What constitutes communion in the setting of the emerging church? By this term I mean churches in which a ‘fresh expression’ – new forms of worship and practice – are adopted. Does the distribution of bread and wine in an ecclesial setting constitute the act of communion, or is it simply the sharing of a meal? What makes the simple meal of bread and wine ‘communion’? Is it the inclusion of a liturgical act performed by a recognised priest, or the sharing of food with the recognition of Christ’s death and resurrection? Two experiences in the same small chapel have helped me to reflect on what constitutes communion.
Argoed Baptist Church has recently celebrated its bicentenary, yet it is an emerging church. The membership is emerging from years of decline and seeking new easy to engage in mission within a rural village where all amenities have been removed. In the church’s archives a recipe for an early type of yeasted bara brith dating from 1846 was discovered, originally made for a chapel tea. This rediscovered bread has been recreated and enthusiastically received by the congregation, amazed that they can lay claim to their own recipe.
On Palm Sunday we engaged in a reflective, all age communion service, recounting the whole crucifixion narrative. Within this service, held in the hall rather than the sanctuary, the participants were gathered around a central low table on which was placed the bread and wine. The Argoed Loaf, as this bara brith has come to be known, was used. The whole loaf was broken and distributed by the children rather than the diaconate (as normal), enabling them to participate fully. As the bread was shared the congregation was invited to think about the ingredients.
Bread is the ‘stuff of life’, yet the addition of fruit, sugar, spice and fat creates a cake. Bread is often eaten alone, yet cakes are for sharing, associated with festivals and celebrations. Bread takes time to make, often three days at a minimum allowing for milling grain, growth of natural yeasts to aid fermentation, and kneading the dough. We are reminded that the falling grain is a vivid symbol of resurrection (John 12: 23-25). The grain offering in the Old Testament is without yeast or sweetening agents, so the bread speaks of offering (Leviticus 2:11). Spices were included in the ancient offerings as incense, formed part of the gifts of the Magi, and the burial spices brought by the women to the tomb, as well as the lavish offering of perfume over Jesus’ feet.
The Argoed Loaf contained water, the symbol of life, as well as butter. The vine fruits brought to mind Jesus as the true vine and also the cup of suffering. We focussed on how grapes are crushed to make wine, or dried as raisins, both symbols of death, but also of joy. The action of yeast, unseen, working within the dough and bringing the loaf to life is symbolic of God’s power at work, the miracle of bread making to the extent that in mediaeval society yeast was known as ‘Godisgood’. Yeast is used both positively and negatively within scripture. It is used as an analogy of the kingdom of heaven, in that yeast permeates every part of the dough, and therefore every part of society (Matthew 13:33, Galatians 5:9). Yeast is also used negatively, indicating the insidious nature of the Pharisees’ teachings (Matthew 16:6, 11-12).
Typical of the Lord’s Supper, each participant only took a small morsel of the large loaf during communion, but after the service members gathered around the remaining loaf, eagerly cutting and wrapping the bread in serviettes to share with family members, neighbours and friends. On reflection, this practice spoke eloquently of the sharing of Christ with the whole community, the hospitality of the Lord’s Supper extending beyond the walls of the church and into the community – a visual demonstration of the action of yeast, the kingdom of heaven infiltrating every part of society. It also echoes the traditional practices of distributing wedding cake to absent guests as a sign of favour.
The distribution of the Argoed Loaf demonstrates the favour in which the recipient is held in by the givers, and it echoes the hope of Christ’s return and the wedding feast of the Lamb. It also speaks of covenant: we send cake to witness to the covenant of a marriage, in turn it is a metaphor used by OT prophets for God’s covenanted relationship with the people of Israel. Accepting the food, partaking of the feast indicates participation. Carter states that it is:
A gracious gift from God, a symbol of God’s justice and provision of adequate resources for all, of God’s goodness and transforming presence.
The sharing of the bread with the community was a surprise to me, being completely spontaneous. Some Christian traditions keep the communion bread set aside to be taken into the community, others emphasise that the bread must be completely consumed at the meal. This distribution fitted neither patter. The communion loaf, broken, shared and gathered by the participants to share further with friends and family, spoke of a longing for the mission of the church to break the bounds of what was considered ‘normal church’. There was a sense in which this was the ‘priesthood of all believers’ in action. One can only guess the conversations that these gifts of bread engendered.
The use of a loaf indigenous to the culture of the believers provided a sense of communal identity. This community is able to trace its roots through many generations. The people remember the church in its heyday, a time of demographic growth in the village with the arrival of the coal industry coinciding with a religious fervour. The recreation of the loaf also looks forward to a new generation, using the past to inform and provide continuity with the future.
While celebrating communion away from the sanctuary and the table raised a few eyebrows, moving the altar to the centre of the church is sometimes seen in modern ecclesiastical architecture, notably the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool.
The central place given to the altar or communion table has strong symbolic significance. The community is gathered for a meal. It is an offer of hospitality. This is in marked contrast to the focus placed on a pulpit located on a stage. It is a move from the celebrity to the celebrant, from someone speaking who is speaking to you to one who is eating with you and who welcomes you to the feast on behalf of Christ.
Interestingly, those who had excluded themselves from communion felt able to share the loaf after the formalities of the service had ended, which raises questions of hospitality. The fencing of the table, combined with an emphasis on self-examination before communion, has led many to believe that they are ‘not good enough’ to share the feast. By contrast, in the gospels Jesus feasts with sinners and outcasts, not asking them to change prior to the meal. After eating with Christ they often do change. Paul’s injunction for examination is to ask whether the Corinthian church practices are hospitable to the whole body, rather than a check for unconfessed sins.
A second Eucharistic meal?
