The New Passover: Rethinking the Lord’s Supper for today
Cascade Books £20
MANY people may well share the author’s conviction “that the ways in which the great majority of contemporary churches keep the Lord’s Supper need some radical and serious rethinking”; but his vision goes far beyond the sort of liturgical renewal that would be in the minds of most who might concur with that statement.
He believes that the eucharist should be in the context of an evening meal shared in houses by small groups, sitting down and not standing, and involving ordinary bread and ordinary wine, with the latter in individual cups — all this because it is what he thinks Jesus intended and the earliest believers practised, an ideal from which later Christian history marked a drastic decline.
His arguments are set out with more awareness of recent historical scholarship than many similar visions have often shown. His knowledge of that scholarship, however, is still incomplete, and he makes a selective and sometimes inaccurate use of what he does know.
While he reasons that modern Christians must do certain things exactly as the earliest churches did them, he doesn’t think that this need apply to everything. He knows that early Christians exchanged a kiss in their gatherings, but he doesn’t think that this action is obligatory today: it is enough if we just express fellowship when we meet for the eucharist. He knows that the unbaptised were excluded from communion, but he wants to change that rule to extend to baptised Christians who are not true believers. He knows that “at a relatively early point” the belief emerged that Christ was in the bread and wine, but he cites only ancient texts that seem to him to support a purely “spiritual presence rather than one that was contained in the elements”.
He knows that standing to receive communion was an early practice, but “that doesn’t mean it needs to be replicated by the contemporary churches.” He even admits that a common cup was in use among some second-century congregations, but regards this as connected with the mistaken belief in a change taking place in the elements, and, above all, as much too unhygienic.
The problem, however, with asserting that some biblical and early Christian practices really must be kept while others can readily be discarded is that such decisions usually end up creating an imaginary past that suits our present-day desires rather than one governed by the historical scholarship that, it is thought, is being used.
The Revd Dr Paul Bradshaw is Emeritus Professor of Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, in the United States.