Chapter 3: The structure and content of Communion services

It has never been mandatory within our tradition to use any particular liturgy for communion, or for worship generally. Those leading are free to select from or adapt any of the many Reformed orders that are available, but should be aware that Assembly has set out - in the regulations relating to elders leading communion - what should normally be included in a service of communion...

...bread and wine shall be set apart, with the unfailing use of Christ's words and acts of institution, with thanksgiving, and there shall be communion using both bread and wine by presbyter and people.

The service of Holy Communion shall normally include:

  1. Prayer of humble approach to God with self-examination and confession, and the declaration of God's mercy to penitent sinners.
  2. The ministry of the Word, including readings from the Scriptures with preaching.
  3. Affirmation of faith.
  4. Intercession for the world and the Church.
  5. The offering to God of his gifts to his people including the bread and the wine, of their praise and thanksgiving and of themselves.
  6. Invocation of the Holy Spirit.
  7. Praise for God's glory and goodness in creation; thankful commemoration and showing forth of the redemptive work of Christ in his birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and in his institution of this sacrament; thanksgiving for the hope of his coming again in glory.
  8. The breaking of the consecrated bread.
  9. Expression of communion with God, with one another, with the whole people of God on earth, and with all the company of heaven.
  10. The Lord's Prayer.

Basic structure

The basic structure of our communion service is important, and dates back to the earliest centuries of the Christian church. If one adheres to the basic structure of the liturgy there is considerable room for variety. Departing from the structure, however, does not give greater freedom but may result in chaos. The movement, the drama, the unfolding of the eucharistic action needs to follow an ordered progression from one phase of the service to the next, so that worshippers are prepared emotionally and spiritually for what is to follow.

In some circumstances communion may need to be simplified. If we know what comprises a full eucharistic order, we can then decide what may appropriately be left out or included. Adhering to the classic shape of the liturgy may help worshippers to sense their continuity with the Church's heritage, and may reinforce a sense of unity with the contemporary universal Church.


The eucharistic service has sometimes been said to have two aspects: the liturgy of the Word (which should contain confession, an assurance of forgiveness, the reading and preaching of the Word, and intercessory prayer), and the liturgy of the Eucharist.

But it may be more helpful to think of a communion service as an undivided whole, centred on Christ the Word. The aspects of that: The people gather around The Word, The Word is proclaimed, there is response to The Word and The Word leads people out into The World.

Corporate nature of the Eucharist

The Lord's Supper is an action in which everyone shares and participates. Everyone present is a celebrant: the minister or authorised elder is simply the one who administers the sacrament. Since the congregation's active participation is of the essence of Christian worship, it is inappropriate for the congregation to sit passively and mutely throughout the service. Therefore, congregational responses can be helpful. Congregations should be encouraged to join in these responses whole-heartedly with clear, bold voices, otherwise worship will be impoverished. Worship with little or no congregational participation may fail to be the 'work of the people'-which is what the word 'liturgy' literally means.


Leaders of worship must help people to participate fully in worship. They need to express Jesus' warm and gracious hospitality. A gracious host tries to include everyone present. One important aspect of that is language. The way we use it helps people feel included or excluded. We need to ensure that our language thoughtfully includes the variety of people who could be at worship -women and men, young and old, Maori and Pakeha, Pacific Islander and Palagi.

We should avoid words which refer to only one category of people when we mean to include everyone. Care about language should extend to every part of worship including prayers and music, and how we refer to God. Using a variety of images for God can give a more accurate expression of who God is. The Bible refers to God in a rich variety of ways. Using only male images like 'Lord' or 'Master' for example, may make it difficult for some women to feel included. There are many resources with good suggestions for using inclusive language, some listed in the next chapter. Leaders of worship need also to be sensitive about how they can help children and young people participate in worship. For certain biblical texts used in the Eucharist, modern English translations have been prepared by the English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC). These have been adopted by and commended for use in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.

An outline of a communion service

  1. Invocation, a calling on God to inspire and empower the worship. This emphasises from the outset the context within which the liturgy takes place. It acknowledges that we can do nothing apart from God. The Holy Eucharist commences with a formal trinitarian invocation: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN

    If a bracket of contemporary worship songs are used, there should still be a prayer of invocation very early in the service.

