Dealing with eucharistic ‘leftovers’ can cause deep offence

Published May 1, 2000

WE LIKE HIM well enough, and he preaches a good sermon, but I don’t like the way he treats the communion.” The speaker was a churchwarden in an Anglican parish under the care of a Lutheran pastor. “The leftover bread gets thrown on the grass for the birds and wine goes back into the bottle.”

But then, visitors have been known to ask, “Why do some people take communion twice?” after watching an Anglican priest and assistants carefully consume the consecrated elements remaining after the communion of the people.

Eucharistic sharing – especially between Anglicans and Lutherans – is on the increase, but questions about the eucharistic “leftovers” might not get asked openly to avoid disturbing ecumenical harmony. Or, they could be brushed aside as unimportant by the kind of high level people who negotiate shared ministry arrangements.

Not so in England, where Churches Together, the main interchurch umbrella group, warns that denominational differences in eucharistic practice can cause “deep offence” unless they are discussed frankly before sharing in united eucharistic services.

The group recently issued new guidelines for such joint services, saying “The eucharist is central to the lives of most Christian people: their understanding of the faith, their personal experience, their spirituality and their piety are affirmed, or threatened, by particular forms of celebration of the eucharist. Such is the profundity of experience that unfamiliarity is very disturbing.”

Calling for sensitivity to differing traditions, the guidelines discuss such questions as whether wine or grape juice should be used for joint eucharists. However, their main emphasis is to urge that special attention be given to methods of administration, ablutions and disposal of remaining consecrated elements, and reverence toward the reserved sacrament.

Anglican practice requires that leftover consecrated communion elements be consumed. By tradition, and implied in the Book of Common Prayer, these ablutions are done in public – sometimes almost ceremonially. The Book of Alternative Services says simply “this is appropriately done at the credence table or in the sacristy.”

The Churches Together guidelines repeat the advice in the 1984 document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry of the World Council of Churches: “The best way of showing respect for the elements served in the eucharist celebration is by their consumption, without excluding their use for communion by the sick.”

The guidelines go on to suggest that consecrated elements “can be consumed discreetly, out of full view of the congregation, or after the service,” pointing out that dishwashing “does not usually take place at a dinner table in front of the guests.”

Disposal of the consecrated elements reflects what Christians think they are doing when they gather for eucharist, holy communion, Lord’s supper, mass. What happens to the “leftovers” shows what people believe Jesus meant by “This is my body … this is my blood” as they follow his direction to “do this…”

Without asking how it happens, most Anglicans would speak of a “real presence” of Jesus in the eucharist, perhaps thinking along lines similar to those attributed to Queen Elizabeth I:

Christ was the word that spake it, He took the bread and brake it, And what his word did make it That I believe and take it.

They would be supported by the church catechism, which speaks of “the body and blood of Christ, which are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord’s supper.”

The Anglican provision for reverent consumption of the leftover eucharistic elements was first introduced in the Scottish Prayer Book of 1637 and adopted by the 1662 Church of England Book of Common Prayer – which for 400 years served as the benchmark for Anglican prayer books worldwide. According to a Church of England report, it “has helped to hold in unity worshippers with a variety of understandings of Christ’s presence in the eucharist.”

It could have a similar effect on the growing number of congregations experiencing joint Anglican-Lutheran or other eucharistic services.

Guidelines for Methods of Administration of Holy Communion from Churches Together in England are available on William Portman is the Anglican Journal’s book review editor.


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