Lord's Supper

Through the influence of his parents and then for a while the Non-Jurors, John Wesley held a high view of the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion at a time when it was widely neglected in the Church of England. The Oxford Methodists (or 'Holy Club') were nicknamed 'Methodists' or 'Sacramentarians' largely because they communicated regularly. Wesley's heart-warming experience in Aldersgate Street in 1738 did not diminish this, though it added new elements to his experience. He advocated 'constant Communion' and continued to receive it himself on an average once every four or five days. Insisting that Methodism was a religious society within the Church of England, he repeatedly urged his followers to receive the sacrament in their parish churches, though celebrations were usually infrequent (as seldom as four times a year) at that time.

Wesley's sermon on 'The Duty of Constant Communion' was not published until 1787 in the Arminian Magazine, but had been written as early as 1732 during his Oxford days. Albert Outler believed it to have been based on his father's exhortation to 'frequent communion'; but Ole Borgen found it heavily dependent on the writings of Robert Nelson and William Beveridge.

In due course Wesley began to celebrate it not only in Anglican but also in Methodist buildings such as West Street Chapel, London, which had been consecrated while in Huguenot occupation. He believed the sacrament to be a 'converting' and not merely a 'confirming' ordinance; but it called for sincere penitence. For that reason, and also because of the very large numbers that attended when the sacrament was administered, before long he required the production of a class ticket or a special communion note or metal token (sometimes called a 'sacramental shilling') for admission to it in Methodist buildings. (This remained the case, at least in theory, in WM until Methodist Union in 1932. The 'open table' was a later development.) Society members were expected to communicate regularly. In 1745 John and Charles Wesley published Hymns on the Lord's Supper, expressing 'higher' sacramental doctrines than are now common in Methodism. In the Sunday Service (1784) Wesley slightly revised the Anglican Prayer Book service.

After Wesley's death the administration of the Sacrament by the unordained itinerants was one of the most divisive issues that had to be faced. 'Church Methodists', which included many trustees, wanted the Methodist people to continue to attend their parish church for the sacraments; but there was growing pressure from the rank and file to receive the elements from their own preachers. The Conferences of 1791 and 1792 postponed any final resolution of the issue. In 1793 permission was granted for the sacrament to be adinistered in societies where there was 'unanimous desire' for it, but in 1795 the issue was largely resolved by the Plan of Pacification. The Conference of 1800 declared that the service should be conducted 'according to the form of the Established Church', and there is some evidence that this was more widely used than Wesley's 1784 version. There were various further revisions of the order of service in WM, notably in 1835 and 1882.

The non-Wesleyan branches of Methodism before 1932 also required communicants to show either their ticket of membership or a 'note of admission' from an authorized person. But the services followed a more informal, non-liturgical pattern, as in other Free Churches. The elements were received sitting in the pews rather than kneeling at the communion rail, and lay adminstration was widespread, especially in PM. (The case of Atkinson Lee following Methodist Union is an instructive one.) This remained a major difference from WM in the discussions before the Union of 1932. The compromise reached made ministerial administration the norm, with limited provision for lay administration in cases of necessity. What had been a matter of principle as well as practice among the non-WM bodies was thereby sacrificed in the interests of unity. Issues about the principle and limits of this practice have continued to come to the Conference frequently through Memorials from circuits. The most recent Faith and Order Report to the Conference (in 2012) thoroughly reviewed the history and recommended that the current rules should remain, but that the criteria for granting such authorisations should explicitly recognise 'missional criteria' within the general criteria for assessing 'Deprivation'.

The 1936 Book of Offices included an alternative, simplified order, reflecting the traditional practice of the non-WM bodies, though this seems to have met with little favour.

The full service was extensively revised in the 1975 Methodist Service Book and further revisions in the 1999 Methodist Worship Book provided a range of orders for different occasions and seasons. In 2003 the Faith and Order CommitteeFaith and Order Committee produced an important report on Holy Communion in the Methodist Church entitled His Presence Makes the Feast. Most town churches have had Communion about monthly; village churches quarterly. In the past there had been a widespread custom that between the preaching service and a much abbreviated Communion there was a break during which many worshippers departed. This has now largely died out. Nowadays Communion services are slightly more frequent and the full service is more often used.

In response to a memorial from the South East District Synod the Conference of 2011 referred the matter of 'remote Communion' (e.g by means of the internet) to the Faith and Order Committee, which reported back to the 2015 Conference on Holy Communion Mediated through Social Media, expressing its view that 'it is not possible … to recognise "remote Communion" as authentically the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper as received by the Methodist Church'. . The Conference in 2015 received that report as an interim report, directing further work to be undertaken. The committee therefore reported further in 2018, and the Conference adopted the policy that 'presbyters and other persons authorised to preside at the sacrament of the Lord's Supper are not permitted to use electronic means of communication, such as the internet or video-conferencing, in order to invite those not physically present with the presiding minister to receive the elements.'