  2. Greetings. Whenever we meet those whom we know there is normally an exchange of greetings. An exchange of formal greetings (such as The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. AND ALSO WITH YOU) acknowledges - in a way that 'Good morning, everyone' does not-the unseen presence of Christ, without whom the entire service would be an empty ritual. Such a greeting echoes 2 Thess. 3:18, and the congregational response is what is traditionally given to liturgical greetings. It is important that people feel warmly welcomed to worship, and included throughout. Visitors and newcomers should be acknowledged in a way that does not embarrass.
  3. Call to worship. It might be from the psalm or epistle for the day, and it might introduce the theme of the service.
  4. Opening hymn. This should be one of praise. If contemporary songs are used, the focus should be the same-praise and worship.
  5. Prayer of praise. The first major prayer should be one of sustained adoration, followed by confession.
  • Adoration focuses on who God is, and leads the congregation in wonder, love and praise for the God decisively revealed in Jesus Christ and known to us through the Holy Spirit. To come into the presence of God is to realise how good God is and how imperfect we are.
  • Confession of sins is an essential part of our preparation for communion with the all-holy God. It acknowledges our brokeness as human beings and our separation from God, from one another, and from the rest of creation. Confession may be in the form of either a spoken prayer or a bidding prayer that leaves the congregation to make their confession in silence.
  • The assurance of forgiveness declares God's forgiveness in a clear and biblical form.
  1. Gloria (optional) - an outburst of praise and thanksgiving made by people who rejoice in the knowledge that by God's mercy and grace they have been forgiven. The gloria is often sung, and for this purpose one may use a song or hymn. An invitation for members of the congregation to offer prayers of praise and thanksgiving may be preferred.
  2. Collect (optional) - not the offering, but a brief formal prayer of petition, which draws together the prayers of the forgiven community as it seeks continuing help and guidance. Sometimes the collect reflects the theme of the service. Often it includes a request for illumination in the hearing of God's Word.
  3. Children's talk. The presence of children should be directly acknowledged. In infant baptism we affirm that believers' children belong in the community of faith. They can be helped to hear God's Word in a way they can understand. This time in the service should not be used as an excuse for levity at the expense of our children, but should he carefully prepared.
  4. Old Testament reading. The reading of the Old Testament emphasises the continuity of revelation between the covenant with Israel and the covenant in Christ. It underlines that the God of the New Testament is identical with the God who brought Israel out of Egypt and who spoke through the prophets.
  5. Psalm. The psalm is sometimes sung.
  6. First New Testament reading - this may be from the Epistles, Acts or Revelation.
  7. Gospel reading. Since the reading from the Gospel is central to the Liturgy of the Word it should always be included.
  • Congregations benefit from a balanced diet of readings from all sections of the Bible. The Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand Resource Centre produces a lectionary covering every Sunday of the year. From this readings may be selected. Copies may be obtained from the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand Resource Centre (PO Box 9049, Wellington).
  • It is important to use translations of the Bible that are accurate and clear. The New Revised Standard Version is recommended.
  1. Sermon. The purpose of the sermon is to explain and proclaim the Word of God. It is essential for the nourishment of the believing community. Faithful and effective preaching interprets a portion of the Bible and applies it in contemporary language to the issues of our lives.
  2. Affirmation of faith. The creed is an affirmation of faith in response to the read and proclaimed Word. The congregation may rise to their feet, to express joyfully their trust in God. A creed affirms our oneness with the historic Christian faith.
  • The Nicene Creed, produced by AD 381, is the only truly ecumenical creed in existence. By using it we align ourselves with practically the whole of the universal church.
  • The Apostles' Creed is shorter, and more appropriately used on baptismal occasions, but may be used here.

    A number of modern statements of faith are also available, including the one adopted in 1993 for use in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. (See p.181 1993 General Assembly Reports of Committees and other papers.

  1. Intercession. A further response to the Word is intercessory prayer. Having been made aware of God's goodness we remember the needs of the world. The entire worshipping community acts as a priest by interceding with God for all creation. To emphasise that point it is good to have someone other than the presiding celebrant lead this prayer. The prayer may conclude with the Lord's Prayer.
  2. The notices may be given here, or before the intercessions, or at the beginning of the service.
  3. The offering may be included here. A prayer is commonly said but is not essential. The offering signifies our grateful response to God's grace, which includes both Word and Sacrament.
  4. Welcome to the Table. The words of introduction and invitation to the Liturgy of the Eucharist can be taken from scripture, but other words may be added. The heart of it should be something like...

    This is the Lord's table.

    Our Saviour invites those who trust him
    to share the feast which he has prepared.


    This is the Lord's Table.
    Let all who love the Lord participate freely, and with joy.

  • In 1977 Assembly decided that, if the Session or Parish Council agreed, baptised children may share communion.

(It is possible to include here the 'narrative', or words of institution,

but it is more normally included in the prayer of thanksgiving or at the

breaking of the bread.)

