Thursday, October 13, 2016

Lord's Supper: System Under Stress

In recent days I have been preaching and sharing about the Lord's Table. I believe it is important that if we believe as Christians that the Table has great importance we need to do some thinking about happens there. Disciples of Christ embrace the principle that the Table stands at the center of worship. Every Sunday communion is served after the Words of Institution are pronounced and a prayer offered. Usually the Words of Institution are offered by one of the two pastors, while the prayer is given by the Elder (a lay person). Many congregations practice an open table of sorts, but what do we mean by the open Table? Do we have a theological rationale or are we simply being nice? 

My tradition embraced weekly communion because people like Alexander Campbell believed that this was the New Testament pattern. While weekly communion was restored, Campbell and others didn't say much about how to do it or when to do it in a service. Just do it, and we did. Over the paste half century some work has been done on addressing meaning and means, but not much. As we move into a new era where people coming into the church, if they do so, have little connection with earlier practices what are we teaching about the Supper? 

One person who has devoted much of his career and writings to the question is Keith Watkins.  Keith is a friend and a mentor. I value his guidance and commiserate with his concerns.  In a book published a quarter century in the past titled Celebrate With Thanksgiving: Patterns of Prayer at the Communion Table, (Chalice Press, 1991), Keith writes about his concern that the system of our practice is under stress. I'm not sure we've addressed his concerns in the interim.  He writes: 

The stress within is also revealed by factors that may not be noticed by most church member but begin to appear when the system is examined from middle distance, It then becomes apparent thaqt Disciples have had little to say about the meaning of the Lord'Supper. despite the every-Sunday celebration, sermons rarely address the topic. Disciples have written a few books of communion meditations and prayers following their own pattern, but they have written virtually nothing thaqt addresses the broader questions of eucharistic theology which are part of the theological literature that interests Lutherans, Episcopalian, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, and people in other church families. Nor have Disciples developed many hymns or devotional materials that grow out of their eucharistic life.  [Celebrate with Thanksgiving, pp. 15-16].

I'm not sure we've done much to rectify the situation. I do preach on the subject. I've written a small book on the Eucharist, and I touched upon it in my book Freedom In Covenant. Nonetheless I've not dealt with it in a full bodied way or in a specifically Disciples-focused way.  I expect that most Disciples churches have moved the eucharist to the end of the service and clergy are more present at the Table, but I'm not sure we've done much to deepen our understanding of what is occurring or developing patterns that are reflective of a deepened theology of the Table.  I'm committed to working on this, but is this something that Disciples and people of other communions believe to be important to the life of the church?  If not, then the system will continue to be stressed!

2 comments:

Tim Griffin said...

We need to include more of the traditional eucharistic forms in our practice of the Lord's supper. Not sure how to enrich the prayers of lay elders. Ministers have tried to do this, but with mixed results. I am afraid it involves an issue of power that congregationalists do not face. Lay elders feel that they can say what they want to say at the Table, and this results in God blessing America, etc. Seminaries do not seem interested in addressing this issue, as most of our seminaries are now "divinity schools," that do not see their mission connected to the DOC denomination. I personally am discouraged about liturgical renewal in our denomination.

Robert Cornwall said...

Tim, I share your concerns. There are Elders who think deeply about their prayers. Others not so much. But the bigger issue is our liturgical theology -- and whether we have one. I went to Fuller, which is multi-denominational. I took history and polity through DSF, and that was very helpful. But most of what I've learned over the years has been because of my friendship with Keith over the paste nearly 30 years.