In a recent blog I described plans to update my understanding of eucharistic renewal in ecumenical Protestant churches. A friend responded with the suggestion that I broaden the search to include community churches that have developed as an alternative pattern in American religious life.
While these churches deserve careful study, there are several reasons for staying with the plan as announced, which is to focus on eucharistic worship in the denominations that have often been referred to as mainline, classic, or historic Protestant churches.
They are firmly rooted in the Reformation of the sixteenth century—the reforms initiated by Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox, and others. These churches represent parallel and sometimes competing variations of theological reform, cultural transformation, and humanistic learning that were flowering during that period. Thus many of the presuppositions, characteristics, and practices of these churches are very much alike.
My interest in the eucharist as practiced in these churches is prompted, in part, by the fact that this aspect of worship represents the most important unfinished business of the tradition spawned by the sixteenth century Reformation. Despite the intention of the founders that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper continue at the center of their church life, competing principles, especially the focus upon the Word as dominant metaphor, have kept these churches from completing the liturgical aspects that were part of their intention.
The resolution of these issues was central to the liturgical movement in the latter decades of the twentieth century. It was also one of the primary intentions of the Consultation on Church Union, which was the most important church union movement in the United States during the entire twentieth century. Regrettably, neither of these movements achieved its intention to restore eucharistic worship to its rightful place at the center of church life.
Although completing the eucharistic reform of their churches was one of the avowed goals of ecclesial activity, my impression is that only one of these Protestant churches in the United States—the Episcopal Church—has actually achieved the goal of making the eucharist the staple of weekly worship in its congregations. I want to confirm my understanding of what currently is happening in this regard and explore reasons why the reforms have once again fallen short.
The reasons stated above focus upon the past as it shapes present practice. Other reasons for this study focus upon the impact of the future as a modifying and impelling force. During the past two decades my own church-going activities have been in congregations that can be described by various adjectives, including liberal and progressive. These churches affirm intellectual and cultural values of mainstream society, resist traditional theological formulations, value stability in public worship, and affirm the importance of active involvement in the struggles for justice in the world.
These churches are unsure about celebrating the eucharist, even when the texts have been revised. Many people find them to be theologically offensive and the ceremonies outmoded. One response is to downplay the importance of this central sacrament. Another is to make significant changes in both the texts and ceremonies of worship at the communion table. Still another is to hold doggedly to the official reforms that were published during the 1980s and 90s even though they have not taken hold in many congregations across the country. I want to explore this aspect of the continuing evolution of the ecumenical Protestant churches.
A prominent point of view these days is that major transformations of the church take place about every 500 years. This position holds that the Reformation of the sixteenth century was one of these periodic transformations, and that now we are in another such period. According to this pattern of analysis, much that has been fixed in church life is set aside during these 500-year reforms and new theologies and ecclesial forms emerge.
Thus the question that I am exploring: is classic eucharistic worship one of the features now being dismissed from effective church life? Or is this central meal ceremony being remade into a different mode of gathering a community that is in some way shaped by the movement that emanates from Jesus of Nazareth?