A second meal within the same community took place a week later when a small group of members spent the day cleaning, decorating and preparing the chapel for the Easter celebrations, which included a baptism. Topics of conversation moved around hopes and dreams for the church community, the anticipation of new life evidenced through the baptism and the opportunity to open the doors of the chapel building to the wider community in evangelism and mission. Finally the little group became hungry and so one member went out for fish and chips. The members gathered for that meal laughed at the implications of the order: ‘five fish and two chips’.
The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand was recounted from memory, without recourse to a Bible and while there was not ‘prayer’ in a liturgical sense, there was still a sense of prayer and praise, acknowledging God’s abundant provision. Was this meal of fellow believers, remembering Christ’s actions and God’s goodness, any less a real communion than a liturgical celebration of the Lord’s Supper? This question raises the question of whether it is the bread and wine that make ‘communion’, or the words of institution and liturgical prayers, or is it that Jesus is present when his followers meet and eat, remembering his life and seeking to live his way in the power the Holy Spirit? I would argue that this meal of fish and chips was indeed a holy communion, Christ present where two or three were gathered.
Throughout the gospels we witness many meals where Jesus is both host and guest. The fish and chips at Argoed were reminiscent of the post-resurrection breakfast hosted by Jesus of grilled fish (John 21:11-14). As with the bread, the fish must be broken to be shared and eaten. The single fish, being part of a shoal, echoes the many pieces from the one loaf. More importantly, it is Jesus’ presence which elevates this from being a simple barbecue on a beach. With our fish and chips, it was the presence of Christ, ‘where two or three are gathered in my name’, that made this simple meal into a Eucharistic experience. In our gathering, our informal prayer, and our laughter, we were remembering the whole of Christ’s ministry encapsulated in the story of the feeding of the five thousand.
In The Prodigal Project, the authors discuss ‘reframing’ as being essential in ‘curating’ worship experiences. Reframing means placing something into a new context, bread and wine becoming not simply elements of a meal, but endowed with symbolic meaning. The authors explore other communion meals in which traditional elements were replaced by hamburger buns and coke at a festival, the elements being appropriate to the setting. Jesus reframed the common elements of a meal within his society. In the 21st century the common elements of a meal may well be beer and chips!
Theological symbolism may be lost when bread and wine are replaced by other foods, but how far removed from the symbolism of abundant wholeness are our offerings of cubed, processed bread and de-alcoholised wine or Ribena? Willimon compares so much of what is offered in communion, to a Weight-Watchers’ meal, rather than the joyous feast of the bridegroom. While moving the Lord’s Supper our the sanctuary or using alternative elements might be regarded as sacrilegious, the experiences at Argoed have provided opportunity for reflection. Perhaps we have superimposed so much meaning on communion that we have forgotten that primarily it is the celebration of the community, with each other and with God, with whatever elements we have to hand, and in whatever context we find ourselves in. Nigel Wright says:
...the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not to be located in the bread and wine as such but in the way in which the Holy Spirit is present among the people of God in the act of sharing bread and wine together as themselves the body of Christ.
While Clark argues that:
Eternal life is the fruit of communion (John 6:58) with Christ; the Eucharist is the means of that communion.
However, if we are partakers of the body of Christ, sharing in his life and death, this is so much more than simply eating bread and drinking wine. John perhaps speaks more of our sharing in the actions of Jesus, in community, symbolised by the bread and wine, the body and blood. Ultimately we are called to take the new life, borne out of communion with Christ into our wider communities, be that through an indigenous bara brith or from the deepening participation in communion over a meal of fish and chips.
 The original recipe is as follows: ‘Towards 1000: flower – 7 bushels, currants – 60lb, sugar – 36lb, best mixt spies – 1lb, essence of lemon – ½ ounce, candied lemon – ½ lb, eggs – 112, barm – 2/-, 1lb butter to every 7lb. 2 bushels of this quantity maybe make Seed Bread 1lb caraway seed. Everything may be made use of But the currants. Half the above quantity to be used.
Working this recipe down it becomes: 650g strong plain flour, 125g currants, 50g sugar, ½ an egg, 125g butter, 30g candied peel, drop of essence of lemon (optional), ¼ tsp mixed spice. This was made up as for ordinary bread using one sachet of easy blend yeast and 300ml of milk and water mixed.
Bara Brith is a Welsh speciality and literally means ‘speckled bread’ and is akin to the Irish barm brack, the English tea loaf or the Cornish saffron bread. Most modern recipes are for a heavily fruited, caked based loaf, but older recipes are lightly fruited and are based on a buttery yeast dough.
 While water and oil are both symbolic of the Holy Spirit, within the context of a 19th century recipe, olive oil was relatively unknown, so for culinary purposes butter would have taken its place.
 Elizabeth David, English Bread and Yeast Cookery. London, Penguin, 1979, p. 92
 Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: a socio-political reading. Sheffield: Academic, 2000, p 434
 Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: creating Christian Community in post modern cultures. London: SPCK, 2006, p229.
 Riddel, Pierson & Kirkpatrick, The Prodigal Project: journey into the emerging church. London: SPCK, 2001, p73.
 William Willimon, Communion as culinary art in Christian Century, September 21, 1977, p 829, on http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1186
 Nigel Wright, Free church/free state: the positive Baptist vision. Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005, p.106
 Nevill Clark, An approach to the theology of the sacraments. London: SCM, 1958, p53
This article originally published in the UK Baptist Ministers Journal January 2012.
Fran Bellingham has recently gained her MTh from South Wales Baptist College where she studied while her husband, Richard, was training for Baptist ministry. They are now in the settlement process searching for their first pastorate. Richard and Fran have two adult children.