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Around the table: Wheaton’s views on communion

February 8 2018

Aside from baptism, communion — also called the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist — is perhaps the most distinguishing Christian ritual. Views on communion within Christianity vary widely; however, even the word “ritual” might betray a specific definition or dogma connected to an institution. How involved is God in our practice of the meal? Is communion a holy sacrament or a symbolic ordinance? Though communion mirrors the universal partaking of Christians in the bodily sacrifice of Christ, why are so many divisions drawn within a practice representing unity?

Wheaton College has a unique demographic: It is a slice of Christian culture that is not a church. Though an expressly Protestant institution, Wheaton espouses no official connections to a single church or denomination. So what are the various views and experiences with the Lord’s Supper among this sundry collection of Christians from sundry denominations and theological backgrounds?

While the stories you’ll see in this piece are by no means exhaustive — in fact, I was struck to find so many similarities in the views expressed by the interviewees — they paint a picture that illustrates just how many places students have arrived from and just what the Eucharist can do to unify the body of Christ, as well as diversify it.

Most Wheaton students come from evangelical or non-denominational backgrounds that typically view the traditional sacraments as memorials of how Jesus lived his life. However, some students, upon arriving at Wheaton, found themselves pushed in a more sacramental direction. Isabel Carter, a junior raised in the Grace Brethren Church — a conservative, non-creedal denomination — told me, “We would have communion maybe once a month. It wasn’t part of the church service. We would eat together after church, wash each others’ feet and then take communion. … It was very important for members of the church because it wasn’t just a ‘go to church, get the thing.’ It was a whole community washing each others’ feet and then partaking in the Eucharist.” Despite the reverence involved in such an event, Carter mentioned that the infrequency of its practice seemed to indicate that communion was held with only a minor importance, and for her it certainly did not seem very significant.

Micah Stucki, a sophomore, also grew up within a small denomination with similarly infrequent but eventful communion practices. His family, which recognized the eucharistic roots of communion in the Jewish feast, held the conviction that proper celebration of communion happens within the yearly Passover feast. So, the Stuckis only practiced the Lord’s Supper at the Passover table once a year.

When Stucki was a freshman at Wheaton, a friend asked him if he wanted to join a group on their way to All-School Communion in Edman Chapel. He passed on the invitation, citing his childhood tradition. “At the bare minimum you need to take this because it’s part of what we do as Christians,” Stucki recalled his friend telling him. “‘This is how you’re a part of our community. … It puts you in solidarity with your brothers and sisters in Christ.” This made sense to Stucki, who had been feeling for some time that his convictions about passover and communion were alienating him from “the community.” He attended the next All-School and, a year later, has begun serving communion at his church. “Over the weeks, each time I took [communion] I started realizing that I actually really enjoyed taking it and there was like almost a hunger for it growing there,” he explained. “Over the last few months the most important thing that’s been added to my faith is the importance of the physical world and how it influences our faith and embellishes our faith and makes it more real.”

All-School Communion has a long history at Wheaton, though the monthly event was only established in 2001. The earliest reference in the Wheaton College archive to an All-School communion event is from a 1943 issue of the Record that describes a chapel service featuring communion and a monetary collection for “service men” fighting in World War II. The first event resembling our current practice occurred on April 9, 1957. Led by then-President V. Raymond Edman during the time of their routine all-school prayer session, the service was lit by candles in Pierce Memorial Chapel and included worship. It was for students participating in “Christian service work on Sundays” who would otherwise not take communion. Edman also made plans for similar services to take place at Thanksgiving and Easter the following year. In 1963, Edman and Chaplain Evan Welsh hosted a similar event featuring readings from the Book of Common Prayer. Members of Wheaton’s Ministerial Fellowship served communion itself.

All-School Communion as we know it today was the result of a brainstorming session by the student chaplains in the summer of 2001. At that time, then-Chaplain Stephen Kellough was encouraged by how seriously students were taking the Lord’s Supper and supported the initiative. Recognizing that Wheaton is not a church, he told the Record, “Communion is a sacrament that can be and should be observed across denominational lines,” and he saw it as a providential opportunity for students to take comfort after the events of 9/11.

Kellough’s observation that Wheaton includes Christians from many denominations is an important one. Some students and faculty are skeptical of All-School for that very reason. Though the Chaplain’s office will only allow ordained persons to lead the Eucharist itself, the participants are not admitted to the celebration because of their connection to the body of Christ, but because of their connection to the college.

Associate Professor of Theology Keith Johnson, who has preached at All-School twice, explained to me the reasons for this position. Because the Lord’s Supper is given of grace to the church, it seems to some that Wheaton, which is not a church, has no right to receive that gift. Another issue raised by All-School is the exclusivity that the institution demands in forming the Wheaton community. Once communion is served to students admitted to Wheaton because of their grades, intellect or socioeconomic status — any attributes other than their Christianity — an analogy can be made to those Paul rebukes in I Corinthians 11, whose faction took the bread and wine before the others because of its wealth.

As for Johnson, he sees the discontinuity between the practice of All-School Communion and the traditions of the church, yet believes as long as All-School communion sees itself as a non-church made up of members of the global church it is somewhat defensible. Even then, Johnson told me he will preach only on I Corinthians 11 when speaking at All-School, making crystal clear the only theological context in which All-School might work in light of scripture and church tradition.

