How do the Transylvanian Unitarians give and receive Communion?

A logistical question.

While I had the pleasure of assisting the Transylvanian Unitarian bishop and his provost distribute Communion at the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship Revival conference that my former pastorate hosted, the church’s architecture is unlike those in Transylvania so I don’t know how the distribution would take place there.

To recap, from what I’ve read and the pictures I’ve seen, the Unitarian churches there use a circular or polygonal table set back from a wall, in an open space in front of the (high) pulpit, and not in a chancel. The communicants encircle the table, not unlike Continental Reformed churches, though they do not sit as you might find historically in the Dutch churches. (Reception seated in pews is English Puritan from what I understand.)

Some pictures: 1, 2. [More as I find them.]

How far do the communicants stand from the table and in which direction? Where is the minister? What are the respective roles of two or more ministers? Where do they stand at various points of the service?

Details about the ceremonial — the “stage direction” — would be very helpful and much appreciated.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. There is always some local variation. During the communion sermon the lay assistants stay in the pews and any assistant minister sits in the minister’s pew. The typical village church has women to the right of the pulpit and men to the left with young people straight ahead. The cantor, organist, and assistants take communion first.

    Every Lord’s Table I have seen is rectangular but there is no rule there. Communion holdiays are usually packed. It is only four times per year (Easter, Pentecost, Thanksgiving (last Sunday in September) and Christmas with the possibility of one or two other special occasions.

    The bread and wine are kept on the table underneath special linens for that purpose. After a prayer the cover is taken off

    The men come up first and form a giant circle, around the Lord’s Table and really practically to the door and down the aisle on the men’s side. The women sing the communion hymn while the officiants go down the line. Usually one person takes the platter of bread around and gives a piece to each person one at a time. It has been explained to me that it is very important to make maximal eye contact as each person takes their cube of bread (which the minister or lay president typically cuts from a loaf earlier that morning). Next usually two people come around, one with the chalice full of wine and a handkerchief. Each person grasps the chalice and takes a drink. The minister then wipes the chalice and turns it half around for the next person. An assistant usually follows with a flagon for refilling the chalice. We had another person who would refill the flagon or swap it with a full one. At Christmas he might even discretely refill the flagons from a bottle hidden inside the minister’s pew.

    After the last man, there is a prayer and then the men return to their pews and sing the communion hymn for the women as they come up and form a circle.

    I would say there are no hard and fast rules about who stands where. If there are extra ministers who are not serving, they return to the minister’s pew. Communicants stand far enough from the table so that you can pass between them and the Lord’s Table when serving though it can be a pretty tight squeeze. The essence is to be in a circle and to take time with each communicant.

  2. Wow — that was fast. Thanks for the explanation.

    Let me push my luck — does anyone (ministers, laity, subsets thereof) kneel during any part of the service?

    I ask because this ceremonial would not have been — I think — considered strange in Elizabethan England.

  3. Thinking of stage direction from memory, as the minister, you would stand behind the Lord’s Table probably closest to the pulpit steps when you are waiting to serve. Also, you are the last one in the building and the first one to leave. It is very common to give announcements at the end of the service from behind the Lord’s Table after the closing prayer and leaving the pulpit but before the closing hymn.

  4. I’ll confirm James’ observations, having served probably 15 communions during my two years in Transylvania. The arrangement does depend upon the layout of the individual church (or the yard, as you see in the GyÅ‘r congregation’s pictures). The Lord’s Table is generally set in the center of the open space, but I don’t remember ever standing behind the table facing out at the congregation for any stretch of time (this arrangement may strike Unitarians there as “too Catholic,” as certain other things seem to). Since I usually assisted with communion in Kolozsvár (using Ferenc Dávid’s silver! *swoon!*), there would be several ministers helping out, and we each took a role (offering a plate of bread cubes, offering chalices, refilling from the flagons, etc.).

    The communicants stand back against the edges of the open space, and along both sides of all the aisles possible — the one thing I would add to James’ description is that I’ve always seen them line up by age, so that the elders receive communion first, and the most recent confirmands last. Some of the elders look so frail that you’re sure they won’t be able to hold the full chalice, but their people lived and died for the right to hold the chalice, by God, and they’re gonna do it. And they do look you in the eye, every one of them… I’m tearing up now, just remembering that. Even in the city churches, where the seating is not segregated by gender, I think I remember that they still came up for communion separated by gender.

    It’s been almost ten years since I lived in Kolozsvár, but I can still hear the communion hymn in my head as I type this. I’ve preached before about my grace-filled moments while serving communion, and the Transylvanian Unitarian Church is definitely responsible for my willingness to identify as a UU Christian. I wish I had some pictures to share with you of communion there, but it was always such a consuming moment that we never managed to get any.

  5. Thanks, James and Scott. I found your experience during communion very moving. I have only been in Kolozsvár a couple of times (where I met James BTW, he was so helpful for a dumb Spaniard in an alien city!) and was lucky enough to witness a Unitarian baptism, but no communion. This post makes me feel that I need to go back soon!

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