Communion has been the subject of some recent high-profile debates, ranging from calls to deny the sacrament to Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry to a decision to revoke the first Communion of an 8-year-old girl Roman Catholic girl because she ingested a non-wheat wafer.
The reality is that the meaning of Communion and the way it is practiced have been sources of dispute since the early centuries of Christianity. Those debates continue but rarely reach the national stage because they involve often-subtle changes made by church hierarchies or conflicts within individual congregations.
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Yet such discussions are important because they go to the heart of the Christian faith, say clergy and denominational officials. They affect the way believers perceive and take part in one of the most sacred events in Christian history: the meal Jesus shared with his disciples the night before his crucifixion. And they affect efforts to foster unity among Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians and end theological and liturgical disputes that have created deep divisions in Christianity.
For those with a goal of unity, success could be far in the future, with Communion practices becoming more diverse as congregations search for new ways to accommodate the lifestyles and sensibilities of their members.
Juleen Turnage, spokeswoman for the Assemblies of God, said some megachurches in her denomination -- including her own 6,000-member church -- have found it unwieldy to offer Communion during packed Sunday morning services and now do so only during the lesser-attended Sunday night services. "It's a matter of practicality," she said.
John Revell, spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, said many churches now use Communion kits, which consist of a wafer and a small plastic cup of grape juice. The prepackaged kits, which are passed through the pews on cardboard instead of silver trays, make breaking up crackers and filling hundreds of tiny glasses -- and washing them afterward -- a thing of the past.
The United Methodist Church passed a resolution at its general conference in May urging congregations to shed generations of tradition by offering Communion weekly rather than monthly. The effort is to "reshape the focus on Communion by urging people to celebrate the Eucharist more often," said denomination spokesman Stephen Drachler.
Moving toward weekly Communion also has been a goal of many Lutherans for more than 30 years, said the Rev. Michael Burk, director of worship for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. One reason was the adoption of a book of worship in 1978 that placed more emphasis on Communion; another is the church's use of a common lectionary developed in recent years by Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant leaders, he said.
And the Presbyterian Church (USA) has been moving slowly from monthly to weekly Communion, said the Rev. Joseph Small, director of the church's office of theology and worship. Small said he knows of at least 400 Presbyterian churches, out of about 8,000, that offer Communion weekly.
A more evident change among Presbyterians, whose Reformation forebears rejected many Catholic Communion practices, has been an increase in the number of congregations that prefer taking Communion at the altar rail rather than in the pews, Small said. Many now use wine instead of grape juice and prefer the method of intinction, in which a piece of bread is dipped into a common chalice, then consumed.
One thing that hasn't changed for most Protestants is their rejection of transubstantiation, the Catholic teaching that the elements -- bread and wine -- are transformed during the Eucharist into the body and blood of Jesus and remain so. In the Roman Catholic Church, any leftover wine must be consumed by the priest, and the leftover hosts or wafers must be kept in a receptacle known as a tabernacle.
Burk said Evangelical Lutherans believe that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus, but only for that meal. Any leftovers are "bread that was used in Holy Communion," not the body and blood of Jesus, he said.
But most Protestants view the bread and wine as a symbol of Jesus's presence, placing less emphasis on the elements' physical makeup and more on the communal sharing of bread and wine (or grape juice). For some, monthly Communion isn't merely adequate but preferred.
The Rev. Ronald Braxton, pastor of Metropolitan AME Church in Northwest Washington, said that African Methodist Episcopalians believe that Communion is a "renewal of our relationship with the Savior," not a "physical taking of Christ into our body."