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Hallo again to all.

Communion tokenNone of us has ever participated in a communion service that made use of communion tokens. We've seen them on occasion for sale in bric-a-brac shops, and watched them disappear at sometimes fantastic prices in eBay auctions. But they represent a form of eucharistic discipline relatively strange to us, one about which we have found ourselves reflecting recently nonetheless.

Communion tokens, rooted in early sixteenth-century 'houselling tokens' that served the same purpose, were given by ministers to people in their charge who professed themselves prepared to receive the holy communion. Attendance at pre-communion preparatory services or fast-day observances was often a prerequisite to obtaining them. They could be presented by the hopeful communicant on the (then quite infrequent) day when the Lord's Supper was celebrated as a sign of his or her readiness to join in the meal on the terms of the local congregation. In Calvinist Europe, especially in Switzerland and France, they were called méraux; in English- and Gaelic-speaking Christianity they are almost exclusively the domain of various strains of Presbyterianism, though their use by Scottish Episcopal clergy is also attested. In the hands and pockets of Scots they made their way to Canada, Newfoundland, the United States, Vanuatu and other parts of the Hebridean diaspora.

Communion tokenAll the examples we own are octagonal, but squares, ovals, circles, diamonds, hexagons and other fanciful shapes are not too hard to find. Silver and ivory are known to have been used very occasionally, but the great majority are made of 'white' metals like tin, pewter or lead, and often include a biblical verse appropriate to self-examination before the service. Also common are the name and location of the congregation, the year the service for which they were made took place, and the initials of the incumbent clergyman in charge of the whole affair. Some include a numeral indicating the particular table to which its holder was assigned. Our favourites are those that picture the burning bush on obverse or reverse and include variations on the phrase nec tamen consumebatur or [it was burned but] not consumed in an elaborate, multivalent reference to Moses' theopany, Isaiah's heavenly vision, and the Christian's privileged meeting with God in the holy eucharist.

Communion token Each time we look at a communion token, we marvel to think of the effort western Christians once put into internal preparation for this sacrament. There is unimpeachable evidence on this page alone to indicate that a man or woman in Calton, Glasgow received communion after due preparation in 1828; that another did the same in Longformacus in 1848; and that five years earlier in Gilcomston, Aberdeen someone else did the same. We cannot know what ascetic or charitable efforts accompanied this, whether they involved close study of some portion of the Bible; reconciliation with a neighbour over an old feud; the survival of an expository, hortatory sermon or five; long hours or intense minutes in conversation with God or someone appointed to pastor his flock. This strand of Christianity found the reception of holy communion an important enough occasion to mark it with the striking of a medal for the event. Old tokens were treated with reverence after the time of their use, buried under pulpits or in churchyards rather than being smelted.

Today, by contrast, receiving communion is more routinized, available without difficulty at least once a week and in some places a few times a day to most of us who desire it and have a means of traveling to an Anglican church. One good consequence is that we can now go shorter periods without eucharistic nourishment; two generally unnoted less positive results are that we are much less familiar with the offices of Mattins and Evensong, and that we're generally much less reverent about the Holy Communion. It may not quite be true that we now celebrate the eucharist at the drop of a hat, but it is the case that half a century ago gatherings that would have begun and ended with a choral Evensong now invariably involve the holy communion. But as we read headlines that describe the 'tearing' of institutional communion in our family of churches, we know of no one who has ever been repelled from the Blessed Sacrament in any church in any diocese on any side of the various presenting issues that are understood to have broken or torn communion among us. We wonder sometimes if Communion and Communion are only coincidentally the same word in light of the inexplicable differences we watch between the two in headlines and on the ground.

Communion tokenAlthough we live in a time when the Communion—by which we mean global, structural Anglican belonging—is quite difficult and fraught with political issues, Holy Communion—by which we mean the most comfortable sacrament—has become very easy indeed. It is sad, then, to note that there are dozens of organizations with their own detailed agendae for re-formation of the Anglican Communion, but a tiny handful working with single-mindedness to deepen the lives of communicants in preparation for the Holy Communion.* We wouldn't mind watching a reverse of the amount of ink and number of keystrokes expended on the former in favour of the latter.

It is as impossible as it is undesirable to turn back the clock on eucharistic preparation. We are thankful that we live and move in a tradition that has been unwilling to make windows into souls in connection with it. (On a practical note, we cannot imagine capable smiths coming forward to supply metal tokens in their millions for the Anglicans who receive the sacrament each Sunday around the world, and it is not in any case part of the main stream of our tradition.) But it is worth looking again at the shelves of Anglican devotional books that once set out patterns for systematic self-examination of conscience over a period of a week or a month. Many editions of works by Hobart, Haweis, Nelson and Taylor are relatively easy to find from sources like the Anglican Bibliopole and AbeBooks, and less expensive than a new hardcover book from a university press. There is wisdom to be found on every page, wisdom that stands to deepen and enrich our common lives if only we will tap into it. Tolle, lege.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 7 October 2007

* The Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament in its various branches comes to mind; if you know of other such organizations, do let us know.

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