Lammas Communion Address

In one respect the Lammas Communion service can trace its roots back to the pre-Christian Britain isles, and in another respect it is a tradition which has its roots right here in this Meeting House.

Religious history has a long tradition of theft - the co-opting of old religious practices to serve the spiritual and religious needs of the day. Why does Christmas fall on the day it does? Why do Christian priests put on elaborate vestments? Why are old churches built where they are? The reason for all of these is Paganism; pre-existing pagan traditions.

Co-opting old practices, old traditions, into the new, adds gravitas. It connects us with our ancestors, and it makes the politically astute move of undercutting their old ways. Take old churches - why are they built where they are? Because that is where the old pagan groves were. Spiritual space is very important, and if Christian churches are built upon those old pagan groves, the rootedness of a people to a space is severed. And so Christian ascendancy is achieved.

Our European pre-Christian ancestors saw a world infused with spirit. At this time the womb of Mother Earth brought forth a bounty of grains and fruits. The first wheats of the harvest are cut down, ground into flour, and baked into a loaf of bread. And so Mother Earth is praised, thanks are given, for once more creation has brought forth sustenance to our bodies. Once more Mother Earth has provided us with everything we need.


The chain of memory which connected this ancient ‘loaf’ tradition to the now has been lost to the ages. The name of the tradition has been lost, and what the tradition consisted of has been lost. The residual sense of it was co-opted into Christianity, and named Lammas; Lammas meaning ‘loaf mass’, a Christian Eucharist in which a loaf of bread is used, as opposed to wafers, to celebrate the first fruits of the harvest. In some Anglican churches today, this Lammas celebration will be taking place.

To quote the Anglican liturgy for today: “Brothers and sisters in Christ, the people of God in ancient times presented to the Lord and offering of the first-fruits as a sign of their dependence upon God for their daily bread. At this Lammastide, we bring a newly baked loaf as our offering in thanksgiving to God for his faithfulness. Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life; those who come to me shall never be hungry and those who believe in me shall never thirst.’”

The other week I was asked, do Unitarians do communion? ‘Yes… well, kind of… well, some of us do…’ The question needed a fuller answer, so here goes.

The catholic priest presides at the altar of God. He mediates between man and God, offering absolution, and inviting the people of God to the altar of God to partake in the gifts of God: the bread and the wine. Outside of the Church there is no salvation.

During the European Middle ages the Catholic Church dominated European civilization. But that hold upon ultimate power was to be undone, by a monk - Martin Luther. Martin Luther was the catalyst of the protestant reformation. The central drive of the reformation was the idea that each individual was responsible for their own salvation. You had to read the Bible for yourself; you had to determine what God required of you, and follow your own conscience. Unitarianism today is the logical culmination of this initial radical reformation impulse.

Ralph Waldo Emerson   (1803 – 1882)

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882)

The priest was no longer needed to the bridge the gap between the individual and God, because each individual was to seek his or her own salvation. “The priesthood and the prophethood of all believers.”  The radical reformation led to many ideas which are familiar to us here: local autonomy, free discussion, the rejection of coercion, the rejection  of the ideal of uniformity, the protection of minorities, and the separation of church and state. Communion too was democratised. It was moved from the altar presided over by the priest, to the table amongst the people. In the 19th century communion was taking place in most Unitarian churches on a weekly basis, either in the main service or after the service. But some began to be openly critical of the ritual. 

On September 9th 1832 a 29 year old Ralph Waldo Emerson got into the pulpit at the Unitarian church in Boston where he was the minister. His topic was the Lord’s  Supper. In summary, he said that the Lord’s Supper (or communion) is naturally so divisive - who should partake and who should not? When should the ritual be celebrated - weekly, monthly, yearly? The Quakers don’t have communion; no ritual is needed for them to be more in touch with God. And did Jesus really intend to establish the institution? There is no indication that it was to be a permanent feature of worship going forward. The Gospels never say as much. And why must the Lord’s Supper be practiced with such regularity, and not, say, foot washing, which takes place just prior to the last supper? What is the Kingdom of God? To eat bread and wine? Or to live in righteousness, peace and joy? And therefore he concluded that he should not wish to administer the ritual. His sermon ended: the trustees called an emergency meeting, and fired him.

Despite Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Transcendentalists being critical of the institution, the practice did not tail off until the early 20th century. The rise in liberal theology and values amongst Unitarians corresponded to communion’s decline; more so in America than here. Where Communion was still practiced, it often did not include everyone actually eating and drinking the bread and wine. Rather the focus was put upon the symbolic act of breaking the bread and pouring out the wine.

Amongst Unitarian Universalists (our American brothers and sisters) communion has almost disappeared entirely. According to some statistics published in 2012 only 2% of churches have communion services. This makes sense within the American context, as the Unitarian Universalist religion has more explicitly departed from its Christian roots, unlike the UK Unitarian context which I could perhaps generalise by saying we draw upon the Christian tradition more than any other. But this obviously varies from church to church.

And so our movement’s relationship to communion now is a complicated one. Some of us find the ritual to have value, and some of us don’t. It would be odd, I think, to have an explicitly Christian communion ritual as the central focus of any main Sunday Unitarian service, as it would perhaps highlight division in an unhelpful way. But there is value in ritual. There is value in expressing the truths of the heart with our bodies, and not just our words. And so in response to this there has been a rise in ‘communion-like’ services, that do not carry with them any of that Christian theological baggage of body and blood, or sacrifice. 

The most famous example of this is the flower communion service. But there are other examples too, which are mainly American in origin. There is a water communion service, in which everyone brings with them, from home, water which is symbolically intermingled in a single bowl. Or an Earth Communion service in which cups of soil are distributed to everyone to bring back to their gardens, to offer thanks to soil, thanks to Mother Earth. Or there is the Lammas Communion Service as we celebrate it here.

When our emeritus minister Cliff Reed established the Lammas Communion Service here in the Meeting House, he intentionally decoupled it from Christian communion, and restated its historical emphasis upon thanksgiving; a thanksgiving for the first fruits of the harvest, and the earth that brought it forth.

There is a harvest of the land.
We gather to give thanks for the food
which sustains our bodies.
There is a harvest of the spirit.
We gather to give thanks for the apostles
of truth, and love, and liberty.
The first-fruits of the land’s harvest
bring hope of nourishment;
dispel the fear of hunger.
The first-fruits of the spirit’s harvest
bring hope of a better world
for all humanity.