As you know, I’ve recently changed church jobs and ended up in the Plains. Sunday was my first Communion Sunday in a new place. And the culture shock that I had been waiting for finally set in during the Communion liturgy.
You see, in my old parish, we would do communion weekly. While the pros and cons are good to talk about, one negative consequence is that no one wants to read the full UMC liturgy every week. So I would write my own…retaining the proper elements and form for a liturgical sacrament, of course! And since I wrote my own liturgies, I could tweak the theological substance to better reflect the worship message or my parish’s theological struggles that I, as the pastor, knew about. I did this for three years.
So imagine my surprise when I read through the United Methodist liturgy in full yesterday. There were several glaring differences between three years of liturgy and the “orthodox” liturgy in the UM Hymnal. I was so struck by it that I thought I would share. While I am a relatively new pastor (three years in my first parish, and seven years of church administrative experience prior to that), I would like to offer the following radical points of departure between what I had been doing and what the “orthodox” liturgy is.
NOTE: Given that I am part of the UM ordination system, I send these liturgies for evaluation yearly. So read them in confidence that while they may not be your theology or “orthodox” theology that they are being reviewed by my peers…which is more than most pastors can say!
- UM Hymnal: We confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, we have not heard the cry of the needy.
- Hacking Christianity (HX) Liturgy examples: “When we fail to love one another, we obstruct the flow of God’s grace given to us to be given to others.” “When we fail to love our neighbor, we shut the door in the face of Christ the beggar.” “We confess we have not always played our part in confronting the darkness, and bringing the light of Christ to troubled places.”
- Reflection: There’s a conflict between “being” and “doing” in this section. In the UM version, “we have” and “we have not” are statements of being, of existing in a state of sin. In the HX version, “when we” and “we have not always” are statements of doing, of when we do these things, these are the consequences. While I recognize the restrictive nature of writing a communion liturgy for every time and place, I worry about focusing on the “being” and not making connections between “doings”: thoughts and effects, actions and consequences, doings and becomings.
Your turn: does the universalizing tendency of “being” in the Communion liturgy or the focused “doing” in the HX Liturgy speak to you more? Why?
- UM Hymnal: Holy Holy Holy Lord, God of Power and Might. Heaven and Earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the Highest.
- HX Liturgy: Holy Holy Holy One, God of Power and Might. Heaven and Earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God. Hosanna in the highest.
- Reflection: In the UM Hymnal liturgy (full version W+T 2), there are 24 references to God as Lord and “He.” While I respect the Hymnal is from 1989 and not every church values inclusive language, that’s a very high gender:text ratio. There’s no need for that in contemporary inclusive churches. Even in the quoted above section that clearly references Christ, there’s liturgical ways to do it that keep the reference clear but don’t use masculine language.
What do you think? Is there a need for better gender inclusivity in the communion liturgy? Or are those words sacrosanct and women (and men) need to suck it up?
- UM Words of Institution:
On the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said:
“Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” When the supper was over, he took the cup, gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples, and said: “Drink from this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
- HX Liturgy: “On the last night that Jesus had with his disciples, the women and men who had been with him for so many days. He took bread, gave thanks to God, and broke it. He passed it around saying “take, eat, for this is my body.” Maybe by that he meant that his body may be broken, and our bodies may be broken, but so long as there are disciples and followers, the body is never truly broken.
When the supper was over, Jesus took the cup, raised it up and gave thanks, and passed it around and said “this is my blood.” Maybe by that he meant that he would not be with us in body much longer, but whenever we love one another, forgive one another, do acts of mercy with one another…then Jesus’ lifeblood flows through our veins and we are truly incorporated into Jesus’ body. Jesus says “every time you do this, remember me.”
- UM Epiclesis:
“Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood…All honor and glory are yours, Eternal Father, now and forever. Amen.”
- HX Liturgy: “Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and fruit of the vine. Make them be for us the bread of life, and the quenching cup of blessing poured out for one and for many for the forgiveness of sins. May they nurture us, may they sustain us, until we gather as broken people around the table again. All honor and glory is yours, O God, now and forever. Amen.”
- UM Hymnal: “The body of Christ, given for you” and “The blood of Christ, given/shed for you.”
- HX Liturgy: “the bread of life, given for you” OR “the body of Christ, broken as our bodies are broken” and “the cup of God’s love that we share” OR “the love of Christ, given for you”
- Reflection: As is perfectly clear here at HX, blood atonement and I are not bunkmates or pen-pals. But what happens if we fudge it in the communion liturgy?
A reflection by Cheryl Magrini at the GBOD questions accommodating children by using non-blood imagery. She acknowledges that children do not have a reference for weird imagery and blood language, but neither have they developed understanding for metaphorical language like “bread of heaven” etc. And if we understand this as a re-enactment, then giving the cliff-notes version of the liturgy is not being authentic to the original giving of bread and cup. She concludes that we should use the traditional language but offer education as to the diversity of what it means.
Those are both powerful critiques but neither point to the underlying pervasiveness of blood atonement in the communion feast. Even though John Wesley clearly supported blood atonement, his atonement theology is much more nuanced and contains elements of ransom and exemplary atonement as well. Why then does the communion table reflect only one?
What do you think? Is there room in the liturgy to create a more nuanced understanding of what Jesus meant by “this is my body” and “this is my blood?”
In closing, let’s be clear: I write the above not to say one is better than the other. I’m a simple pastor…the UM Hymnal was written by professional spirit-filled people! I am fully aware the hubris in writing the above as if they can be compared: they are apples and oranges as far as I am concerned.
I’m writing about my experience as a pastor. And so far in my new ministry, nothing is so drastically different as communion. Here’s the problem: In my theology, liturgy is the work of the people. While I respect Magrini’s statement that different people can get different things from the same evocative liturgy, as the UMC moves closer and closer to weekly communion, it can feel rote and impersonal because it is not the people’s language (especially those who value inclusive language and imagery). If liturgy is the work of the people, then does the communion liturgy include the people in it? When will the sabbath be made for humans, and not humans for the Sabbath?
Tough thoughts, and I anticipate some heated discussion about liturgical sacrosanctity (is that a word?) and cafeteria theology. If so, let’s discuss the essential issue: can the communion liturgy be made more personal to the congregation? What theological “laws” are broken in doing so? And if the result is absent of masculine language and offers a nuanced understanding of atonement…is it still communion?
Discuss. Welcome to our visitors and thank you for the comments!