Practical tips in celebrating the Lord's Supper

When John Wesley sent Bishop Thomas Coke along with the Articles of Religion and The Sunday Service Book across the ocean to found The Methodist Episcopal Church (now The United Methodist Church) he urged the ordained elders to celebrate Holy Communion "every Lord's Day" using this official liturgy. With the adoption of "This Holy Mystery" the General Conference of The United Methodist Church has repeated this call to our clergy and congregations: move toward weekly communion and use the established liturgy.

As a campus minister who travels to various churches, I have had opportunity to witness a number of different Methodist pastors celebrate the sacrament and have a few practical observations and pointers to improve what we actually do at the table. Those pastors who are not detail-oriented may not think these tips are significant or worth bothering to think about ahead of time, yet these practices will make a difference for the people of your congregation.

1) This one I am less adamant about, but it is very appropriate, and a venerable old tradition, for representatives of the congregation to present the elements during the presentation of the offering (see page 8 of the Hymnal); another nod to this same tradition is to simply uncover the elements and set the table during the offering.

2) Have an altar-table, even if a small and portable one, that can be used to set the elements upon and which may support a worship book. Don't allow the table to become overly cluttered with decorations so as to obstruct your hand motions (see #5). Think dignity, beauty, and simplicity when decorating it. There are prayers for setting aside and dedicating a table for this sort of use in The Book of Worship.

3) As I have argued many times before, use the Church's Great Thanksgiving prayer from the worship books; don't just make it up as you go. The Church's prayer tells the story of God, and communicates the Church's beliefs (not only the individual pastor's) about the Lord's Supper. If you check out Great Thanksgiving #2 or #3 in the Hymnal, you will note that there are places where the pastor may "say words appropriate to the occassion" and this is the proper place to pray "as the Spirit leads" (perhaps touching upon the message of the sermon), yet doing so within the structure of the Church's ancient and communal prayer. Thus, in our United Methodist liturgy, there is both form and flexibility and this we should own and celebrate.

The use of the Church's prayer should include breaking the bread with the words from the liturgy after the Lord's Prayer (see United Methodist Hymnal page 11).

Do not divide the prayer up with different people saying different parts. It is a single prayer and should be led by a single elder/presbyter (or bishop).
4) Stand at the altar-table during the Great Thanksgiving - do not read the prayer from the pulpit or some other place. This may mean getting an assistant, or a book stand, to hold the worship book if need be, as it certainly makes a lot more sense for me to stand close enough to touch the elements while I am actually consecrating them. Likewise you should have all of the elements that you intend to consecrate on (or very near) the table during the Great Thanksgiving.

If your table is attached to the back wall (as in many gothic buildings) you may proceed in several ways.
I have been to Anglo-Catholic services where the priest faces the altar (and not the people) and actually find it inspiring - he is, after all, leading us in talking to God, not talking to us, so don't be afraid to try that. Or you could pull in a portable table (see #2) so as to face the people. Or you could compromise and face the people from the beginning of the prayer ("The Lord be with you...") until the Words of Institution at which point you could turn and face the altar. If you try this it might still be appropriate to turn towards the people when saying "Take, eat..." and "Drink from this..." and holding up the appropriate element.
5) What are you doing with your hands? I have noticed some clergy seem undecided about their hand motions, sometimes holding them up or folding them, appartently at random. Use your hand motions deliberately. Here is what I suggest and always do (I believe this is what the Book of Worship also commends):

I lift my hands (palms up) at the beginning of the prayer, and keep them raised until the words of institution (except I fold them during the Sanctus, "Holy, Holy...").

During the words of institution I lift the bread and then the cup at the appropriate points, then fold my hands during the Memorial Acclamation ("Christ has died...").
During the Epiclesis I elevate my hands, palms towards the people ("Pour out your Spirit on us gathered here..."), and then move them over the elements, palms down (and on these gifts of bread and wine...).

Finally I lift my hands again (palms up) for the concluding doxology.
I try to make all of my motions slow-ish and deliberate. At any rate you should do something with your hands, as it will engage the congregation more in the sacramental moment. Do not underestimate the importance of body language.
6) What about the vessels? I always use, and recommend, a single loaf and a single cup (just the way Jesus and the Apostle Paul do it in the Bible). I consecrate the same vessels that we will actually use in distribution (no "prop" vessels). I avoid and dislike the "communion shot glasses" as they destroy the whole "one body" image.