See also Major, Harry; Methodist Sacramental Fellowship; Sacraments


'I showed at large, (1) that the Lord's Supper was ordained by God to be a means of conveying to men either preventing or justifying, or sanctifying grace, according to their several necessities; (2) that the persons for whom it was ordained are all those who know and feel that they want the grace of God, either to restrain them from sin, or to show their sins forgiven, or to renew their souls in the image of God; (3) that inasmuch as we come to his table, not to give him anything but to receive whatsoever he sees best for us, there is no previous preparation indispensably necessary, but a desire to receive whatsoever he pleases to give; and (4) that no fitness is required at the time of communicating but a sense of our state, of our utter sinfulness and helplessness; every one who knows he is fit for hell being just fit to come to Christ, in this as well as all other ways of his appointment.'

John Wesley's Journal, London, 28 June 1740

'Q.15. What are our thoughts on what is called the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper? A. We believe it is an institution of Christ, to keep his meritorious death in remembrance. Q.16. What are the essential parts of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper? A. Bread and wine used as a memorial of the death of Christ. Q.17. In what manner should this be done? A. We cannot approach too near to the original institution, in which our Lord used unleavened bread, and brake (not cut) it, and gave it to the disciples as they were sitting (not kneeling); we think it safest to follow his example; especially as kneeling was introduced with the monstrous doctrine of transubstantiation; a doctrine replete with absurdity, superstition, and idolatry.'

Bible Christian Minutes, 1821, in A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, vol.4 (1988), p.390

  • Thomas H. Barratt, 'The Place of the Lord's Supper in Early Methodism', in London Quarterly Review, 1923 pp.56-73
  • A. Gordon James, 'The Methodist Doctrine of the Holy Communion', in London Quarterly and Holborn Review, 1940 pp.51-60
  • E. Gordon Rupp, 'The Holy Communion in the Methodist Church', in Hugh Martin (ed.), The Holy Communion: a symposium (1947) pp.113-26
  • J.E. Rattenbury, The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley (1948)
  • John Bishop, Methodist Worship in Relation to Free Church Worship (1950) pp. 66-77, 121-37
  • J.C. Bowmer, The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper in Early Methodism (1951)
  • Norman W. Mumford, 'The Administration of the Lord's Supper in the Methodist Church after the death of John Wesley', in London Quarterly and Holborn Review, January 1951, pp.61-70
  • J.C. Bowmer, The Lord's Supper in Methodism 1791-1960 (1961)
  • John R. Parris, John Wesley's Doctrine of the Sacraments (1963), pp.62-96
  • Oliver A. Beckerlegge, 'The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper' [the non-liturgical traditions of the smaller branches of Methodism], London Quarterly and Holborn Review, October 1964, pp. 313-18
  • A. Raymond George, 'The Real Presence and the Lord's Supper', in WHS Proceedings, 34 pp.181-87
  • David Tripp, 'Behind the "Alternative Order"', in WHS Proceedings, 43 pp.4-8
  • Stephen Hatcher, 'The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper in Early Primitive Methodism', in WHS Proceedings, 47 pp.221-31
  • Christopher J. Cocksworth, Evangelical Eucharistic Thought in the Church of England (Cambridge, 1993)
  • John A. Newton, 'The Eucharist in [British] Methodism' [1935-95], in Methodist Sacramental Fellowship Bulletin, no.125 (1996) pp.6-16
  • David Carter et al., 'Methodism and the Eucharist' in Epworth Review, 27:2 (April 2000) pp.61-76
  • Adrian Burdon, 'Some Aspects of the Early Methodist Understanding of the Lord's Supper', in Epworth Review, 29:2 (April 2002) pp.64-71
  • His Presence Makes the Feast: Holy Communion in the Methodist Church (Faith and Order Committee report, 2003)
  • David M. Chapman, Born in Song: Methodist Worship in Britain (Buxton, 2006), pp.65-89
  • David B. Stevick, The Altar's Fire: Charles Wesley's Hymns on the Lord's Supper (Peterborough, 2008)
  • 'Report on Authorisations in relation to Eucharistic Presidency', Conference Agenda, 2012, pp. 512-525
  • Methodist Recorder, 19 June 2015; 11 March 2016
  • Frances Young, 'What have the sermons of John Wesley ever done for us? The Duty of Constant Communion', in Holiness, vol.2 pp.128-32