The Lord's Table -- Who Shall Preside?

By far, most Christian traditions assume that the Lord's Supper/Eucharist/Holy Communion will be celebrated by ordained clergy.  The Disciples of Christ stand apart from this tradition, for historically it has been Elders who have served at the table.  Now this tradition dates from a period in which Disciples anti-clericalism sought to separate out the table from the preaching.  Additionally there was the matter of the scarcity of preachers.  Since every congregation had elders, at the very least they could come to the Table.  Thus, the tradition of elders presiding at the table began.  More recently -- in the last 40 years as the Disciples became more involved both in the ecumenical movement and in liturgical renewal, ordained clergy began to move to the table.  The normal pattern today is for the ordained minister to offer the Words of Institution while the Elder(s) offers a prayer or prayers for the elements.  However, most Disciple churches have no qualms about having an Elder offer the Words of Institution.  It is argued that this represents our belief in the priesthood of all believers.

By and large I affirm this principle, but I wonder if we've thought this out very well.  If all of our ecumenical partners have ordained clergy celebrating the Eucharist, why are we so different?  What is the theological rationale for this?  Rather than offer an answer to the question, I'll raise it for discussion.


John said…

I was raise Roman Catholic, and only became a Disciple 20 years ago. What led me to the Disciples tradition was the freedom it lent me to undertake my own theological explorations, guided by tradition but not necessarily bounded by it. I am comfortable with ecclesial hierarchy and with ecclesial precedence at the table. I also interpret the Eucharist as being much more than a remembrance.

However, I have trouble with the Roman Catholic notion of "in personam Christi". I think indeed we are all part of the universal priesthood of believers - not that we all mystically take on the personhood of Christ, but in each other we encounter the person of God, perhaps especially in the least among us. This theology opens the door for me to accept lay participation in the Eucharist, both in the prayers and in the ritual recitation of the words of institution. Ordination does not bestow magical powers. It does however lend itself to an elevation in terms of spiritual trust on the part of the congregation. So I find that clergy led communion is fine, and among Christians of other traditions, perhaps encourages a deeper experience of the Eucharist.

As an elder in the Disciples, tradition, I personally find the opportunities I get to be at the table, either to say prayers or to do the words of institution, to be deeply spiritual moments. I treasure them and look forward to them.

With regard to the obligations of ecumenism, perhaps we should be led by Paul's words: "But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak." 1 Cor 8:9. "Weak" is an unfortunate and presumptive word, which I interpret as having different spiritual and theological sensibilities.

What troubles me more than anything is when the presider, ordained or not, stumbles through the ritual due to lack of preparation, or casually performs the ritual without serious regard for the sacramentality of the moment. The ritual need not be dour or somber, though it can be, and the ritual can be light hearted - Jesus surely enjoyed his meals. But what I anticipate is that the presided is cognizant that the Lord is present, and this is not a trivial and meaningless exercise.

Anonymous said…
Just to help an outsider.. are you considering who can "bless the elements"? Sorry.. don't know the formal word/phrase for it. Or is this simply.. who can hand off the wine and bread to the next person?

John said…

I think you are referring to the recitation of 'the words of institution.' For me, the "blessing" is done by God. In the Disciples tradition the words, which form the core of the sacrament, need not be recited by an ordained minister.

Tomorrow morning, because our pastor is on vacation, and even though there will be as many as three ordained ministers in our sanctuary, I will have the honor of leading the congregation in communion. Next week another elder will have the honor.

David Mc said…
Well John, you did a great job this morning. Although I expected at least one stumble after your comment! You humans are all alike. Really though, you are an excellent worship leader. We're totally blessed to have you share your wisdom and gifts with us.
Doug Sloan said…
At Central Christian Church (DoC), we have a long tradition of the Elders presenting communion: prayer for the offering, invitation to the table, words of Institution, Communion prayer, Lord's prayer, distributing the bread and drink to the Deacons, and - after all have partaken of the bread - leading the drinking of the cup as community, and a closing prayer.
John said…

I don't know about the wisdom thing, but thank you very much for your kind words. It's a blessing to have the opportunities to lead the worship.

Keith Watkins said…
Although I am ordained, I have served as elder for many years and therefore have prepared and offered the prayers at the communion table. As long-time professor of worship and participant in scholarly and ecumenical activities concerning Christian worship, I understand the broader tradition of the churches concerning eucharistic worship. Writing these prayers is one of the most challenging aspects of anything I do. As I listen to prayers by other elders, and as I talk with them, I conclude that they too find it challenging to prepare these prayers. Although I can explain the Disciples tradition (and continue to worship in Disciples churches), I believe that current practice with respect to eucharistic praying needs significant reform.
Doug Sloan said…
Keith Watkins said, "I believe that current practice with respect to eucharistic praying needs significant reform."

In detail, what needs to be reformed?

In what way does it need to be reformed?

When writing a prayer for the offering or the communion, I try to stay mindful of the scripture for the day, aware of contemporary events and currents, and in tune with the timeless spirit. Yes, it is hard - as it should be if the task is taken seriously.

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