7) Let the people come (as they are physically able) to the altar area to recieve, do not pass the elements around the pews. It is strongly encouraged in our Methodist tradition that we sing during this time.
8) Use handsome vessels since the beauty or ugliness of our vessels communicates about the reality of what is happening as surely as our words do. I generally use a silver chalice and patten (a small plate), since I think the "clay-ware" chalices are (generally) quite ugly looking. I have seen some nice wooden and glass sets, however. Again, don't underestimate the importance of visual cues and the ways that images communicate - especially for Postmodern young people.
9) Along the same lines as #8, do use some vestments when celebrating the Lord's Supper. Several points are worth noting here:

a) We are heirs to a rich tradition of vestments from the Early Church and the Anglican Tradition and that is a legacy that we ought not cast off lightly. Among other things that they do, vestments visually connect us to the Church through history and visually enhance the total worship experience.

b) You can have energetic cutting-edge/contemporary music and vestments in the same service. Believe me, people do it. Don't allow yourself to be caught up in a false antithesis between "traditional worship" and "contemporary worship." Feel free to boldly blur those artificial lines.

c) If you don't wear a clergy robe or an alb during the service, you might consider at least wearing a stole - the symbol or ordination, sacramental authorization, and servant leadership - during the Great Thanksgiving. I don't generally wear a full robe at the campus ministry where I serve, but I do always drape a stole of the appropriate liturgical color over the altar-table and put it upon myself just before the Great Thanksgiving prayer. Sometimes I wear a collar.

The practice of always wearing a white stole for communion is a relic of the days when communion was not celebrated regularly. For weekly celebration the appropriate liturgical color should be worn. In terms of robes, the white Alb, the "standard" black clergy robe (Geneva gown), or the cassock and surplice are those most often used among United Methodist clergy and (along with the stole) all have precedent in the Anglican and/or Early Church tradition.
10) Wash your hands before the service. In some traditions (Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism) it is the custom for the priest to ceremonially wash hands before the Great Thanksgiving. You might want to introduce this as some Methodist clergy have done. You might also want to use sanitizer wipes, although if you do this do not tear open a wipes packet or use a squirt bottle right in front of everyone. This is tacky. Rather, have your wipes ready to go on the table. Slowly wipe your hands with them, and then carefully fold them and place them on the table just before the Great Thanksgiving prayer (do not wad them up and chunk them in the trash as this too is tacky). Better still would be to have wipes by your chair to use before you approach the table. Again, keep in mind that all your body language communicates and that this is a sacred, beautiful, and reverent moment.
11) Have both a bread-breaker and a chalice-bearer when distributing the elements since this is more sanitary than letting each person grab the loaf themselves, and provides and excellent opportunity to better involve a deacon or lay person in the service.
12) Don't be afraid to experiment with the musical responses during the Great Thanksgiving prayer, especially after people have gotten accustomed to the flow of the Great Thanksgiving prayer. There are several musical responses in the Hymnal and The Faith We Sing and they can enrich your worship service.
13) Enjoy what you are doing! You are a presbyter of Christ's one holy Church and you have been given the sacred honor and responsibility to lead in consecrating the elements of Holy Communion and to facilitate an encounter between Christ and the people at the Lord's Table - that is awesome! So please don't just stand there and read a prayer like as though bored or "zoned out". Savor and enjoy what you are doing - and the other people will too.

SO - those are a few practical steps I hope every Methodist elder will consider taking as we attempt to lead the Church toward a more frequent and more engaging celebration of Holy Communion. What might you add to that?

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Blogger Josh said...

Great stuff, Daniel. Might I suggest the picture book The Lord Be With You by Don Saliers & Charles Hackett (OSL publications) as a useful guide to many of these tips (especially postures, hand gestures, and the like): http://www.amazon.com/Lord-Be-You-Presiding-Christian/dp/1878009060/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1259982322&sr=1-1

And I too wear a stole & often a clergy shirt to celebrate Eucharist at the campus ministry...with contemporary music, no less!

9:08 PM, December 04, 2009  
Blogger Fr. Philip said...

Very interesting post, Daniel. Thanks for sharing that. I agree wholeheartedly with your encouragment to make deliberate motions. We have proper motions in the Orthodox Liturgical tradition as well and it makes a difference when they are done with piety and just done. May God strengthen all of us to celebrate the Eucharist with joy!

8:14 AM, December 07, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What should non-ordained "local pastors" and "commisioned" elders wear? After all they should not wear a stole because they are not ordained. Should these laypersons preside at the Lord's Table? Maybe the UMC should work this tiny theological detail out, eh?

1:00 PM, December 07, 2009  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hi Anonymous,

Quite frankly, I think our denomination's thinking on lay presidency is quite incoherent and needs to be worked out. On the one hand we say it is (in keeping with the ancient tradition) reserved for the ordained, while on the other we make all of these exceptions.

I am hopeful that we will soon ordain ALL our pastors (though we may still make some distinctions between itinerating and non-itinerating elders).