  1. The bread and wine should at this point be unveiled.
  2. Great Prayer of Thanksgiving (or Great Eucharistic Prayer) This prayer sets out the meaning of the eucharist. It is important to know its structure, if we choose to write our own. For that reason the various divisions of a full eucharistic prayer are set out here. The selections of text are from a PCUSA order (printed in full in the following chapter).
    The presiding celebrant prays the eucharistic prayer on behalf of the whole worshipping community. The congregational responses (in bold) help the worshipping community to feel that they are all participating celebrants.

    (a) 'Dialogue' -

    In the following example, the initial exchange is from Ruth 2:4

    The Lord be with you.
    And also with you.
    Lift up your hearts.

    We lift them to the Lord.

    Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
    It is right to give our thanks and praise.

    It is truly right and our greatest joy,
    To give you thanks and praise,
    Eternal God, creator and ruler of the universe.

    (b) 'Preface' -

    This prayer usually begins by giving thanks and praise to God for creation. God is then thanked and praised for our redemption in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Options may be chosen relating to the particular season of the Christian year. An example preface ...

    In your wisdom, you made all things
    and sustain them by your power.
    You formed us in your image,
    setting us in this world to love and serve you,
    and to live in peace with your whole creation.
    When we rebelled against you
    refusing to trust and obey you,
    you did not reject us,
    but still claimed us as your own.
    You sent prophets to call us back to your way.
    Then in the fullness of time,
    out of your great love for the world,
    you sent your only Son to be one of us,
    to redeem us and heal our brokenness.

    (c) 'Introduction to sanctus' ?

    e.g. Therefore we praise you
    joining our voices with choirs of angels,
    and with all the faithful of every time and place,
    who forever sing to the glory of your name:

    (d) 'Sanctus' ?

    Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might
    Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
    Hosanna in the highest.
    Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord
    Hosanna in the highest.

    The (Latin) word 'sanctus' simply means 'holy'. The thanksgivings of the first part of the prayer reach their climax when all present join together in the triple 'holy' of Isaiah 6:3. The second part is taken from the greeting Christ received from the crowd as he made his triumphal Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. Such a hymn has been used in worship since the third century.

    (e) 'Post-sanctus' ?

    This part of the prayer continues to celebrate aspects of God's work in Jesus. For example...

    You are holy, O God of majesty,
    and blessed is Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.
    In Jesus, born of Mary, your Word became flesh
    and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
    He lived as one of us, knowing joy and sorrow.
    He healed the sick,
    fed the hungry,
    opened blind eyes,
    and broke bread with outcasts and sinners.

    Dying on the cross,
    he gave himself for the life of the world.
    Raised from the grave,
    he won for us victory over death.
    We praise you that Christ now reigns with you
    and will come again to make all things new.

    (f) 'Narrative' -
    (if not included below, in the breaking of the bread)

    In the upper room, Christ instituted communion with these words and actions. In their re-telling, we are reminded of his promise to forgive us and to be among us.

    We give you thanks that the Lord Jesus
    on the night before he died
    took bread,
    and after giving thanks to you,
    he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying:
    Take, eat.
    This is my body, given for you.
    Do this in remembrance of me.

    In the same way he took the cup, saying:
    This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood,
    shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
    Whenever you drink it,
    do this in remembrance of me.

    As an alternative, the 'words of institution' may be given at the breaking of the bread (see below). They may also be given in the initial welcome to the Lord's Table (see option in the order given in the following chapter).

    (g) 'Anamnesis' ?

    Remembering your gracious acts in Jesus Christ,
    we take this bread and wine
    from the gifts you have given us,
    and joyfully celebrate his dying and rising,
    as we await the day of his coming.
    With thanksgiving, we offer our very selves to you
    to be a living and holy sacrifice,
    dedicated to your service.

    (h) 'Memorial' -

    A brief congregational affirmation, normally tracing the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again of Jesus. The order in the next chapter gives several options, such as...
    Great is the mystery of faith:

    Christ has died,
    Christ is risen,
    Christ will come again.

    (i) 'Epiclesis' -

    God is asked to send the Spirit upon the eucharistic celebration. It is an acknowledgement that, whatever happens in Communion, it is God who makes it happen. The prayer emphasises that if Christ is really present and active in the worshipping community's midst, it is for no other reason than that God has decreed it.

    Gracious God
    Send to us the Holy Spirit,
    that this meal may be holy
    and your people may become one.
    Unite us in faith, inspire us to love,
    encourage us with hope,
    that we may receive Christ
    as he comes to us in this holy banquet.

    (j) 'Commemoration' -

    Give us strength to serve you faithfully
    until we feast with you and all your people
    in the fullness of your joy.

