What Is "Proper Matter" for the Bread in United Methodist Celebrations of Holy Communion?
By Taylor Burton-Edwards
On July 8, 2017, the Vatican issued a letter to all bishops in the Roman Catholic Church, worldwide, reminding them of their responsibilities under Canon Law to ensure that "proper matter" is being used for the Eucharist (the celebration of the Lord's Supper) in the dioceses under their supervision. Proper matter for the bread to be used in the Eucharist, per centuries of Roman Catholic sacramental doctrine, is unleavened wheaten bread with no other grains or adulterants present. The letter clarified that while low-gluten wheat wafers may be used, gluten-free wafers, which are made with no wheat at all (because wheat contains gluten!) were not.
This actually was a clarification, and not a "new restriction." But it has led to a lot of discussion, including among Protestants, about why persons with celiac disease were being singled out for exclusion from the benefits of the sacrament.
Let me clarify, on behalf of our Roman Catholic siblings in Christ, that their statement in this matter does not at all, within their theology (or ours!), exclude anyone from the benefits of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Under perhaps an even older doctrine in Christian theology, one generally shared among Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglican, and most Protestant bodies worldwide (including United Methodists), persons who for some reason are physically unable to receive both the bread or the cup are understood to receive the full benefits of the sacrament in receiving either one they can. And in extreme circumstances, such as swallowing problems that make any physical consumption of these elements impossible, persons may receive the full benefits of the sacrament by either touching the elements to their skin, or where this is also impossible (such as a person with celiac disease and swallowing difficulties) by their intention to receive the consecrated elements. This doctrine is sometimes known as the doctrine of concomitance.
So in disallowing gluten-free bread for the Eucharist, Roman Catholics are not excluding full reception of the sacrament. They are instead saying persons with celiac disease who are unable to tolerate low gluten bread (and many are able to tolerate that!) should be served only the cup. Proper precautions can be taken to ensure the cup from which they receive is gluten free.
Some Protestant reaction I have observed in comments online, both in articles about this letter and in social media, have faulted Roman Catholics for being "too picky" or "splitting hairs" on this matter. A few have gone so far as to say proper matter for communion can be whatever people want it to be.
What does The United Methodist Church have to say about proper matter for the bread of the Eucharist? Do we agree the elements used do not matter much at all? Or do we have some direction about proper matter as well?
We address this directly in our official doctrinal statement on Holy Communion, "This Holy Mystery."
On p. 30 of this document, we read the following:
It is appropriate that the bread eaten in Holy Communion both look and taste like bread. The use of a whole loaf best signifies the unity of the church as the body of Christ and, when it is broken and shared, our fellowship in that body (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).
Historical continuity with the practice of the universal church is important; however, worship planners should be sensitive to local situations. Bread may be made from any grain according to availability. In ecumenical and other settings, wafers may be an appropriate choice. The loaf should be plain bread (no frostings, nuts, raisins, artificial coloring, or other additions). Leavened or unleavened bread is equally acceptable. In congregations where there are people with gluten allergies, gluten-free bread may be offered.
The loaf broken at the table is to be the bread distributed to the people. As appropriate to the dignity of the occasion, care should be taken to avoid excessive crumbling of the bread and to remove large pieces that fall to the floor.
-- emphasis added
We identify proper matter as bread. Bread may be made with a variety of grains, and it may come in a variety of forms. Not all cultures have "loaves of bread" eaten with meals. Some, such as in Laos, have a diet grounded not in wheat, but in rice, and not in loaves, but in cakes. In Samoa and some other Pacific cultures, the meat of the coconut functions as bread in that culture. In a number of African cultures, fufu, a starchy substance often made from the root of the cassava, has this function. At issue for us is that what is offered as the bread function as bread did for Jesus within the context of the people who offer it.
And to that we add a concern similar to the concern for the purity of the wheaten and unleavened bread required in the Roman Catholic Church. We, with them, insist that the bread be in plain form-- "no frostings, nuts, raisins, artificial coloring, or other additions."
Because we do not share the insistence on wheat as the only acceptable grain for the bread for Holy Communion, we also specifically provide for gluten-free bread as a viable option in settings where persons may have celiac disease and need it.
So, with Rome, United Methodists have expressed clearly what constitutes proper matter for the bread of Holy Communion, as well as what does not. We both affirm that proper matter matters. We simply come to different conclusions about what may constitute proper matter for the bread. For Rome, unleavened wheaten bread alone is proper matter, because that is what (they believe) Jesus himself would have offered at the Last Supper. This places a higher value on the incarnational principle (Christ's presence with us in the matter of the bread) in the original instance as definitive for all future instances of celebration. For United Methodists, the bread needs to function as bread, whatever the bread itself may consist of. This places a higher value on the incarnational principle in the context in which people find themselves now.
May we treat our siblings who understand the nature of proper matter differently than we do with charity, and may we take our own understandings of proper matter, as established in our own doctrinal statements, seriously.