Table-centered worship: a personal update

May 20, 2015

Last Supper-Folk Sculpture
Twenty years ago in March I retired after teaching Christian worship for thirty-three years, with special interest in the church’s central sacrament, the gathering around the Lord’s Table. There Christians meet to remember Jesus as he asked us to do, experience his living presence in “the breaking of the bread,” and become again what we already are—the body of Christ given for the life of the world.

Soon after retiring I published a book—The Great Thanksgiving: The Eucharistic Norm of Christian Worship. To my regret, it didn’t sell very well and has been out of print for many years. During these retirement years, I have continued full participation in church life, including regular attendance at the Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and frequently have presided as pastor or served as a presiding elder according to the practices of my own church.

What I have not done is stay in touch with the ongoing work of “liturgiologists,” the people who work seriously at the history, theology, ritual forms, and cultural factors related to worship. My continuing life as a church-goer, participation in on-going clergy groups, and modest monitoring of the blog-a-sphere keep alive my interest in the field of study to which I have devoted so many years.

During the next two years, I hope to wake up from this twenty-year sleep and familiarize myself with the main currents of what has transpired since my retirement. The process will likely include several simultaneous activities:

  • Attending Sunday worship in a reliable cross section of churches, primarily Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), others that participated in the Consultation on Church Union, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church;
  • Talking with pastors, musicians, and lay members about their experiences and ideas concerning worship;
  • Examining books of worship, draft liturgies, trial liturgies, and manuals of instruction that have been published during the past two decades;
  • Surveying books and periodical literature about worship, especially the eucharist, that have been published since I retired.

A good aspect of being retired is that I can work on this project in my own way and stay with it as long as my personal interest and intellectual drive keep me at it. I’ll not be working for anyone other than myself. This work is energized by the clear sense that this up dating is consistent with who I have always understood myself to be.

Certain factors will shape the way this period of work will develop. One of the most important is the cognitive dissonance I experience as a person committed to the broad consensus of faith and practice that transcends denominational particularity and at the same time is nurtured in an idiosyncratic small American denomination.

Closely related is the tension between my commitment to classic Christianity, especially as it has been transmitted by the ecumenical Protestant churches, and urgent pressures to establish new theological, ceremonial, and cultural patterns for Christian assembly.

Another way to define my purpose is to say that the time has come work toward accomplishing two personal goals: (1) make sense of my experiences in recent years, especially those in the congregation where I have worshiped for a dozen years, with its strong focus on mission in the community and general alignment with theological ideas of progressive Protestantism; and (2) resolve the cognitive dissonance and religious tension that I have felt in these recent years.

Note: The picture at the top is a piece of folk sculpture I bought many years ago, although with no recollection of the occasion and place where I saw it. It measures 5.5 by 8 inches. Used copies of my book The Great Thanksgiving are available through Amazon at prices ranging from $0.01 to $5.07. The book is worth every penny!