Adapting communion practices: Reinstituting the passing of trays

Adapting communion practices: Reinstituting the passing of trays

Nick McMillan

Congregants who took communion in the Sanctuary before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic will remember it as an occasion of passing trays containing wafers and cups of juice. 

With the COVID pandemic officially declared over in 2023, Gary Mathews, former clerk of session and co-chair of Communion, reports congregants ask when the passing trays communion practice will resume. 

After the initial switch to using sealed communion packets to prevent COVID transmission, communion resumed in the Sanctuary via intinction instead of passing trays. After the pandemic subsided, attendance at the Sanctuary services did not immediately increase enough to make passing the communion trays feasible. 

Intinction, also known as “come forward” communion.

Also known as “come forward” communion, intinction is the process by which congregants stand, walk down the aisles to the front of the Sanctuary, tear a piece of bread from a communion loaf (representing the Body of Christ), and dip it in a cup containing juice (representing the Blood of Christ) while the words of institution are spoken by an elder or pastor.

The words of institution remind us how Christ gave his body and shed his blood for us and our salvation. “This is the Body of Christ, broken for you in love,” is uttered upon receiving the bread and, “This is the Blood of Christ, shed for you in love,” when receiving the juice. 

As attested by the two candles placed on either side of the communion table, communion is one of two sacraments, along with baptism, recognized by the Presbyterian Church. 

“Just as bread and wine sustain physical life, so are souls fed by Christ.” 
– John Calvin 

John Calvin maintained that the sacrament of communion is a sign and seal in which bread and juice symbolize how Christ is “continually supplying to us the food to sustain and preserve us in that life into which he has begotten us by his Word.” 

In 1 Corinthians 10:17, apostle Paul affirms that by partaking in this shared feast together, disciples of Christ who are many become one body. 

Reverend Charles Kerr, First Church pastor from 1900 to 1941, used a home communion kit which is now on display in Miller Library.
Now preseved by History & Archives, this communion tray was used at First Church in the early 1900s.

How often is communion served? 

The Presbyterian Book of Order prescribes the serving of communion at least once a quarter. At First Church, the schedule for communion in the Sanctuary service is prepared in the Worship and Music committee and then authorized by the Session. Communion may be served at other services as well, including the Presbyterian Leader’s Conference, All Saint’s Day, First Church retreats, UKirk services, and weddings. 

Kerr Chapel and Contemporary worship services include communion every Sunday and TIF includes communion on the first Sunday of the month. Deacons and Elders serve home communion matching the schedule of the Sunday Sanctuary service, and home communion can be served by a pastor at their discretion at any time.

Home communion 

First Church has a rich history of providing home communion. There are various means of conveying communion elements in homes. Delivery sets used by pastors for home communion contain single-serving flagon and cups, whereas the deacons and elders carry the elements in packets. Reverend Charles Kerr, First Church pastor from 1900 to 1941, used a home communion kit that is now on display in Miller Library. 

Benefits to each communion style 

Passing trays works best when people are sitting close to one another in the pews. Where there is a significant distance from one person to another, someone has to stand up and carry the tray to the next person. This can be a challenge for people who find it difficult to stand up and walk in the narrow space between pews while balancing a tray with several cups of juice or bread. 

Some congregants prefer communion by intinction. Joan Hoar, First Church historian emerita, finds that coming forward to take communion in a procession provides more opportunity to reflect on the meaning of communion. Additionally, intinction communion is more personal when pastors include a person’s name in the words of institution. 

At the same time, “a lot of symbolism is lost by intinction,” says Steve Wilson, director of high school youth ministry, who prefers the contrasting emphases of taking the bread and the wine separately. Also, the expectation that each person repeats the words of institution when passing trays affirms the priesthood of all believers. 

Reinstituting the practice of passing trays, however, requires more steps before, during, and after the service than intinction. Although the serving time remains roughly the same, preparing separate cups of juice and bread takes significantly more time than serving communion by intinction. Further, whereas intinction requires a combined 16 elders and pastors to serve, it takes more elders than actually serve on session to pass trays, with an elder is stationed at every fourth pew to pass the trays back and forth. 

Previously, the first session meeting of every year included training on passing trays and uttering the words of institution. Elders and pastors may need to encourage congregants to learn to repeat these words as we once again pass trays. 

In preparation for Pentecost communion, the Presbyterian Women have selflessly volunteered to polish the set of silver serving trays that have tarnished since last used a few years ago. 

Receiving communion through passing trays resumes this year when services are combined in the Sanctuary for Pentecost and on World Communion Sunday. This schedule will likely continue for the foreseeable future. 

Whether you prefer to take communion by intinction or by passing trays, you will be able to find spiritual nourishment at a Sanctuary service.