During my two decades as a Friend within the Evangelical sphere on influence, I have noticed two things when it comes to elemental (bread & wine, or juice) communion.  First, every book or article written by a Friend on the subject of the sacraments begins by lamenting the lack of understanding, by Quakers, of their own view of the ordinances.  Second, and I think this is mostly found within Evangelical Friends, is that elemental communion and non-elemental communion are, theologically and historically, roughly equal, but that Quakers prefer non-elemental communion.

I want to talk about the second thing that I've noticed, that it was simply a matter of preference when it came to not using bread and wine.   For some time, I thought that George Fox objected to a general lack of spiritual significance in communion as it was practiced by churches in England in the 17th-century.  Because Fox thought, I believed, that religious ordinances had become cultural and no longer conveyed deep spiritual truth, he decided that Friends should bypass elements like bread, wine and baptismal water and go straight to the truths behind them.  I am not sure if I was taught things like this, or simply absorbed them in church; but these things were what I came to believe to form the Quaker objection to outward elements.

This changed radically when I began to read George Fox's writings.  What I came to discover was that Fox objected to elemental communion, as based on a ritualization of the Lord's Supper.  The basis for his objection was thoroughly biblical.  For Fox, I Corinthians 11:26 was a key verse; in this verse, Paul, in addressing a problematic eating and drinking ritual that had developed at Corinth, cites that the Lord Jesus revealed to him that "as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."  To Fox, the Lord had undeniably "come" and was present to His followers.  As another biblical citation, Fox looked to I John 5:20, which stated, "and we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, to know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in His Son, Jesus Christ."  If indeed Christ has come, as Fox believed, then any "time limit" for proclaiming Christ's death has expired.  Now was not the time to focus on Christ's death, but to "seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God." (Colossians 3:1)  And it is this heavenly, ascended Christ that revealed to John, the Beloved Disciple, another meal that proclaimed Christ's presence and nearness:  "Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me."  (Revelations 3:20)  In this passage, Christ is proclaiming His potential intimacy with people, who merely have to lower their personal barriers in order for Christ to be present within them.  Fox looked upon this meal, sequentially the last supper presented in the Bible, as the "Marriage Supper of the Lamb", in which individuals become united with their Lord, the Lamb of God.

There are those, though, who have not participated in this Marriage Supper.  To them, Fox quotes 2 Corinthians 13:5: "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves.  Know ye not your own selves, how that Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?" (KJV)  It is vitally important to know Christ's presence within.  Only the meal described in Revelations 3:20 brings Christ within the individual; an elemental communion meal/ceremony only proclaims Christ's death without Christ "having come."  Fox frequently noted that Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed the Lord, participated in the supper prepared by Jesus.  Yet, it availed Judas nothing.  From Fox's point of view, earthly elements, even ones prepared by Christ, are completely ineffectual in translating an individual into eternal life.  Only the heavenly bread which comes down from above, the Living Bread, Jesus Christ, can give someone this grace.  And it is in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb that provides us with that Bread.

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Comment by Helen Bayes on 7th mo. 24, 2011 at 12:30am
I have just been to Catholic Mass in the Rockhampton Cathedral, with some anti-war activists disrupting the USA/Australian 'war games' currently in happening here.  I was moved by the inward stillness and seriousness of many participants as they returned to their seats.  They seemed perhaps to have been nourished by the experience of the ritual communion.  But it seemed very different from sharing a meal, from caring for and nourishing each other in community.  In our resistance to forms, I wondered how we Quakers give each other, within our local weekly rhythms of worship, the sense of being fed for our spiritual seeking - a journey which can be long and lonely.
Comment by Rodney Guy Pharris on 7th mo. 24, 2011 at 10:38am
These are wonderful connections.
Comment by Allistair Lomax on 8th mo. 29, 2011 at 11:12am
This is an excellent exposition of the Early Quaker understanding of the Lord's Supper. I'd like to add a few comments, of my own, if I may. One of the other essential issues for Fox and the Early Quakers is the one of 'shadow' and 'substance'. Hence, if Jesus Christ is truly come, and we experience him present in our midst in worship, then we are communing with the reality or 'substance' that is, Christ Jesus, himself. For Fox and the Early Quakers, the taking of outward bread and wine, meant relying on the 'shadow' i.e. unreality of Christ, which is a form of denial of the presence and power of Christ in our midst, and so, for them, the use outward sacraments was a sign of the 'Great Apostasy'.  One further, comment, is that Fox and the Early Friends made great use of the 6th Chapter of John. Jesus describes himself as the 'Living Bread' that 'comes down from heaven; (John 6:48-50), and that his words are Spirit and Life (John 6:63). It is in that sense, that Early Friends understood gathering in the presence of Christ to feed on his Living Word, as the true and spiritual 'Communion' that belongs to the New Convenant Church, and reject outward forms of bread and wine, as slipping back in to the 'shadows'. Often in modern Quaker contexts, our form of 'communion' is often presented as a simple choice between people who prefer 'inward' or 'outward' forms of communion. This is drastically misunderstand our Quaker faith. For Early Friends, as for me, the choice is always between the sufficiency of presence of Christ in the midst, or the false images of Christ, the shadows.
Comment by Rodney Guy Pharris on 8th mo. 29, 2011 at 1:42pm
Biblically, Fox points out Paul's revelation from Christ, in I Corinthians 11, that whoever takes the bread and the wine proclaims Christ's death until he comes.  Then Fox turnes to I John 5, in a "what canst thou say" moment, and affirms that we "know he has come and given us understanding, to know him who is true."  To take the bread and wine is to imply that Christ has not come and, therefore, is not present.
Comment by Forrest Curo on 8th mo. 29, 2011 at 3:20pm

