‘I could drink a case of you’: Joni Mitchell, Charles Wesley and the Renewal of Sacramentalism

by Richard Clutterbuck.

In recent months I’ve been chairing a Faith and Order working party on the question of online communion. I won’t say more on that topic, as the work is ongoing, but working with the group has made me reflect again on the centrality of the Eucharist for my own Christian experience, my journey in ordained ministry and my theological thinking.

 Of course, as a theologian, I turned first to Joni Mitchell!

Oh, you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet
Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling
And I would still be on my feet
Oh, I would still be on my feet

Fellow baby-boomers will recognize these lines as coming from Blue, arguably the greatest singer-songwriter album of all time. Joni Mitchell’s genius shines through them, intensifying the pleasure and suffering of a love affair by linking it with sacramental wine. Charles Wesley, in what is (unarguably) the greatest-ever collection of eucharistic hymns[i], works the imagery in the other direction, from the experience of drinking wine in Holy Communion to a sense of joyful, passionate union with the crucified and risen Christ. To take one of many examples:

With mystical wine, He comforts us here,
And gladly we join, Till Jesus appear,
With hearty thanksgiving His death to record;
The living, the living, Should sing of their Lord.

The fruit of the wine (The joy it implies)
Again we shall join To drink in the skies,
Exult in His favour, Our triumph renew;
And I, saith the Saviour, Will drink it with you.

My first experience of receiving communion was in a marquee at Cliff College, during a teenage visit to Derwent Week; an intense (and, in retrospect, rather adolescent) emotional high. It set my Christian journey on a course that would be resolutely sacramental and shaped my future ministry as an enthusiastic leader and advocate of sacramental worship. To share bread and wine, confident in the mysterious presence of Jesus Christ, has been my greatest privilege. So, it’s not difficult for me to identify with the strongly affective communion hymns of Charles Wesley – or, for that matter, with the sacramental metaphors in Joni Mitchell’s love songs. But while the Wesleyan tradition gives ample scope to the experiential, affective, dimension of communion, it has, in the generations since Wesley, been less successful in linking this to the divine presence at the heart of the sacrament. When Christian experience loses its anchorage in ontology it easily becomes merely subjective, detached from the reality it represents. We need a sacramental theology that can affirm presence without dissolving mystery and that can reflect passionate joy without becoming self-indulgent.

The best recent example that I know of a Protestant sacramental theology comes from Hans Boersma, J I Packer professor of theology at Regent College, Vancouver, and very much in the tradition of evangelical Reformed theology. Through his study of the French Catholic ressourcement theologians who prepared the way for Vatican II, he has come to the conclusion that Western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, needs to recover a lost sense of what he calls the ‘sacramental tapestry’ that was present from the patristic period till the late Middle Ages. Heavenly Participation[1] traces this ‘great tradition’ (as Boersma calls it) from the New Testament, through the writings of Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa and Thomas Aquinas. From the Platonic tradition Christianity inherited a sense that God was the supreme reality and that all created beings derived their existence from God and, to a degree,  participated in God’s being.  The supernatural was not alien to nature, but infused it. Symbols, such as the bread and wine of the Eucharist and the water of baptism, were not to be contrasted with the reality to which they pointed; on the contrary, they both participated in that reality and conveyed it to Christian worshippers. The church, as it celebrated the Eucharist, participated in the reality that was the body of Christ. Towards the end of the Middle Ages (to cut a long and contentious story short) this tradition was undermined by the nominalist insistence on the separation of nature and the supernatural, by a creeping separation of scripture and tradition, and by a new emphasis on the univocity of language and being rather than on the analogy between them. The result, says Boersma, is a cutting of the sacramental tapestry and the impoverishment of Christianity.

I guess this debate can seem an esoteric irrelevance compared with the many crises and injustices facing humanity. But actually, it gets to the heart of some of our most important questions. How does our creaturely existence relate to the reality of God – and how can we live in a way that honours God’s love for and presence within creation? How can God’s transforming presence be mediated through the stuff of creation: bread, wine, community? And if our deepest, most intimate, human relationships are channels for divine encounter, what does that tell us about our call to love and respect the other? Living more sacramentally would make a big difference.

What is the solution? Not, of course, to return to the early Middle-Ages. That would be impossible. But if Boersma is right, we can recover something of the great sacramental tradition by drawing water from the deep well of Christian reflection. If we do, we shall find that Charles Wesley’s wonderful eucharistic hymns convey more of their true depth. We might even arrive at a greater appreciation of Joni Mitchell.

[1] Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).

[i] Hymns on the Lord’s Supper. I am using the text as printed in J. Ernest Rattenbury, The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley, (London: Epworth Press, 1948).

