Bread or Wafers at Communion?
Edward Keene puts forward a succinct argument for the use of bread at the Lord's supper.
Both bread and wafers are in use for communion in Church of England parishes and in the church more widely. But which is best to use? The starting point for determining the elements to use at the Lord’s Supper is the question of what scripture itself implies. Luke 22:19 reads: '[Jesus] took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”'
The bread used at this meal would probably have been unleavened (though there is debate over this). Nonetheless, the Greek word used is the generic ‘artos’ for any sort of bread, rather than the specific ‘azumos’ for unleavened bread, suggesting that the gospel writers did not seek to draw particular attention to the unleavenedness of the bread. Moreover, Christ’s use of bread and wine was a deliberate echo of the elements brought forth by Melchizedek in the Valley of Shaveh after the slaughter of the kings (Gen 14:17-20) and there is little reason to think the Priest-King of Salem would have used unleavened bread.
The practice of the early church was to use the bread and wine eaten at common meals for eucharistic purposes. This approach was only varied in the eighth and ninth centuries by the Latin (western) Church, which began to use wafers partly to imitate unleavened Passover matzah and partly to ceremonialise the eucharist, leading to a long-standing dispute with the eastern churches, which continued the ancient practice of using ‘normal’ (leavened) bread. The ecumenical Council of Florence in 1439 agreed that either wafers or normal bread could be used, but both parties continued to believe their approach should be used.
A century later, in reforming the English liturgy, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer sought to repeal centuries of various accretions. His initial attempt at a reformed liturgy in 1549 proscribed the use of brands on communion wafers (e.g. the IHS Christogram). The second prayer book of 1552 removed wafers entirely and introduced the following rubric at the end of the order for Holy Communion: “To take away all occasion of dissension, and superstition, which any person hath or might have concerning the Bread and Wine, it shall suffice that the Bread be such as is usual to be eaten.” The bread which is ‘usual to be eaten’ by us in England is leavened. Wafers by contrast (the small circular variety used eucharistically anyway) are peculiarly ecclesiastical. They are thus more at risk, Cranmer’s rubric teaches, of becoming the subject of untoward superstitions.
Cranmer’s rubric was reinstated with the Elizabethan prayer book of 1559 and retained at the Restoration in the classic 1662 edition, where it remains to this day in the church’s only permanent authorised liturgy. The Dissenting denominations, Baptists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, and later Methodists, as fellow-Protestants, all followed the practice of the Established Church and used bread rather than wafers at communion.
For three centuries the use of wafers was unheard-of in the English church, until a party arose who wished to undo many aspects of the Reformation. The advanced devotees of this ‘Oxford Movement’ became known for their ‘Six Points’ of ritualism; (1) eucharistic vestments (e.g. chasuble, tunicle, amice, alb, etc), (2) altar lights, (3) eastward celebration (‘ad orientem’, away from the people), (4) incense, (5) the mixed chalice – and (6) wafers. The introduction of such innovations to parishes caused much upset and legislative action was taken against it, with mixed success. One bizarre turn taken by the ritualists in an attempt to legitimise their innovation was to label wafers as ‘wafer-bread’, which is a sophistry equivalent to labelling a car as a ‘car-bike’ and expecting this designation to exempt one from vehicle tax, insurance, and certification.
Current situation and recommendation
By the mid-C20th the novel ritualist approach had so affected the church that the 1965 canon law revision explicitly permitted wafers, though this may be seen as a modern restatement of the permissive principle agreed at Florence in 1439. While both sorts of element are therefore now once again legal and widely used in England, the question still remains as to which should be used.
The case for normal leavened bread being used, rather than wafers, includes the following:
Integrity – With the internationalisation of the British diet, we do often come across unleavened breads – e.g. tortillas and rotis. However, none of these resemble wafers. In fact, the idea of classifying wafers as a type of bread would be very odd to most people. Jesus commanded us to remember his death with bread. Doing so with a different food product seems to undermine the sacrament.
Authenticity – The early church captured the immanence of Jesus’ ordinance by using everyday elements. Displacing these with ‘uncommon’ elements such as wafers removes the Lord’s Supper from a familiar communal experience to a specialised sacerdotal event and, by extension, a rite at risk of mythologisation.
Symbolism – Sharing ‘one loaf’ and ‘one cup’ is a significant indicant of the church’s unity. This symbolism is lost if using individually cast circular wafers.
Faithfulness – The long-established tradition of the Church of England is to use bread, not wafers. Given the freedom to choose, we do a disservice to the legacy of the Reformers to accept an alternative practice.
Utility – Bread has good absorbent properties to permit intinction for those who wish to intinct rather than drink from the common cup. Wafers by contrast are less permeable and absorb less wine. The squares of bread can be cut large enough to ensure that those intincting bread do not put their fingers in the wine.
Safety – There is no greater hygiene risk with bread than with wafers if it is cut into individual squares in a sanitary environment prior to the service. Moreover, due to its more rigid properties, there is higher risk of choking associated with wafers (even small ones) than with bread.
A number of those in congregations do have gluten and/or dairy allergies and intolerances. Churches need to cater for this in their provision of either bread or wafers. Simply ensuring all elements are free of gluten or dairy products is easier and safer than having small amounts of the relevant alternative set aside.
Bread does go mouldy faster than wafers, however the reservation of consecrated elements is contrary to the doctrine of the Church of England (Article 28). Where home communion is required, it is more spiritually beneficial for recipients to hear the communion office said in full than simply to receive pre-consecrated elements.
In conclusion, there are many strong reasons to opt for bread over wafers and no significant inhibiting factors.