A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

John Wesley on... #4 (Holy Communion)

John Wesley was a high church Anglican, when it came to the sacrament of Holy Communion. He very much believed in constant communion. He writes in a sermon of the same name,

I say constantly receiving; for as to the phrase of frequent communion, it is absurd to the last degree. If it means anything less than constant, it means more than can be proved to be the duty of any man. For if we are not obliged to communicate constantly, by what argument can it be proved that we are obliged to communicate frequently? Yea, more than once a year, or once in seven years, or once before we die? Every argument brought for this, either proves that we ought to do it constantly, or proves nothing at all. Therefore, that indeterminate, unmeaning way of speaking ought to be laid aside by all men of understanding ("The Duty of Constant Communion").

Wesley himself communed several times a week. He believed that it was commanded by Christ, and that the benefits (forgiveness, grace, assurance) of receiving communion should motivate one to commune constantly.

According to Wesley, a Christian should study the passages in the Gospels and in 1 Corinthians 11 in order to come to a better understanding of the sacrament. He did not believe that Paul's reference to "eating and drinking unworthily" referred to a lack of understanding of the meaning of the sacrament, but rather referred to celebrating in an unworthy manner in selfishness, and in a divisive ecclesial spirit. Infrequent communion also constituted eating and drinking unworthily.

Wesley never addressed the issue of whether an unbaptized person could receive communion, but given his context, he probably assumed that baptism was a prerequisite for coming to the Lord's Table. He did, however, state that someone who is "earnestly seeking" may come to the table and find the grace they need. On occassion, Wesley did exclude some from receiving the Eucharist for various reasons. His understanding of open table was not a blanket invitation to everyone. Sinners must be earnestly seeking the grace of God, and in most cases one must be a member of a Methodist society. Soul-searching and prayer were important prerequisites, although Wesley did not exclude someone if daily events did not give time for such preparation. It was Wesley's ecclesiological-oriented understanding of the sacrament that led him in this direction. It was the influence of the private religion in America on Methodism in the nineteenth century, that led to open table as one of general invitation to all no matter what (J. Fitzgerald, in the Wesleyan Theological Journal, pp. 141-142, Spring 2007).

Wesley rejected with strong words the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, but as in baptism, he understood the sacrament as an actual means of the grace of God.

1 comment:

Ted M. Gossard said...

I read this before, but now want to thank you for sharing this on Wesley and on Methodism. A good education for me. And I think his was a healthy practice we'd all do well to emulate or come closer to.