6 thoughts on “‘I could drink a case of you’: Joni Mitchell, Charles Wesley and the Renewal of Sacramentalism”

  1. Thank you for these beautiful words and reflections to send us singing into another week!

    My contribution this week is in the form of a sacramental Haiku:

    The table beckons
    Broken bread and cup of red
    My Saviour awaits


  2. 40 years ago, a small group of us delivered two caravans to a small village devastated by the earthquake in Southern Italy. It was quite an adventure in the depths of winter. The villagers gave us a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine to bring home. The next Sunday, that bread and wine were used to celebrate communion in our church. It was a very moving service, as there was an intense sense that our sharing in the presence of God was being echoed not only amidst the devastation we’d witnessed in Italy, but wherever the presence of Christ was needed or sought.


  3. What an appetising piece!
    I spent ten years of my life negotiating with myself and others, worshipping occasionally with Roman Catholics and several Quaker meetings, in an effort to ‘decide’ about the Eucharist, and answers still elude me. Of course they do!

    When I was involved in religious broadcasting as part of an ecumenical team, and later among other denominational representatives at national level, it was never long before the Eucharist became central to the conversation. A Methodist minister in one BBC local radio station set up the first Eucharist of the Air, largely for the benefit of those who could not leave their homes. He came in for a good deal of stick from all sorts of people who could not accept that home-produced bread and wine (which hadn’t been properly consecrated by a minister of religion) were in any way valid.

    At that stage I joyfully received the elements from a Roman Catholic Bishop who knew perfectly well that I was a Methodist – (he died years ago so they can’t get him for it) but I have continued to wonder. And since I have been ‘staying at home’ I have used a piece of ‘ordinary’ bread and what our minister calls ‘a drop of wine or juice’ to take part in our streamed service. Does God need the physical presence of others to be the MOST real Person in my home? And is God not also in the bread and wine (or juice) even if the prescribed words have not been spoken by a prescribed person used to bless them?

    I love your ‘affirming presence without dissolving mystery’.

    Thank you. You have made my Monday morning!


    1. Thank you Richard for bringing up this subject. By the way, I,too, am a Joni Mitchell fan!
      I envy Josie and her streamed service with her bread and wine/juice at home.
      My Circuit decided to ‘toe the line’ and not offer ‘online’ Communion Services.
      I can do it at home alone if I wish………


      1. I can’t say I was ever a big Joni Mitchell fan, but one iconic line from her song Big Yellow Taxi has never left me since the first time I heard it:
        ‘Don’t it always seem to go, and you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone ….’
        It has become clear to me that, throughout my journey with the Methodist Church, I have definitely been swimming against the tide! All the theology, preaching, Bible studies and discussion groups over the years have been geared towards getting people out of their churches and serving in their communities and in the wider world. Nothing wrong with that; I’m not knocking it.
        But I came from the outside in. I encountered God in my daily life. I was guided back to church by an atheist. I was a Samaritan before I was a Christian. I have prayed, studied and meditated, and I have sensed God drawing me deeper and deeper into the creeds and doctrines which I balked at when I first joined the church. God’s ways are not our ways and I don’t question why; I just live into it.
        I have discovered the priceless treasure of the Christian faith, and I fear that, even with the best of intentions, the drive to secularise the church is a huge mistake. In our efforts to please everyone we will make ourselves irrelevant. What is a church without beliefs, creeds or doctrines?
        I pray that the leaders of the Methodist Church will safeguard our heritage.
        You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone!


  4. I find the sacrament deeply meaningful because it is a communal act. The problem with the Joni Mitchell quote and some Holy Sacrament services is that it is all about Me, I, a personal relationship with God, ontology and presence. And the words used in the Service Book don’t help! It’s all too cosy! A ritual to bless and enthuse an exclusive in-crowd that tends to alienate, exclude and judge those who do not participate or are “outside” the church community. Please note that I said “some” sacrament services!
    A sacrament that is more meaningful for me is/was the Harvest Supper; a meal to give thanks for our lives together, reflecting God’s unconditional love for all people including those who do not take communion.
    What moves me is an ethical spirituality, the basis of Wilholt’s ordinary theology, that is about groups of people caring for each other and living out a Christlike life, irrespective of religious observance.. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the church removed the barriers that try to impose conditions on God’s love for us all and then reflected and tapped into that universal gospel of love.
    Incidentally, when I take communion I feel it is important to look at the person serving the elements. This confuses some celebrants but , as I point out to them, if I am sharing a meal I should look at the host and acknowledge that the person before me is, at that moment, Christ.


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