From a consistory which prefers not to be identified come the following questions: 1) Why is the collection after communion limited only to those who partook? 2) Why is that the elders take this collection instead of the deacons? My correspondent added the followingrelated questions: 1) Would it be wrong to take an offering also from those who are no communicants? 2) Would it be wrong for the deacons to take that collection, or is it simply a custom that the elders do so?
These are rather interesting questions concerning what, in my opinion, is an element in our communion service which has become too much a matter of mere custom. And it is a good sign when a consistory pays attention to the meaning and reasons of elements in our liturgy. Perhaps if there were more knowledge of our liturgy, Reformed churches would not be clamoring so loudly for liturgical revision.
A little historical background is in order, first of all. For as with almost all of our liturgy and liturgical practices, so also this practice had its origin far back in our Reformed history.
In earlier days (before the individual cup was introduced) the communicants literally gathered at the communion table. That is, they left their seats and either were seated at a table or tables situated in the front of the auditorium or in the front rows. At that time there was no communion collection, but there was anoffering. That is, no one collected the gifts, as is our custom today. Instead, there was a silver dish (sometimes more than one dish), covered with a cloth or napkin. And the communicants, either when they approached or when they left the table (according to local custom), would place their offerings in these dishes. This would explain the fact that in earlier days only the communicants contributed to this offering. There was also a solemn and fitting element of symbolism in this procedure, according to which the communicants literally left their thank offerings at the Lord’s table. And a thank-offering intended for the poor of whom the Lord Jesus said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my sheep, ye have done it unto me,”—such a thank offering this was intended to be. (This part of the custom some of us will undoubtedly remember. I recall that in my first charge, some twenty years ago, they still had the common cup; and they still gathered in the front rows for the communion service. We had no fancy silver dishes for the offering; but we always had two large napkins lying at the front edge of the communion table. And as the communicants arose and returned to their seats at the end of communion, each stopped at the table and placed his coin under one of the napkins.) In earlier days, especially in the larger Dutch churches, it seems that there was a collection for the poor every Sunday; and frequently this regular collection for the poor was not omitted on communion Sunday. Hence, everyone had the opportunity to contribute alms; and those who partook of communion would then be expected to contribute twice: once in the regular alms collection, and once in the communion thank offering.
From the above summary, it is plain that the questions raised by my correspondent would have presented no problem in former days.
Moreover, in the light of the above historical summary we can suggest some answers. In the first place, the fact that the collection is limited to those who partook probably has arisen out of the earlier custom according to which the communicants left their offerings at the communion table and from the fact that it is intended specifically as a communion thank offering. This, it seems to me, is quite proper: it is a concrete expression of thanksgiving which is quite in harmony with the oral thanksgiving which is found at the conclusion of the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper. In the second place, it seems to me that in most of our congregations there will be no problem of limiting the collection to the communicants during the morning service, when communion is served throughout the auditorium. Automatically the collection will also be taken throughout the auditorium. The problem usually arises in the second service, when communion is served to relatively few communicants and in a designated few rows of the auditorium. In regard to this problem, there are three options which I can suggest: 1) Take a general alms collection. For those who have just partaken of communion this would be their thank offering. For those who have not partaken at that service, it would merely constitute an offering for the benevolence fund. Perhaps the objection to this would be that we already have a multiplicity of collections in a time when the collections for the benevolence fund have only too often fallen into disrepute and disuse. (Incidentally, the amount of nickels, dimes, and quarters always impresses me as a rather ironic communion thank offering.) 2) Limit the communion thank offering to communicants, as it would be limited if we still followed the old practice of leaving our gifts at the communion table. 3) Get rid of the problem altogether by working toward the elimination of the second communion service for only a few communicants. I do not mean that this service should be eliminated when it is absolutely necessary because there are some whocannot attend the first service. But I think consistories could investigate the situation and work toward the goal of getting all communicants to attend the morning service. In many cases, I think that with a little effort communicants could arrange to be present,—by, for example, arranging to have a babysitter in the morning in families with children who are too young to attend church. In none of these options, however, do I see a question of right or wrong; they are a matter of the local judgment of the consistory.
The second main question (who should take this collection?) is rather simple. At present the elders take this collection. In the past, however, the churches had no such custom because of the different situation. The only reason I can see why the elders do take up this collection is that it is a matter of convenience. Theelders have served communion, and they are usually seated in front at the communion service: hence, they take the collection. I do not believe, however, that this practice is correct. The collection of alms is specifically the task of the deacons. Hence, my answer to the second question is that it not only would not be wrong for the deacons to take this collection, but also that it would be quite in harmony with their office of deacon that they, not the elders, take up this collection.
I hope I have shed from light on these questions. If by my answers I have occasioned further questions, send them in, please.