Rescuing the Eucharist from the United Methodist Church: Part I

Don’t do this

From my childhood I remember the story of a counterfeiter who went undetected for years—not because his bills looked so authentic but because he found a way to make them look very old. He noticed that when people receive a new bill they examine it closely, but if the bill looks old—like it has been accepted by many people before—they barely glance at it. The same is true with ideas. If a concept looks new, then we study it carefully. If it sounds like it has been around a while and used by many others, then we accept it and pass it along.

The Church is not immune to the counterfeiter tactic. When some party wants to promote an innovation to the faith, they do their best to make it sound old. Dress it up with fragments of Scripture, cite a portion of an ancient homily, include a paraphrase of a translation of an excerpt from something in the third century.

I credit the counterfeiter’s tactic as the reason liturgical reforms in the United Methodist Church during the mid to late twentieth century were adopted with little opposition and even lass scrutiny. Most notably the Rite for Holy Communion I and II. The latter is the most common rite among our churches. We were told that the reforms that produced the Ecumenical Rite* were based on sources such as the Apostolic tradition of Hippolytus and therefore were older and closer to the practice of the early church than the texts that formed the Ancient Anglican Rite* which we had received. I was too naïve then to understand that deceivers can also be found among professors and bishops.

It was not long before an accumulation of inconsistencies, incongruencies, and contradictions moved me to look behind the professors’ opinions and the textbooks’ assertions to study the primary source documents. While I never met Hippolytus or any of the ancients, I am comfortable in saying that if they were shown a copy of the Ecumenical Rite that we are using and were told it was based on their work, they would consider it the worst slander.

Pastors’ put a lot of effort in trying to make the celebration of the Lord’s Supper more meaningful to the people who leave the Table wondering why we just did that. They try to make it more interesting for those who came hoping to hear a good sermon and go home.  Many have given up on making it more frequent to people who see it as an optional addendum to worship that just extends the service. It occurrs to me that if people were receiving the benefit that the Eucharist was instituted by Christ to provide, if they expected the real presence of Christ at the Table that he promised to give, then nothing else could be more meaningful or more interesting than that, and they would desire it at every opportunity.

What if the problem is not with the people’s short attention span, but what we are offering is not the Lord’s Supper? What if we have accepted a counterfeit rite and are passing it along? What if people do not experience the benefit of his passion because Christ is not truly offered?

When we look at how the Lord’s Supper is presented in Scripture and how it is passed down in The Church and compare that to the Ecumenical Rite, the differences in content are more numerous and more drastic than the few similarities of form. It sounds old, but it is undoubtably a 1989 copyright and an expression of the pluralism of its day. It is a ritual in which people of any religion, or no religion, can feel comfortable at the table.

The liturgical reform movement of the late twentieth century by its own declaration sought to eliminate embarrassing evangelicalism and anything of the “come to the altar” preaching. A popular seminary text** of the day critiques the development of the Eucharistic rite: “The unfortunate result was a concentration in the Eucharist on the Lord’s atoning work…”  In the new rite, holiness has no need of moral conduct or personal piety or an amended life but is entirely satisfied by works for the betterment of society. From the same textbook: “The sacrament had strong elements of subjective Good Friday mentality with an overlay of individualistic penitence. Now we have become greatly aware of the problem and have sought to alleviate it…”  

The Ecumenical Rite was designed to distance the Eucharist from the Good Friday atonement. The prayer of confession is reduced to three sentences in which any responsibility for transgression is removed from the individual and placed on the community. The words of pardon and assurance are reduced to one easy sentence. The transcendent is minimized and the focus of common union is the earth-bound community and its temporal concerns. Any talk of blood or sacrifice or sin or repentance is hurried through in a few words with weak meaning. The tone of the rite carries us out of the Upper Room toward more celebratory meals.

It is true that Christ participated in many meals and they, along with ritual meals of the Hebrew Scripture, are connected through the Eucharist. That does not mean that any of those meals are an equivalent of Lord’s Supper. It was on the night he was willing betrayed for us and for our salvation that he called his disciples to the table and commanded a perpetual remembrance. The meal in the Upper Room is the one that gives significance to all the others.

The modern Ecumenical rite follows the ancient practice only in certain manners of form. It maintains portions of the ancient formulae while omitting some elements and inventing a few others. The opening dialogue, the Great Thanksgiving, and the Eucharistic Prayers are recognizable by their form, but the content of the form is different and sometimes contrary to the Biblical narrative and historic practice (the next few essays will cite specifics). Is it any wonder that no benefit is received when it is not believed, and no change is wrought when it is not sought?

We do not need more interesting, relevant, or entertaining adaptations of the rite. The benefit that Christ desires to offer in the Eucharist simply requires recovering some of that embarrassing evangelicalism and come-to-the-altar preaching. Restoring an authentic Eucharistic practice means using plain words which honestly communicate the transcendent communion to which we belong and the purpose for which Christ established the Sacrament. If we are to receive the grace and amended life that Christ promises, then the prayers ought to unashamedly ask for that very thing.

For those accustomed to Eucharistic Rite II in the United Methodist Hymnal: I would encourage you to abandon it at once in favor of anything else in our tradition. You are not going to do any worse. I also call to mind what you already know–that the Divine grace offered in the Lord’s Supper is not accomplished by choosing the right magic words. It requires only that we use plain and honest words, and that is easily accomplished when the table is presided by one devoted to the things of God. Holy Communion is not a ritual but a way of life, and the Sacrament gives us strength to live a Eucharistic life. A people in communion with God and each other will look like a people who live in the reality of the Incarnation, the Cross, the Resurrection, and the Parousia. People who preach, teach, and live these things will find Christ truly present at the table.

Next essay: The Invitation to Holy Communion

* Ecumenical Rite refers to those liturgical innovations born of the ecumenical movement of the 20th century and includes rites I, II, and III of the United Methodist Hymnal.

Ancient Anglican Rite refers to those liturgies developed in the Anglican tradition and continues through Wesley’s Sunday Service and subsequent adaptations. It includes rite IV in the United Methodist Hymnal.

** Eucharist: Christ’s Feast with the Church, Stookey, 1993 (to be fair to the author, he advocates a more middle-way approach to the ritual than what is represented by these quotes. The tenor of his work indicates he would be disturbed by how far the Ecumenical Rite has deteriorated in practice.)

4 thoughts on “Rescuing the Eucharist from the United Methodist Church: Part I

  1. This is great, Keith!

    We definitely need some specifics in your upcoming posts, however, to make your case complete. Show us which parts of the ancient sources were left out, and which parts were invented in late 20th century. Some will already be familiar with those but many won’t.

    I like how at the end you remind us that tradition is actually flexible. It’s not about keeping the exact ritual John Wesley used, or John Chrysostom. But where we do develop and adapt the tradition, we need to be mindful of what we are doing, and what content we are adding or taking away, and what teaching does that communicate in our worship.

    This post inspires me, indirectly, to make some use of the Prayer of Humble Access this spring. 🙂

    Like

  2. Dear Country Preacher,
    You wrote “…if they expected the real presence of Christ at the Table that he promised to give…” Indeed I experience it. I always anticipate the presiding pastor reading “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…” Yes, I feel His real presence, teary-eyed, even though I’m an octogenarian PK who’s heard those words over and over again.
    Peace.

    Like

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