The Communion Circle

When I was a child, I watched my parents walk to the front of our church in the Netherlands and take communion with other adults around long tables. I thought that's the way it was always done. Since then, I've discovered that Christians have many ways of celebrating the Lord's Supper.

For example, in most Presbyterian and Reformed churches today, people take communion in their pews. The elders distribute the elements, the minister reads the liturgy, and members of the congregation eat and drink the communion elements together. This practice has the advantage of convenience … and many people appreciate the silence. Rarely is there such stillness in the church as when the elders move slowly down the aisle with the communion trays. Even small children seem to catch the solemnity of the occasion and settle down. However, it is doubtful that sitting still is the best way to capture the significance of the communion celebration.

In Lutheran, Anglican, and pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic churches, communicants come forward and kneel at the altar rail, where they receive the communion elements from the priest or minister. In the Orthodox Church (and now also in many Roman Catholic churches) the minister or priest and other church leaders give the bread and wine to members of the congregation as they file past. But both of these communion customs, as appealing as they may be, tend to submerge one important theme of this celebration: our oneness in Christ.

After much reflection, our own congregation decided to celebrate communion by coming forward and forming a circle, adding visible expression to the meaning of the Supper. In our coming forward we pledge our fidelity to Christ and his kingdom. The circle expresses our unity in Christ; we are family. And in passing the elements to one another with some appropriate words (e.g., "the body of Christ for you" and "The blood of Christ for you"), we signify that we are ministers of Christ to each other.

Communion Liturgy

In order to give you a better feel for this practice, let me take you through it a bit more slowly.

After the minister has broken the bread and poured the wine, he reads Christ's invitation to all Christians to join in the Supper. The people then rise and remain standing throughout the remainder of the communion service.

As the minister and an elder break the loaves into several large pieces and fill the goblets with wine, the people in the front rows form the first circle. Our circles consist of perhaps seventy to eighty people, not counting the small children.

As soon as the first circle forms, the music leader announces the first song. The singing is important, and we sing throughout the communion. Some people take their song-books with them into the circle; others leave their books closed during this time, allowing the singing of the congregation to embrace and support them. The songs we sing nearly always move from the somber to the joyful. At the close of our celebration every heart and voice should be rejoicing.

Children are an important part of our communion too. They join their parents in the circle, the younger ones usually standing in front of their moms and dads. And while the bread and wine are being passed, a council member approaches each of the children and speaks some appropriate word of blessing to him or her (e.g., "Eric, the Lord Jesus also died and rose for you"). A council member bending over a wide-eyed three-year-old can be a wonderful sight. More importantly, it's a reminder to children that even though they have not yet reached that maturity of faith that enables them to take the bread and the wine, they are nevertheless very much a part of the body of Christ.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself…

Once the first circle is formed, the minister and the council member each take a piece of bread and a goblet of wine. They serve two people standing next to each other at one point in the circle (A), then repeat the serving at the opposite side of the circle (B). Each of these four people then serves the bread and wine to the person next to him or her, and so on. Each piece of bread and each goblet of wine serves a quarter of the circle. When the bread and wine meet (C), the minister and elder take them back to the table.

Once all the bread and wine is returned to the table, the people return to their seats (but remain standing), and the next circle is formed.

I mentioned earlier that our circles usually consist of sixty to seventy adults, but that's no magic number. The numbers will vary in each church according to the size of the congregation. Even in a congregation of more than four hundred people the serving can be completed within fifteen minutes. If the circles are larger, and if many circles will be necessary to serve the entire congregation, it is possible to begin serving at four or more tangents within the circle rather than two.

On the other hand, a smaller congregation may want to begin the serving at only one tangent in the circle, giving the congregation more time to experience the communion circle and to sing songs.

Some people may express concern about the connection between the common cup and communicable diseases. Although in the fifteen years in which we've celebrated with the common cup, we've never had a problem of this sort, many in our congregation have become what we call "dippers" instead of "sippers." In other words, they dip their piece of bread into the wine and partake of the two together.

Such solutions are typical of those a congregation arrives at after years of forming and modifying their own way of celebrating the Lord's Supper. As we have worked and celebrated and sung together, we have found that, for our congregation, coming forward and standing in a circle is a very good way of celebrating communion. We recommend it to the churches.

Aids and the Communion Cup

In a discussion about the use of the common cup, the Western Theological Seminary worship committee asked me to obtain the best medical information available concerning the possible spread of disease through the common cup—in particular as it pertains to AIDS.

The source of my information is Dr. Joan Phelan, an oral pathologist, who practices at St. Luke's and Montifiore Hospitals in New York, and a professor at New York University. Phelan presented a paper at the Paris Conference on AIDS in 1986 and another in Atlanta in 1987.

According to this noted pathologist, the AIDS virus is extremely fragile, and there is no evidence that it can be transmitted by saliva. While it is true that the AIDS virus has been detected in saliva, there is no evidence of any transmission. The principal proofs for this theory are the large number of household studies in which AIDS victims,living with the rest of the family and using the same dishes, glasses, and upon occasion, the same toothbrushes, have not transmitted the virus to other family members.

Dr. Phelan concluded that there is no danger of contracting AIDS through the use of the common cup at communion.

However, other studies have shown that hepatitis B survives for a considerably longer time than the AIDS virus,and hepatitis A survives even longer. Some evidence seems to indicate that hepatitis A can be transmitted through kissing. So although researchers have no evidence that hepatitis A and B can be passed by contact with a common cup, such transmission remains a possibility.

The discussion of disease does prompt me to observe that the community at Western has traditionally been gracious and thoughtful in its use of the common cup. I have noted that with high consistency people who have colds or even the sniffles regularly abstain from drinking the cup—either using the option of individual glasses, practicing intinction (dipping the bread in the cup), or taking solace in the traditional doctrine that the whole Christ is present in either element. Obviously, no one with a communicable disease would wish to offend others, either aesthetically or medically, by using the common cup.

—by Donald J. Bruggink, professor of historical theology and chairman of the worship committee, Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.

Jack Roeda is pastor of the Church of the Servant, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 7 © March 1988, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.