All this concern for "what we're saying" looks like it could turn into a matter of "cleaning the  outside of the cup."


I'm considering this via Stephen Gaskin's notion of church services as a sort of collective white magic, in which people [are allowed to] pull down a bit of God's energy and use it to light the group up... The important thing from this angle is less "what we are saying" and more: "Do we have a clean, steady connection to that power?"-- one that won't just dissipate in temporary fireworks, or burn up our brains like Aaron's ambitious sons. Or: Are we getting the power together with whatever signal it wants to impart?


It's okay to symbolize somebody's theology-- if our antenna is pulling down the juice! Fox was saying exactly that, objecting because the churches of his day just weren't plugged in to the available power.  He'd been shown a new way-- that involved less waste motion and was less easily hijacked-- but again, if people practice only the externals of his form of worship,  that in itself doesn't have to mean more or less than a priest serving us cookies. To fully realize that God is present, working in, through, and around us as Jesus revealed, entirely adequate for any good purpose-- Isn't that essentially the 'faith' we need?

Comment by Tom Smith on 8th mo. 29, 2011 at 4:27pm
I was raised with the concept that the silence before every meal was a recognition of the presence of Christ as we broke bread together. It was not to "call the presence" but a recognition that at the "right hand of God" meant here and now, "alive and well."
Comment by Forrest Curo on 8th mo. 29, 2011 at 7:00pm
"Recognition" is like a "call." Sort of like saying, "Okay, we know you're here, and welcome!"
Comment by Christopher Hatton on 1st mo. 28, 2014 at 9:22am

Thank you Friends, I have just stumbled on this post thanks to a comment from Alistair Lomax. Someone with a Roman Catholic background who has started attending our local meeting is struggling with this concept and specifically asked me for Biblical / early Friends quotes on why we Friends have traditionally shunned the outward rituals. The quote from Relatations, is known to me and I have traditionally also used it before eating together with other Friends after holding a Meeting for Worship at my place.

Helen, I particularly like your comments on the upper room and the visualisation of the supper meal (similar to which I have recently eaten with Christian Peacemaker Teams colleagues in Hebron).I agree with you Rodney, the thought of it being a variation of a Jewish Seder but with a broken body and shed blood appeals to me.

Comment by Patrice Wassmann on 1st mo. 28, 2014 at 3:44pm

This gives me much to ponder, and a deeper insight into the Quaker understanding of communion. Thank you all for your comments. For myself, elemental Communion is deeply important, and full of joy. It was during such that I had a mystical vision of Christ himself, which lead me to believe that he is truly present in some way during "elemental" Communion. Perhaps if I was furthur advanced in my spiritual journey I would not need the bread and wine, but for now I do. It means so much to me. But I am glad to understand the Quaker view better. And for me it is not so much about remembering his death as it is about remembering what that death accomplished for us.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 1st mo. 28, 2014 at 10:09pm

Friend Patrice speaks my mind.  One of the most profound and moving encunters I had with Christ being present was at a small Franciscan House during communion.  I was astonished at the palpable feeing of Christ's presence.  It was a very simple ceremony with only a few people.  I was invited to attend by a friend of a friend and didn't know what to expect.  I only attended because I was a guest and my old friend asked me to come. 

Like Patrice, I understand the view of Christ being present that Fox and others advocated.  But the truth is, I forget, my mind wanders, as I get involved with the distractions of work and other obligations that sense of presence slips away unnoticed.  Perhpas if I was more advanced, more attentive, that would not happen.  But here I am and this is my experience. 

I need reminders and I need them frequently; communion is one of those reminders.  It can be done very simply, without a lot of ceremony and done directly without a lot of pomp. 

I read Barclay on communion and my sense from Barclay is that one reason Quakers rejected communion is that the ceremony had engendered a huge amount of squabbling and violence in the name of Christianity.  Barclay is hugely sarcastic about this.  I get it.  And I agree with the reaction; it makes sense.  But as for me, I find it a rewarding signal to keep my life focused in the direction that Christ wants me to travel.  And I am grateful that He provided this simply means of keeping my focus in that direction.



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