Breaking of bread, communion, Eucharist, the Lord’s supper, the mass – what do we call it?

The meal that is supposed to unite Christians has all too often divided Christians.  Here I have in mind not just divisions between Roman Catholics and Protestants, but also divisions created by Exclusive Brethren and Strict Baptists. Two occasions come immediately to mind. The first took place just a few years ago at a mass for two devout Catholic friends celebrating their ruby wedding, where the priest said that only Catholics could take bread and wine – the rest of us were only allowed a blessing!  The second took place long ago when as a family we were taken by some Swiss friends to their Brethren Assembly and my parents were refused bread and wine. Thank God there is a growing recognition that the Table belongs to the Lord, and not to any particular church, with the result that in most churches there is a welcome to members from all Christian churches to come to the Table.

Yet in spite of the growing together in some quarters, churches still are divided over what to call the meal that Jesus instituted. For instance I discovered that the contributors to The Oxford Handbook on Sacramental Theology, a massive tome of 712 pages published just year, could not agree a common terminology: some write about the Eucharist, while others write about the Lord’s Supper.

My mother’s family came from the Plymouth or Christian Brethren, and as a result from earliest years I was familiar with the ‘Breaking of Bread’. It is a term which has its roots in the New Testament (see Acts 2.42; 20.7; also Luke 24.30, 35), but scholars are divided as to whether Luke actually had in mind a formal rite of remembrance. The difficulty is that ‘to break bread’ can simply mean having an ordinary meal together. Indeed, our English word ‘companion’ (Latin, cum panis – ‘a friend with whom one eats bread’) reflects that meaning.

Baptists along with many other Protestants have traditionally spoken of ‘the Lord’s Supper’: this for instance is the favoured term in Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples (Baptist Union of Great Britain, 2005 guide). This term too has its roots in the New Testament: for when the Christians at Corinth ‘came together’, they came “to eat the Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor 11.20). Save, said Paul, they were not really eating the Lord’s Supper (kuriakon deipnon), but rather their own ‘private supper (idion deipnon; 1 Cor 11.21). For Paul the emphasis was on the adjective: the supper ‘belongs to the Lord’ – it is held ‘in honour of the Lord’. No doubt because of my roots I feel most comfortable with calling this central meal of the church ‘the Lord’s Supper’. However, I admit it is not an expression without its difficulties. Not only has it an old-fashioned ring, it is also a little misleading. In today’s usage ‘supper’ is a light meal served late evening, whereas the underlying Greek word refers to the main meal of the day without any necessary reference to timing. As Anthony Thistleton observed, “Like the English dinner, it usually refers to evening dinner where the term is used in its traditional sense, but it can denote a different timing in such contexts as ‘Christmas dinner’, ‘Sunday dinner’ or ‘school dinner’. In other words it denotes the importance of the occasion rather than a time (1 Corinthians: A shorter exegetical and pastoral commentary, 2006).” Far from being an optional snack at the end of the day, it is the central meal of the church – if not the Christian’s central meal of the week! But none of that is obviously present in the term today.

Anglicans along with many people in the Free Churches have spoken of ‘Holy Communion’. Yet again, this has its roots in Scripture: Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a sharing (AV communion) in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing (communion) in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10.16). The ‘sharing’ (koinonia) here refers in the first place to our ‘fellowship’ with the Lord Jesus, but it also refers to our ‘fellowship’ with one another. The fact is that the closer we are to our Lord, so the closer we are to one another. Indeed the Apostle goes on to use the bread as a sign of our oneness in Christ (1 Cor 10.17): ‘communion’ is never a private, individual affair.

Traditionally Catholics have favoured the term ‘the Mass’: this has its roots in the Latin verb ‘to send’ (mittere) from which our English word ‘mission’ is derived. At first sight this might seem a reference to the Johannine version of the Great Commission where the Risen Lord says: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20.21). Indeed, it often has been suggested that the final three words of the Latin mass (ite, missa est) express a sending out of the people on God’s mission. Actually, the final two words are just a general form of dismal which were also used at the end of a trial or legal process, and simply mean ‘you are dismissed’. Significantly Vatican II revived the practice that began in the 4th century of ‘sending away’ (missa) the catechumens after the sermon and before the prayer of consecration – in the early church the catechumens were dismissed because the ‘holy mysteries’ were reserved only for the initiated; today catechumens are dismissed with a view to further instruction.

Finally, there is ‘the Eucharist’: the most common term (eucharistia) in the early period when Greek was still the Christian language at Room, it has come into favour more generally with the rise of the modern Ecumenical Movement. Although the actual noun ‘Eucharist’ does not appear in the New Testament, the verbal form does: in the words of institution Paul wrote “When he had given thanks (eucharistesas), he broke it [the bread] and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (1 Cor 11.24). The word Eucharist emphasises that first and foremost this is a service of thanksgiving for the Lord, whose body was broken for us, and whose life was poured out for us. If the focus had been on thanksgiving rather than on what happened (or did not happen) to the bread and wine, what theological controversies we would have been spared! For those who know Greek, ‘Eucharist’ is a wonderful word – it contains the roots of the words both for joy (chara) and for grace (charis), both of which are at the heart of this service of thanksgiving. Unfortunately, for the ordinary English punter the term ‘Eucharist’ lacks warmth, smacks of intellectualism, and conveys nothing to people outside the church. To my way of thinking, advertising the Eucharist on a church notice-board is an exercise in non-communication.

So what do we call this service? Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England (Church House Publishing 2000) calls this service ‘ Holy Communion also called The Eucharist and The Lord’s Supper’. If I were the Pope or the Archbishop I would do away with all the traditional terms and go for ‘The Meal’ (or more theologically, ‘The Meal for the Disciples of the Lord Jesus’) – but sadly my vote does not count!


  1. The fact remains that anyone can take communion in a church of any denomination, and no one would know what their beliefs were.
    My wife and I are not Catholics,but went once to a Catholic service, because a deceased friend of my wife’s, who had gone to that church, was being remembered..
    No one knew who we were and I could have gone up and taken Mass and the priest would have assumed that I was visiting from another town.

    1. With the exception of Orthodox Christian churches. They are more cautious. If the priest doesn’t know you, no Eucharist for you.

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