Bearings, Part III D: Between Word/Response and Table

Illustration of self-aligning roller bearings. Used by permission.
This is part 4 of a five part miniseries. Part 1, introducing this miniseries, is here. 

In my direct observation of worship over the years across many styles, cultures and denominations (United Methodist, Baptist, Mennonite, Episcopal, Lutheran Roman Catholic, and several Reformed and non-denominational churches, African-American, Asian (in the US and Asia), Spanish-speaking, whether "traditional," "indigenous," "contemporary" or "emerging/emergent"), fluid motion between Word and Table has consistently been the most challenging, and often the least well-executed.

What I've often observed in Roman Catholic settings is that the ministry of the Word, especially in preaching, is downplayed and, in effect, turned into an adjunct to the Table, rather than having its own integrity that stands in constructive juxtaposition with the Table.

In many Protestant settings, the Table functions as an "add-on" to the "regular" service, something that doesn't quite fit, and often that has been "squeezed in." In order to "squeeze it in," many other things, including the liturgy of the Table itself, are also shortened, though very often the sermon is not.  And even then, it's not uncommon to see these shortened prayers and the distribution to follow rushed through.
But when worship is compressed and rushed,  even if there are working bearings between Word and Table, everything, including the sermon,  is shortchanged. The feeling of rush pervades all, and that feeling never seems fulfilling.

Michael Eldridge noted in the contemporary mega-churches he visited that communion was rare, if celebrated at all. He saw it only twice in the course of about six months of visits. Here's how he described each:

In one, as the elements were being distributed, the choir began to sing, which continued until the minister gave an extemporaneous prayer, followed by extemporaneous words of institution. The Eucharist was a common form based on a memorial view, and the minister briefly explained the symbols of bread and wine before people ate and drank.

At the other, they distributed the elements in the rows of chairs, with one tray per row. This reduced the time to distribute the elements. It took four minutes to serve the 3,000 people in attendance. The minister prayed extemporaneously, first declaring, “We accept your forgiveness,” and then reiterating the sermon in the guise of praying. The Eucharist was cast as a symbol of how God comforts us, blesses us, and helps us in our grief (the main point of the sermon). Clearly the Eucharist had become a prop for the sermon.

I would observe that in the first service Eldridge described, the double-action of the choir singing and the distribution of elements may well have functioned as effective "bearings," much as the double-action of video and collection of offering does for the movement from Entrance to Word/Response. The choir's singing could reflect themes of the sermon before and communion to follow. The movement of the persons distributing elements signals that the congregations will be moving soon, as well, to take and eat these elements when cued. With only a single observation of communion at this congregation, though, Eldridge could draw no conclusions about whether this was the intent or a usual pattern.

In the second, Eldridge was able to confirm from others that what he observed was a typical pattern. Here, instead of Word "taken over" by Table (as in some Roman Catholic examples noted above), Table is "taken over" by Word. There is no juxtaposition, and so no bearings. What occurs here is an expression and extension of Word by other means.

Episcopalians have faced a different challenge. For Episcopalians, a long pattern of infrequent (monthly or less) celebration of communion was dramatically changed by the adoption of the new Book of Common Prayer in 1979, accompanied by action of their General Convention requiring weekly celebration. While the 1928 Book of Common Prayer also included services of Word and Table, the most common Sunday morning pattern offer morning prayer with a sermon included. When Eucharist happened, they might use the fuller rite. But since it happened relatively rarely, that was the exception.

I was a student at Kenyon College and active in the parish choir as these changes were occurring in The Episcopal Church in the early 1980s, so I speak here from first hand experience. My first year there (1982-1983), the basic pattern of worship was still Morning Prayer. This would be concluded with the Peace as a sort of dismissal from Morning Prayer, and then announcements. The announcements were placed here, after the peace, in part to allow those who didn't want to receive communion to leave without calling a lot of attention to themselves. The effect was essentially to drain a lot of the energy and momentum out of the service-- so it really could feel like it was over for those for whom it actually would be. When it was clear to the priest that those intending to leave had done so, he would end the announcement period, and, in effect, start up the service again, with the words announcing the offering, "Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his name. Bring offerings, and come into his courts." Then he would immediately turn to head to the Altar table to begin preparing it for celebrating the Eucharist.

By fall 1984, as it had become clear that the parish had gotten accustomed to weekly Communion and fewer and fewer were leaving at the Peace/Announcements, the basic order of service was changed from Morning Prayer (Rite II) to the full service of Word and Table each Sunday (Holy Eucharist, Rite II). Though basic order had changed, the practice of Peace/Announcements as a marker of the end of the Word section continued. Nor did the practice of effectively "re-starting" worship with the words of the offertory change. In many Episcopal congregations I have visited to this day, including some where my wife has served, this pattern is in still place.