I ran across an article a while back from the Board of Discipleship website saying that local pastors ARE clergy and it is appropriate for them to use "Rev." and to wear a clergy collar.
I would also point out that nowhere does the Book of Discipline say that lay pastors may not wear vestments (to my knowledge this is an informal tradition that is often guarded as "turf" by the ordained elders). So, I think that if a local pastor is presiding in a sacramental function there is no reason why he ought not to wear vestments.

That is my opinion, and others will disagree, I'm sure.

2:41 PM, December 07, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A stole is a vestment worn by the ordained. It signifies the office of presbyter. Are "Local Pastors" or "commissioned pastors" ordained? If one is not ordained how can one be called a pastor and wear a stole? I understand the missional background for the lay presidency in the UMC, but can we agree that the primary reason for Wesley ordaining Whatcoat and the others at Bristol in 1784 was to provide for an ordained ministry for North America. Obviously Wesley did not want his "lay preachers" including Asbury, presiding without ordination. I think its time for the UMC to get its elders off their a*** and start riding the circuits again (i.e. British model, original plan). That way lay preachers can do the work they have been called to preaching, and only preaching. I think the UMC needs to get its ecclesiology in order, especially its orders of ministry.
Philadelphia John

7:35 PM, December 07, 2009  
Blogger Pastor Gary Taylor said...

About vestments for non-ordained clergy. First, as the previous comment brings to light, some ordained clergy are touchy about the use of stoles and the rights to preside over the sacraments. As an Associate Member of my Conference, I, and local-pastors are appointed to serve our parishes and that includes the sacraments of Communion and Baptism. I choose to wear a stole appropriate to the season. That is a decision that each local pastor must make. There is a alternative, however, called the scapular. They are not as available as stoles but you can find some at Cokesbury.com or at www.gailbirdvestments.com. They come in all the appropriate seasonal colors and the red ones can be worn at ordination services without stepping on the toes of some elders.

9:17 PM, December 07, 2009  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hey guys,

Good comments. As I hope I indicated, I agree that lay presidency at the sacraments (as an everyday practice) is a really bad idea without precedent in the ancient tradition and one that clearly contradicts Wesley's doctrines about the importance of the ordained ministry. I think I might even go a step further and affirm the vital importance of a proper apostolic succession of ordained ministry (Wesley and Coke being our links to the Anglican succession - with more to come if we enter full communion with The Episcopal Church and their bishops "validate" ours).

I've seen the liturgical scapular worn over an alb before, but don't know much about it - I understand it comes from the monastic tradition. Is it intended for all orders of Christians (like the alb, which according to convention may be worn by any baptized Christian)?

The cassock and surplice may also be worn by lay people according to tradition. In evangelical Anglican Churches it is often worn with a stole by the priests and without a stole by the choir. It can also be worn with a tippet - which looks like a stole - the ordained wear a black tippet and authorized lay people wear a blue one. That might be a good compromise that would (getting back to my original post) still enhance the visual beauty of our worship; at least until the UM Church sorts out its ordained ministry issues.

9:20 AM, December 08, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remember the UMC is in full communion with the ELCA. The ELCAs bishops are in apostolic succesion through the ECUSA. But that raises the question what is apostolic succession? Isn't it the ongoing proclamation of the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ? In that case UMC bishops (at least some them) are proper apostolic epsikopos.
Philadelphia John

9:21 AM, December 09, 2009  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hi John,

The question of UMC apostolic succession is an interesting and slightly technical one.
It depends upon how apostolic succession is understood (as you point out). I believe our Church can already make a claim to a valid succession, however, it is not seen that way from the Anglican/Roman Catholic understanding of succession.

The ELCA bishops "recieved" a valid succession from the Episcopal Church a few years ago, before that they too did not have a valid succession by the Anglican and Roman Catholic understanding which includes the necessity of a bishop-to-bishop lineage through laying on of hands all the way back to the apostles.

The ELCA (like the UMC) did not have such a succession from a bishop (i.e. our first bishops were consecrated by presbyters not by bishops).

We (the UMC) still don't have it in this Anglican and Roman Catholic sense, but since the ELCA obviously did not think it necessary for us to be a true church (since they got along without it) they entered full communion with us anyways. It does not follow, however, that we also therefore have a valid succession (since it depends upon who consecrated our bishops) - though we might pick one up over time if their ELCA bishops began participating in our episcopal consecrations.

If we want to pursue full communion with the Anglicans, Orthodox, or Roman Catholics, then we will need to accept apostolic succession in a bishop-to-bishop lineage of ordinations.

11:44 AM, December 09, 2009  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I should probably have added another tip on "excellent celebration at the table" - don't read the liturgical prayer too fast! Try as best you can to pray it as "naturally" as you can - you are praying, after all, not simply reading aloud.

7:11 PM, March 15, 2011  

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