There are many students, however, who find the idea of All-School completely indefensible. “I don’t think it’s real communion,” says junior Joe Lukins. “The church doing communion represents a kind of accountability. [When you take communion] you’re saying ‘I’m part of the community of Christ.’ In All-School, all that’s required is that you’re a student at Wheaton College … A Wheaton College student can be going through whatever, can be in active sin and no one can keep them accountable.” Lukins’ comments also refer to I Corinthians 11, when Paul warns those who take communion to examine themselves before partaking in the “body and blood of the Lord.” Lukins followed up by saying, “I don’t think there’s any problem with people still taking that communion — it’s not a sin to have grape juice and bread,” but he did express concern that those administering communion are not the pastors of those students. “That lack of discipline and accountability, of authority and trust [between those administering communion and those taking it] sort of negates it and makes it just a religious experience … not that religious experiences are bad in any sense, but I don’t think it should be treated as the sacrament.”

Junior Ellie Shackleford, a Greek Orthodox believer, takes Lukin’s view a step further. For her, communion is intertwined with the life of her church community, whereas “[All-School] seems like chapel with more of a sacramental push…. It doesn’t seem like a place where I should be.” She recalled attending All-School her freshman year. “Based on my beliefs about communion being so sacred and being very important that everyone is on the same page while they’re receiving it together, I couldn’t take communion [at All-School] with everyone. The understanding is different,” she explained. “My church is very small … every priest knows every single person by name. It’s a doctrinal community. We’re all receiving the same teaching about what the Eucharist is and how holy it is and what that holiness means in terms of how we receive it. We fast before receiving communion, we fast during periods of lent and before nativity and throughout the week, and those are all prerequisites for receiving communion.”

The Orthodox view of the Eucharist fully embraces the mystery of communion. While Catholics hold to transubstantiation — the bread and wine are transformed in consecration into the actual body and blood of Christ — and most Protestants hold to either a sacramental consubstantiation or an ordinal memorialization view, “the Orthodox church embraces the ultimate mystery of the Eucharist, believing it to be truly the body and blood. They trust the mystical and symbolic nature of it and see it as beyond earthly logic or human logic,” Shackleford noted. The labels that correspond to other churches’ eucharistic theologies are seen as over-explanations. When Shackelford’s view of communion at Wheaton is challenged by fellow students, she falls back on the assured uncertainty of her tradition. “[When people ask] ‘Do you think that I am taking real communion or [think] that it’s doing the same thing for me that it’s doing for you?’ I just don’t understand. I don’t know. Part of that is we don’t know the mind of God, we don’t understand the mystery of it, but I just know that the way my church is practicing it has been the same for centuries and [millennia]. So, I’m proud of that.”

In contrast, for sophomore Maddie Johnson, partaking in All-School communion feels like a central connection point for being part of the Wheaton community, but as a Catholic, one that she is excluded from. “I’ve never been to All-School,” she told me. “Often I don’t feel included because I cannot take the communion. A lot of my Catholic friends and I — the few that there are on campus — we’ve been talking about ‘What if a Catholic priest came so we could be included, or an Orthodox priest?’ That would make me want to go to All-School. I hear my friends that go to All-School and they love it and say its worth going to, but I don’t feel like I should go because I can’t take communion, the thing that it’s all about.”

Nevertheless, for many students, All-School Communion at Wheaton has provided a way of meaningfully encountering the Eucharist, sometimes for the first time. Joshua Tjahjadi, a junior, remembers the spectacle of the elements in taking communion as a child. “We take some kind of bread, we take some kind of grape juice. We just do it because we do it. It’s nice. There is a nice preamble to it. We make a good show out of it. The cup and the bread come in these nice packets. When I was eight and I first started taking communion, I thought it was pretty cool that ‘I’m one of the grown ups now! I get to take the cracker and the juice thing!’” On paper, Tjahjadi’s words seem sarcastic, but he told me this with an earnest charm. Growing more serious, he said, “I was very Zwinglian in my view of the Eucharist — this is a cracker and this is grape juice in a cup, but we do it to commemorate the finished work of the cross…. That was the only view I ever knew, and it was sufficient.”

The memorialist view of Tjahjadi’s teenage years changed when he came to Wheaton. “I think it started with All-School Communion. … That got me thinking about communion and why we take it.” He described one of Chaplain Blackmon’s All-School communion preambles on the “economy of the Eucharist.” Tjahjadi recalled part of Blackmon’s sermon: “In most societies it’s ‘My wellbeing at your cost,’ and at the Eucharist table it’s ‘Our wellbeing for all that it cost Christ to make that happen.’” The communal act of taking communion as a body of Christians, with everyone taking the “bread and wine” from the same stations, started Tjahjadi thinking about God’s work through the sacrament.

Though such a plethora of views encircle the communion table, its function as an altar, whether memorially or literally, is the image that ties them all together. Regardless of our ecclesiological views, the Eucharist somehow takes every Christian back to the table in the upper room. As an Anglican myself, I am drawn to the Book of Common Prayer’s communion liturgy: As the priest breaks the bread over the chalice, he utters, “Behold! Christ our passover is sacrificed for us!” The congregation responds, “Therefore, let us keep the feast!” Though the relationships between communion and Jesus’ actual sacrifice are important and often deeply inform our Christian practice, the body of Christ does stand before us as a resurrected reality, and whether at the altar or at his coming in glory, the church has said and will say, “Therefore, let us keep the feast! Alleluia!”


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