What we have here is not so much "bearings" enabling fluid motion between the juxtaposed movements of Word/Response and Table, as it is nearly a full stop--breaking the link between the Peace, the Offering and the Eucharistic prayer -- and a full restart. Having lived in the Indianapolis area since the late 1990s, I might also describe this as the "Word/Response car" going in for a "pit stop," getting more gas, new tires, and a different set of decals, and going out again as the "Table car" for the laps ahead.

Does this work? For Episcopalians, perhaps so. I can say I've gotten used to it over time, being married to an Episcopal priest, and I can deal with it. But from the standpoint of what is happening liturgically and ritually, I find this still a "suboptimized," even if contextually understandable, solution.

Here, I think we United Methodists have something to offer that can function as actual bearings and keep the motion from Word/Reponse to Table flowing smoothly: The Invitation to the Table (UMH 7).

The typography in the
The United Methodist Hymnal and The United Methodist Book of Worship still groups this action within "Response to the Word," along with the Confession, Pardon, Peace and Offering that follow it.

But both in terms of the history of the development of the Sunday liturgy in general and the logic of the movements of Word/Response and Table more specifically,  the function of this brief act is far better understood as bearings between Word/Response and Table.

The action of Word/Response reaches its conclusion here. The action of Table begins here.

This may seem counter-intuitive to those who have grown accustomed to look at the confession of sin and the Peace as responses to the Word.

William Willimon noted in his classic book on the then "new" United Methodist liturgy, "
With Glad and Generous Hearts," that we really should confess our sins later in the service, not earlier, because we may not really know what our sin is until we have heard the scriptures which remind us of it. Willimon thus linked, and for some, including myself for a while, cemented, the notion of a Confession of Sin, Pardon, Peace and Offering as elements of Response to the Word.

In working closely with some of the earliest Christian liturgical texts for my dissertation on the teaching of peace in early Christian liturgies, however, I started to come to a different conclusion. What appeared to me to be evident in these earliest texts was the actions of confessing our sins to God, experiencing God's pardon, and then extending that pardon and hope for reconciliation and forgiveness with others were integral, indeed essential pre-requisites for these Christians to even think about celebrating at the Table. To offer ourselves as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving worthily, we must ourselves be pure, and a whole offering. We become pure through the acts of confession and pardon. We become whole through the peace. Pure and whole, we are now as ready as we will ever be to move straightway into the celebration at Table.

What I've later come to see is that some voices in the ecumenical liturgical scholarship over the past century have reached a similar conclusion. Confession-pardon-peace, as a unit, have their chief value more in immediate proximity to Table than to Word.

Which brings us back to the bearings in the United Methodist service of Word and Table: The Invitation to the Table. How does, or how might, this action function as bearings between Word/Response and Table?

In the order of service provided in The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 7, any of a variety of prayerful actions immediately precede the Invitation to the Table (bidding prayer, litany of intercession, prayers of the people, or a pastoral prayer). Praying together, in whatever form, culminates the Response to the Word. Here the assembly, as a whole, responsively with a prayer leader, or in the person of the presider, engages the baptismal priestly ministry of interceding for the church and for the world in general with attention, as well, to scripture read and preached. The Amen at the end of these prayers is rightly a significant one. We have prayed for much together, offering our hearts and minds and voices to God. In the Amen, we pray, "Let all we have offered before you, O God, be done!" Amen!

Do you hear and feel the energy offered and released in that single word? It is at once a juxtaposition, an energy that could continue moving forward on its own trajectory, perhaps overwhelming or creating friction with the movement around the Table, and a release that could lead to a rapid denouement that dissipates the energy we need to offer our "sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving" around the Table.

We need bearings here. And bearings is what we find in the Invitation to the Table.

The Invitation to the Table picks up on the release of energy from the congregation at the Amen and does not, just at that moment, ask them to enact anything. The presider, not the congregation, speaks these words. At the same time, these words are a prompt that redirects the energy flowing out of the prayer both toward the Table (as goal) and to the next congregational actions necessary to achieve that goal (confession, pardon and peace). Simple, quick, elegant and powerful. Verbal bearings at their best.

And verbal bearings, by the way, that could easily work in any style of worship, moving the people from prayer (and so Word/Response) to Table.

How have you developed bearings between Word/Response and Table? What struggles have you had with this? What have you found that works? How does it work where you are?