Anthropologist Victor Turner notes that there often is a sharp contrast between the explanation that people give concerning important rituals and the facts that can be observed by the people who watch a ritual in progress. When observers discern this conflict they are challenged to deeper thought in order to solve the puzzle: Why is it that when people say one thing about their ritual, they do something else?
In the worship of American churches this puzzle is most fully illustrated by the celebrations of the Eucharist. Beginning in Scripture and continuing through the history of the Church, it has been affirmed that the Eucharist is the sign of our unity in Christ: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (I Corinthians 10:17).
In the Roman Catholic Church this unitive function is demonstrated. Despite the variegated character of this church, with its many orders and societies resembling Protestant denominations, priests and people alike are able to join together in the celebration of the Mass. Furthermore, the Mass is clearly at the central point in Catholic piety and religious life and practice, as can be seen in technical theology, pastoral writings, congregational program, and in the regular Christian practice of Catholics.
Yet the characteristic forms of American Protestantism do not display this same kind of unity with respect to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. These churches have developed a way of worship that is non-eucharistic in its character. When Protestants come together for liturgical purposes, they unite in the singing of hymns, praying, and preaching. Throughout the history of Protestantism in this country, the Eucharist has been a sign of disunity rather than of unity.
The above paragraphs come from a paper that I wrote as part of a volume of essays honoring Ronald E. Osborn, who had been my mentor for many years. His interest in the liturgical life of the church helped shape my own continuing studies in this field.
In the paper, I discuss reasons for this ambiguity in the American Eucharist. I then point to one group of churches—those in the Stone-Campbell Movement to which Osborn and I both belonged—that have tried (without success) to reverse the process. I also suggest some of the possibilities for recovery of eucharistic unity in our own time.