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Communion without name-tagsHallo again to all.

Not long ago, we received Holy Communion at a festal celebration marking the wedding of two dear friends. The service was both wonderfully traditional and substantially original; no one could have mistaken the wedding as having been planned by anyone but the wedded and their families. The day will stay in our memories for a long time, and we wish the new couple every blessing as their new life together begins.

We've often come to the holy table at Christ Church, Emerald City, just as we did at this wedding; it is an altar that serves as a worthy focal point in a vast chancel. Depending on the idiom being used on a given Sunday, we're used to subtle variations on the three following forms of communion administration:

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in everlasting life.

The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.

On this Saturday, however, we heard a succession of conversational interpolations at the altar rail, that humble, holy place where the body of Christ is given to and received by the body of Christ.

George, the Body of Christ.
This is the Body of Christ.
Annie, you come to all the good weddings, don't you?
Body of Christ.*
So good to see you here [a beaming, meaningful pause directed toward the communicant]
The Body of Christ.
Mrs. Patterson, this is the Body of Christ. [toothy smile]

These ad libitum phrases on either side of us struck us in odd ways; they were distracting, clubbish, and unfortunately not without precedent. At Holy Communion of all places, shouldn't there be an atmosphere of radical equality among communicants, whether or not they are known by given name to the priest? Adding the names of some intimates to the words of administration—while omitting others—gives simultaneous occasion for inclusion and exclusion during what is supposed to be a sacrament of unity across time, place, race, name and station. And what of the likelihood of malapropisms? To our embarrassment, we've often called a Robert Richard or an Ethel Alice. What might be the sad impact of a misremembered name or face at a time such as this when hearts are especially focused?

The practice of using Christian names during the administration of Holy Communion comes from undoubtedly good intentions, and there could well be times when it is appropriate—in an extremely small congregation. In general, though, it seems to us a misunderstanding of the Holy Eucharist as somehow needing to be personalized—rather than as being inherently personal. Sacraments are gifts from God to individual persons and church communities. We, their grateful, hopeful recipients accept them as best we can in our subjective ways, having prepared ourselves alone and in community, with individual joys and sorrows on our hearts. But we receive Holy Communion in particular in whatever language, form or country as an objective, concrete, visible sign of inward grace. Our names are not necessary as they are in some other church contexts, because here they are known to the same God whose invited guests we are. We have it on good authority that there's special providence even in the fall of a sparrow and that the very hairs of our head are numbered in heaven. This makes us content indeed to have personal but not personalized administration and reception of the Blessed Sacrament.

Personalization has no impact on the efficacy of sacraments, of course. This is one of the great benefits of liturgical worship, and the idea that sacraments are means of God's grace to us ex opere operato—without respect to the worthiness of the minister or any problems in administration. And yet we suspect that the aforementioned chatty attempt at personalization is a manifestation of the same impulse to update and particularize dependable, objective sacraments that we have seen recently in parts of New South Wales.

The prayers and forms we have inherited and adapted legitimately are quite enough to make for celebrations ever new, ever fresh, if only we will let them do so without adulteration. Adding things—given names, expanded lists of those who may be celebrants, jaunty socialization, novel interpretations of the relationship between ordination and communion—in the end really does more to take away from the wideness of God's love and mercy known to us in the breaking of the bread.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 9 November 2008

* Being unknown by name or social prominence to the celebrant, this is what we heard.

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