    (k) 'Doxology' -

    The prayer ends with glory, praise, and thanksgiving to the holy Trinity. The people's 'Amen' is the means by which they register their assent to the whole eucharistic prayer which the presiding celebrant has led in their name.

    Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ,
    in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
    all ,glory and honour are yours, eternal God,
    now and forever, AMEN.

  3. The Lord's Prayer -
    unless included elsewhere in the service.

    This can be preparation for the communion which is to follow, a kind of summary which gathers up the various elements of the great eucharistic prayer. See Order E in Chapter 4 for a recommended text.

  4. The Breaking of the bread is an important action, a sign of Christ being broken for our salvation. The Apostle Paul also saw in the breaking of one loaf and the pouring of one cup a symbol of our oneness in Christ. The congregation should see a loaf broken before them, and if possible the wine being actually poured out. A common loaf and common cup may be used.

    If the words of institution have not already been given, they must be given here. The order given in the next chapter suggests the following...

    The minister or elder breaks the bread in full view of the people, saying:

    The Lord Jesus, on the night of his arrest, took bread,
    and after giving thanks to God,
    he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying:
    Take, eat.
    This is my body, given for you.
    Do this in remembrance of me.

    The minister or elder lifts the cup, saying:

    In the same way he took the cup, saying:
    This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood,
    shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
    Whenever you drink it,
    do this in remembrance of me.

    Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup,
    you proclaim the saving death of the risen Lord,
    until he comes.

    If the narrative (institution) has already been included, in either the invitation or the Great Thanksgiving Prayer, the bread may be broken in silence. Alternatively, familiar words of scripture may be said, but these must be brief, clear, and appropriate. Possibilities include Isaiah 53:6, 1 Peter 3:18, 1 Corinthinians 6:20, and 2 Corinthinians 5:21. Other words may be used, as the bread and then the wine are held up in full view, eg.

    When we break the bread,
    is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?

    When we give thanks over the cup
    is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?

  5. Holding out both the bread and the cup to the congregation, the minister or elder may then confirm the invitation to the Lord's people, with words such as...

    The gifts of God
    for the people of God.


    Jesus said: I am the bread of life.
    Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,
    and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
    John 6:35

  6. Communion

    The distribution, the last of the central acts of the Eucharist, allows communion as the climax of the service.

  • The celebrant and elders may receive the bread and wine either before or after the congregation. The former order emphasises that leaders can give because they have received, the latter that servant leaders put the needs of others before their own.
  • People may receive in a variety of ways. The earliest Reformed method was for the people to go to the Lord's table to receive the bread and wine while standing, the bread from one end of the Table and the wine from the other. Most commonly in Presbyterian churches today, elders serve the congregation in the pews. This can emphasise the family nature of the meal and our role as servants of each other. In some congregations, people are invited to come forward to receive the sacrament, giving a greater sense of community and active participation. People may stand or kneel around the table, as elders move from person to person to give the elements. Alternatively, the bread and then the wine may be passed from person to person. Another practice is that of intinction, by which the bread is dipped in the wine. The bread is distributed first, with people breaking off a piece, then dipping it as the common cup is passed around. At smaller gatherings it may be possible to invite people to sit at the table together, as is done in some Reformed churches. The distribution needs to be planned with sensitivity to local custom. But presiding celebrants should also be conscious of how they might extend people's understanding of communion. Whatever practice is adopted, the celebrant needs to give a clear explanation of the procedure that will be followed.
  1. The Peace

    The peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
    This proclaims that, in Christ, we are at peace with God and with each other. Some congregations now share the peace by shaking hands, embracing, or greeting one another with the words 'peace be with you'. Sensitivity to the local setting is important.

  2. Prayer after communion

    Communion is the climax of the celebration. It is desirable that whatever follows be brief.

  3. Concluding hymn

    A concluding hymn should be an expression of thanksgiving and praise. A doxology may be sung at this point.

  4. The dismissal

    The dismissal is a reminder that what we have shared is intimately linked with the Christian's daily life. In the eucharistic celebration the worshippers have participated in the peace and wholeness of Christ.

    Now in turn they must go out into the world and share that peace and 'wholeness' to a fragmented and chaotic world. Blessing should lead to mission.

Concluding remarks

It is the Spirit of God who gives life to our worship. Whether or not a liturgy will enable the people of God to glorify and enjoy God depends upon factors other than a particular set of words. If the life-giving Holy Spirit is to manifest God's enabling power in the midst of the worshipping community, all those who seek to participate and celebrate must themselves be thoroughly prepared, and must be 'real worshippers', 'in spirit and in truth'.