Bringing Communion Back

This fall, our school brought communion back.

Breck is a large, co-ed independent Episcopal school in Minneapolis. Although lots of Episcopal schools include the Eucharist as an integral part of their worship life, the last time we had communion for everyone it was a 90-minute disaster with lots of hurt feelings, people feeling forced to receive the Eucharist, and non-Christians in particular hoping it would never be repeated. For the past twenty-five years, the sacrament of the Eucharist has been reserved for small, voluntary groups of people, 10 or 30 at a time.

I’ve been head chaplain here for twenty-one years, and whenever I or one of the other chaplains asked teachers or administrators about celebrating the Lord’s Supper in an All School Chapel, I got worried answers, like:

  • “Communion divides people–Christians from Jews, Christians from other Christians.” 
  • “With all the stuff happening in the culture, do we really want to risk driving people away?”
  • “Think of all the multicultural work we’ve been doing. Wouldn’t this send a mixed message?”

But would we really never do communion again? We reminded folks that we’ve had full-fledged Passover Seders and Native American worship. We’ve celebrated Ramadan and Diwali in Chapel. Why couldn’t we celebrate communion?

The trick was to figure out a way to do it that did not feel excluding. We had been having a failure of imagination. We could be diverse AND Episcopalian, right?

So we spent a lot of time in classes and divisional chapels, and at parent association meetings and board of trustee retreats. Coming up for a blessing would be a fine alternative, we said, not a mark of second-class citizenship. And staying in your pew would be totally cool.

We made sure that parents of lower school children told their teacher which option (bread/blessing/pew) they wanted for their child. We didn’t want any accidental first communions, particularly for families in which that event is much-anticipated.

And in a school that has more Jews (11%) than Episcopalians (9%), we made a point of talking and listening to Jewish parents, faculty, and kids. Would this be an altar call? A secret Christian handshake? A few of the Eucharistic ministers learned a Hebrew benediction.

In the end, the celebration of Advent allowed us to focus on Mary’s role. The Easter Eucharist was also a welcome to our new Bishop, and featured glazed ceramic plates of flowers and other garden plants, in keeping with this year’s Chapel theme at Breck, “Out of the Garden.”

Breck’s All School Chapel is 1,000 kids and 120 teachers. The Gospel was performed by pairs of excellent student lectors. There was no special service music to learn, just familiar hymns which we sing frequently. Twelve communion stations with traffic arrows in blue tape on the carpeted aisles of the chapel. Faculty ushers. Parent ministers of the Eucharist. Lots of singing during communion with acolytes galore. An evocative, thematic slide show as people entered the chapel with lovely music. Whether coming forward for a blessing or bread, or just singing as they remained in their pews, everyone felt a part of the worship.

Anyhow, after lots of rehearsing, we got out of the Holy Spirit’s way, and she swept happily through the room like a warm wind. It felt like coming home for a lot of us, and for others it just felt beautiful. We’re going to do it again twice next year.