In the small baptist churches I've been a part of, (and the LDS service I attended), the communion elements are served to worshippers in the pews. In my Episcopal church, everybody comes up to the rail. I'm wondering a bit about how this variation in practice arose (Anyone know which came first?) and if there is a way of predicting how any given church will practice it.

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    Just a side note, these are far from the only two methods of communion dispersal practiced in modern churches. – Flimzy Jun 3 '12 at 6:35
  • I would actively solicit commentary on the logistics of dispersal - and if there is a pattern, that would make a great answer... – Affable Geek Jun 3 '12 at 22:41
  • I gotta wonder if it was Protestants who took their cues from Catholics after the sanctuaries were flipped and renovated or if it was Catholics who, in not knowing what to do when the communion rail was removed who absorbed something commonplace in some Protestant parishes. It would be awesome if some old timer could answer this for us because you won't find out from watching old movies. – Peter Turner Jun 4 '12 at 3:31
  • From the LDS perspective, I've attended services at very large and very small congregations, and it's always done the same way: the sacramental emblems are blessed by the priests and then passed around to the members of the congregation, who remain seated throughout. – Mason Wheeler Jul 7 '13 at 18:27

In Catholic churches, Communion is required by the Holy See to be distributed by a minister (priest, bishop, deacon, etc) and may only be done so by a lay person if there are not enough ministers to do the job. This, and the requirements about how the congregants receive the Eucharist from the minister, suggests that in Catholic churches, altar distribution is the way it goes. This is one of the many Catholic practices that originated in the Catholic Churches need to control its congregants. The ministers have control over whether you receive the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Episcopal/Anglican churches also practice this distribution by ministers, although I'm not certain about requirements as I know less about the Anglican church hierarchy. Lutheran churches do too, sometimes referring to it as The Sacrament of the Altar. Both of these come from their close ties to Catholicism back in the day.

In the various other Protestant persuasions, the desire to draw away from the rules and rituals of the more orthodox denominations and the belief that God connects directly with all people, not just through the ministers, lead to a significant de-formalization of the communion rite. Also, since most Protestants do not hold the that communion is a sacrament, but rather a remembrance of Christ's death for Christians on the cross, the formal ritual became unnecessary.

Also because of the lower importance that Protestants place on the Eucharist, it is not celebrated weekly at all churches, including Lutheran and Anglican churches. Catholics, however, are required to take communion weekly.

As to whether you can tell, at Protestant churches, there is not a sweeping generalization to be made based on denomination or size. That said, you could probably tell by when you walk in if you see a communion table set up with those communion cup-holders stacked on top of each other or if you see somewhere to kneel at the front of the church.

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  • Now this is a great answer. It talks about the practices and give to my mind an excellent mechanism for its development! Bravo! – Affable Geek Jun 6 '12 at 12:24
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    A small note to relieve the uncertainty of paragraph two: in the Anglican churches of the Church of England additional ministers need to be proposed by the parish and approved by the bishop. There may be training involved too. – Andrew Leach Jan 5 '13 at 21:12
  • It's wrong to say that Protestants don't consider communion to be a sacrament, AFAIK it is almost universally considered a sacrament! But, their doctrine of sacraments is different, not needing to be administered from the clergy to laity. – curiousdannii Oct 26 '15 at 0:56
  • Catholics are not required to receive communion weekly. They are required to attend mass every Sunday, but they need not receive communion every time. They are required to receive communion at least once each year during the Easter season (from the first Sunday of Lent to Trinity Sunday); this is called the "Easter duty". Of course they are encouraged to receive communion much more often, even daily. – Andreas Blass Oct 26 '15 at 10:48

I was raised Methodist and we went to the altar and kneeled. I've been Presbyterian for 40 years and we are seated. My husband was raised Syrian Orthodox and they went to the altar too but stood.

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I've attended evangelical and Fundamentalist churches most of my life, including Southern Baptist, Regular (GARBC) Baptist, Assemblies of God, Christian & Missionary Alliance, and Evangelical Free Church, and we almost always celebrate communion while sitting in the pews. I've attended a handful of Catholic services and there everyone went to the front of the church for communion. I've generally assumed it was a denominational thing: Protestants do it from the pews while Catholics go to the front. It wouldn't surprise me if Anglicans and Episcopalians did it like Catholics, as their practices are more Catholic-like than most other Protestants. (As they split from the Catholic church over leadership issues rather than doctrine.)

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    There are other Protestant churches that go forward. Lutherans. Some Presbyterians. Etc. You're just extrapolating based on the sampling you've seen, but I suspect that denominations you've observed are regionally and/or culturally limited. – Caleb Jun 3 '12 at 4:39
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    leadership issues??? I'm not sure that's why Sts. John Fischer and Thomas More got their heads stuck on pikes! They were cool with the leadership, it was the doctrine that they couldn't stomach. – Peter Turner Jun 4 '12 at 3:34
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    @Peter I was trying to be diplomatic, but okay: The Lutherans split from the Catholic church over issues like Papal indulgences, faith vs works, and sola scriptura. The Anglicans split with the Catholic church over the issue of whether Henry could declare himself the leader of the English church. I don't claim to be an expert on the history, but my understanding is that More was executed because he refused to recognize Henry's divorce and accept Henry as leader of the church, not because of a debate over transubstatiation vs consubstantiation or any such thing. – Jay Jun 4 '12 at 5:06
  • @Caleb I listed denominations precisely to make clear that those were the only ones I could speak for. I've only been to Lutheran and Presbyterian churches on a couple of occasions and frankly I don't remember how they celebrated communnion. I'm not sure what you mean by "regionally and/or culturally limited". – Jay Jun 4 '12 at 5:10
  • @jay, yeah I see your point. Ex-Catholic's who revolted may have considered it a leadership issue, but Catholics who remained faithful to the magisterium (while wishing to remain faithful to the king, like St. Thomas More) would probably have considered it a matter of doctrine. – Peter Turner Jun 4 '12 at 20:15

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