Wesley in the World Today
By Hal Knight
In John Wesley’s day, there was a dispute over how often people in the Church of England should receive the Lord’s Supper. The “High Church” view was to receive it frequently. In contrast, the “Latitudinarians” argued three times a year was enough. Since the church required a minimum of three times a year, they argued that if it was important to receive it more often, it would be required more often.
Wesley disagreed with both. He believed “frequent” said far too little, and wrote a sermon called “The Duty of Constant Communion.” Just as the disciples on the Emmaus Road in Luke 24 recognized Jesus as present in their midst in his breaking of the bread, Wesley believed that every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper the risen Jesus is present, through the power of the Holy Spirit. If Jesus is there, Wesley insisted, we need to be there as well. If the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace, then we who need grace should receive it as often as possible.
His Methodists took this to heart. They wanted it weekly but it usually was only available monthly at most, three times a year at least. So when Methodists heard the sacrament was being taken to someone who was ill, they would often show up in larger numbers at the sickroom to receive it as well. In larger cities, when a particular church was serving communion, Methodists would come by the hundreds. Methodists had to be divided into groups of 200 and assigned different Sundays to prevent a single church from being overwhelmed. The Lord’s Supper was equally popular among early Methodists in America, who like those in England saw it as an occasion to encounter the presence of Christ. But because only an ordained minister could preside, it was difficult to attend.
In the early days most local church pastors were lay preachers, and those who were ordained served as Presiding Elders, the ancestors of our District Superintendents. It became common to receive the Lord’s Supper at the Quarterly Conferences when the Presiding Elder was there to preside (the Fall Quarterly Conference is now our Charge Conference). A celebration of the Lord’s Supper was also held as the culmination of each of the camp meetings that spread across America in the early nineteenth century.
When I entered the ministry over four decades age, most United Methodist churches were still celebrating the Lord’s Supper quarterly. Today, celebrating communion on the first Sunday of each month is the practice in most churches. Wesley would certainly approve.
What Wesley might wonder is this: Do we, like the early Methodists, come to communion with an expectant faith? Do we expect to encounter the renewing presence of the crucified and risen Christ? Do we come with hearts thankful for all he has done and open to receive all he has to give? Do we long to be made “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world?” To become so is the promise of the Lord’s Supper.
Hal Knight is a Missouri Conference Elder and a professor of Wesleyan Studies at Saint Paul School of Theology.