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I went to the local Presbyterian church this past Sunday with my girlfriend. I sometimes go with her there, and she sometimes comes with me to meeting. (Relations between Quakers and Presbyterians seem to have softened since the 1650s.)

This Sunday was Communion. During the ceremony, the ushers brought the bread and juice to our pews. I declined, though I was eligible according to the requirements stated at the start of the ceremony. I also didn't take it when I was at a Good Friday service earlier this year.

I took Communion once at my grandmother's funeral Mass, and I've regretted that since. (I also went to a Moravian Love Feast but that isn't actually Communion.)

I also avoided Communion once in a spot where I thought it was going to be difficult to avoid it, not really knowing the etiquette of what to do. I was a pallbearer at my great-uncle's funeral, and he'd been a Catholic priest - a thoroughly conservative one, and one of my favorite people. I especially didn't want to take Communion at his funeral, as I hadn't undergone confirmation, confession, or penance, a sacramental path he'd not only participated in but overseen.

His funeral Mass - not in Latin, though I'd had some hopes for seeing that - was conducted by the local bishop, and the church was packed. As a pallbearer, I was in the front row, with seven of my cousins. I was the second in the pew from the center aisle, and as we stood up for Communion I was wondering what I should do. Should I shake my head to the priest? Say I wasn't taking it? I had to get up and out of the pew so the six cousins to my left could take it.

My cousin to the right stood up, got into the aisle, and turned immediately left to go around the pew and back in, never having to say anything. I followed him gratefully, not sure I would have realized that was an option had I been sitting where he was. The next six cousins all took Communion.

This time, the Presbyterians weren't making any taxing demands of me before I was eligible to take Communion - no sacramental penance, no need to be a member. There was no claim of transubstantiation, that the Communion bread and wine are themselves made body and blood by the blessing, and it wasn't my great-uncle's funeral.

Still, I couldn't take it. It's not just that I didn't want to - I couldn't. (I actually did want to share it.)

I'd like to say it was a leading, but I think it may only be a first tiny step toward wherever I'm being led - a blocking that doesn't yet have a positive direction.

I'm well-aware that early Quakers abandoned the sacraments as outward ordinances. There seems to have been some discussion about whether taking communion was actually a bad thing or simply meaningless. Nancy Bieber writes in her Pendle Hill Pamphlet Communion for a Quaker:

Quakers, from their beginnings in seventeenth-century Britain, have eschewed the outer acts. Early Friends dealt with the Catholic, Anglican, and non-Conformist sacraments of their day by declaring them simply no longer necessary. We live, George Fox said, in a time of new covenant when the old forms are no longer needed. The living Christ is already present and within us.

In 1676, Robert Barclay wrote in his classic Apology that "we are certain that the day has dawned in which God has risen and dismissed all those ceremonies and rites. He is to be worshipped only in Spirit." While Barclay urged tolerance to those who still "indulged" in Communion, his contemporary, Isaac Penington, advised friends to "keep steadfast in that holy testimony to keep from outward and dead knowledge, and out of dead practices and worships after man's own conceivings into an inward principle, and into worship in spirit and truth." (9-10)

I share Bieber's conclusion that "the sacramental experiences of communion in our daily lives bring us into real community and a deep unity with others... into Christ-service, into a compassionate being for others," and I think that experience also happens in meeting at times.

Communion at meeting has also been an issue in the more recent past, as Walter Williams notes in The Rich Heritage of Quakerism:

One of the vexing questions which had to be faced during this period of change stemmed from the free mingling of Friends with members of other Christian communions. In some Friends meetings the question was soon arising: "Should not Friends, as others, observe the outward ordinance of water baptism and the Lord's supper?"... Understandably, many other Friends felt uneasy at such disavowal of the historic position of Friends in this regard. (203)

I'd be startled at the introduction of any of these "ordinances" into Quakerism, and couldn't encourage them. I'm more wondering about visiting other churches. I love the symbolism of communion and the way it seems to draw communities together, but share early Quakers' doubts about its religious significance.

Reflecting on communion seems like a good path for a while.

(Incidentally, I find the word "ordinance" much stranger than "sacrament", despite its efforts to be a less dramatic word. I also wonder if Quakerism's treatment of these as inward blessings returns some religious mystery to them, power that disappeared when many of the reformers declared the Eucharist to be a remembrance in food and drink, not body and blood.)

Update, 5/29/2007: I took communion yesterday at my wife's Lutheran church, the church in which we had held a second wedding ceremony the day before. It was Pentecost Monday, and the pastor held a longer period of silence than usual, during which I felt strongly led to take communion this time. I seem to take it once every 18 years, approximately. Hmmm....


Relations between Quakers and Presbyterians seem to have softened since the 1650s.

The trouble with all the rain in this summer is that I can't get the stake burning.

I've been meaning to comment here for a month. I had an experiment with Presbyterian communion this spring. The comments from Friends were really interesting.

I will admit that there was a time when my confusion with the sacraments led me to the Quaker's conclusion: It's the spirit that matters, not the substance. However, the sacraments are rich in theological reflection from every part of the Bible, and they are ever so spiritual when combined with the substance of Christ's work on behalf of sinners. I appreciate you sharing your journey.

Incidentally, we chose "Communion" as the name for our new church; primarily because it is a summary of Gospel truths and need. We have "communion" every week, even if we do not come to the Lord's Table!