Episcopal tradition. I think I’m going to have to do some more reading on the subject!

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