photo of woman lying in hospital bed
photo of woman lying in hospital bed

The sacraments were designed by God to strengthen our faith in Jesus Christ.  As we go through life, we experience trials and difficulties that sometimes challenge our faith.  In those sorts of times, we can be glad that our Father has given us the sacraments to nourish us, and to confirm us in the promises of the gospel.  Historically, however, the Canadian Reformed Churches have withheld the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper from those who are shut-in and unable to attend a regular public worship service.  Those who might benefit from it the most have been unable to.  Until recently.

Recent Decisions

In 2006, the Canadian Reformed Church at Smithers brought an overture to a Classis Pacific West, requesting that the Church Order be amended to accommodate administering the Lord’s Supper to those who are shut-in because of sickness or old age.  The suggested revisions maintained that the sacrament would be administered in the context of a worship service by a minister and all other agreements in the Church Order with regards to admittance to the sacrament would be followed.  The Classis Pacific West of October 10-11, 2006 agreed to pass on Smithers’ overture to the next Regional Synod West.  Regional Synod West 2006 considered the matter and agreed to forward it to General Synod Smithers 2007.

Synod 2007 decided that it was not necessary to revise the Church Order to accommodate the administration of the Lord’s Supper to shut-ins.  The Synod agreed with and took over these considerations of Regional Synod West 2006:

1)      It is not the number of attendees nor the venue that constitutes a “public worship service,” but the presence of office bearers together with congregation members (‘the form of the church’).

2)      The current recognition of the form of the church in multiple places can by extension be applied to extraordinary circumstances in the congregation, in the sense that the consistory could have a worship service for those who cannot come to the normal gathering.  In principle this does not differ from a consistory calling the congregation together at two times (e.g., because the building is too small, necessitating two services back to back) or calling the congregation together at two locations (e.g., because members live too far apart).

3)      Consistories are responsible for the pastoral care of the members.  If in the consistory’s judgment a shut-in member requires the encouragement contained in the Lord’s Supper, the consistory ought to do what it can to provide that encouragement.

4)      While the administration of the Lord’s Supper does belong to the churches in common, it remains debatable whether or not a revision of certain Church Order articles is needed.

Essentially then, Synod 2007 gave the green light to Smithers and other Canadian Reformed churches to provide the Lord’s Supper for shut-ins.  Despite three appeals, Synod 2010 upheld the decision of Synod 2007.

An Older Discussion

This issue has been discussed before in our history.  I recently came across it in a debate that was held between Guido de Brès and a Roman Catholic bishop.  The author of the Belgic Confession was in prison in Valenciennes, awaiting his date with the executioner.  He had been charged with celebrating the Lord’s Supper contrary to the order of the government.  On May 22, 1567, Francois Richardot came to visit and debate with de Brès.  He had hoped to change his mind and yet bring him back to the Roman Catholic fold.

The debate centered on the differences between the biblical Lord’s Supper and the Roman Catholic mass.  About half way through their session that day, de Brès said the following:

Inasmuch as you say that the mass is the Supper of the Lord Jesus Christ, I really want to know why the priest does other than what Christ has done and commanded to be done.  Christ was seated at the table with his disciples.  He preached and admonished from the Word of God.  He was not at all disguised in a get-up like a priest.  He did not speak in an unknown language.  He took the bread and after having given thanks to God, he broke it and distributed it to his disciples.  And likewise the cup, saying, “Drink from it all of you.”  He did not have an altar, but a table.  He did not sacrifice, but ate and commanded to eat.

De Brès’ strategy in this debate was to constantly come back to the differences between the way the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in Scripture and the way the mass was done by the Roman Catholic Church.

In his response, Richardot latched on to what he thought was the weakness of de Brès’ position in the words quoted above.  De Brès had noted that this was a communal meal, celebrated by Christ and his disciples.  Bishop Richardot responded:

…I say that the mass is such a wonderfully praiseworthy thing, that every time that it is said, that communion is held, I eagerly desire it.  And if anyone should ask for it, it should not be refused him.  If there should be a priest who has the devotion to celebrate it, should he be prevented from this blessing because there are no other communicants?  That would not at all be reasonable.  And certainly you are greatly to be condemned for cruelty and inhumanity.  Pardon me that I speak thus about your refusing the sacrament for the poor sick, which is a thing totally repugnant to brotherly charity and to the manner of the early church, who allowed it to be taken to the sick.

For our purposes it is the mention here of communion for the sick that draws our attention.  The bishop alleged that the Reformed churches forbade giving the Lord’s Supper to those who are shut-in and that this was cruel, inhumane, unloving, and out of step with the early church.

A short time later, de Brès came back to this point and gave his response to the bishop:

As for you accusing us of inhumanity for not giving the sacrament to the sick, I confess that it has been done some times before.  But whether it is lawful, based on what I have said, I cannot see a good reason.  It is not a sacrament designed to be given to just one person, since it is a communion of many who should receive it together, and not just one.  However, I would not be too strict if some believer being sick requested to receive this sacrament and if several others were prepared to receive it with the one making the request, and if it were the custom of the church, I would not, I say, condemn such a custom.

At first glance this response appears to reflect some ambiguity on the issue.

A Well-Considered Position

On the one hand, de Brès was a careful student of the early church fathers.  His extensive knowledge is revealed not only in his debates and other writings, but also in the Belgic Confession and its many patristic allusions, quotes, and paraphrases.  When he says, “I confess that it has been done some times before,” he is giving some deference to the early church.  However, he quickly adds that it is difficult to rationalize the lawfulness of this practice.  That statement should be understood in the context, however, of a number of aberrant practices.  For instance, in the medieval church there was the practice of reserving consecrated bread/wafers to be received later by the sick.  They would receive it privately, typically without any explanation or any accompanying administration of the Word (see John Calvin’s Institutes 4.17.39).

De Brès insisted that the sacrament, by its very nature, was not designed to be taken by one person all by himself or herself.  It is called “communion” for a good reason.  A communion of one would be an oxymoron.

However, de Brès recognized the danger of being overly rigorous with regards to those who are sick and shut-in.  The normal practice should be communion with all the other believers in a public worship service.  But he did not exclude the possibility of allowing a believer to take the Lord’s Supper outside of that context, provided that it would be done in a communal setting, and with the approbation of the church.  He would not stand in judgment over that kind of carefully circumscribed celebration for those who are shut-in.

The bishop dropped this particular issue at this point in the debate and so no more was said.  If we had the opportunity to ask him, undoubtedly de Brès would say more.  What exactly he would say has to remain a matter of speculation.  Unfortunately, besides the Belgic Confession, de Brès only wrote two major books and a few other shorter writings and, so far as I know, this matter is not addressed in any of these other works.

What is clear is that, under carefully delineated conditions, the author of the Belgic Confession was prepared to allow those shut-in to receive communion.  Of course, Guido de Brès does not have the last word on this matter.  He was but a man and men can and do err — see his own statement on that in Belgic Confession article 7:  nothing is “of equal value with the truth of God.”  Nevertheless, the historical record demonstrates that the position taken by Synod 2007 falls within the range of positions taken by our Reformed forefathers on this issue.