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Holy Communion to help unify United Methodist Church

 


Holy Communion to help unify United Methodist Church

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Deborah White

The Rev. Daniel T. Benedict Jr. and Margaret Vance preside at Holy Communion.

May 4, 2005

By Deborah White*

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)--A growing interest in Holy Communion can unify and revitalize the United Methodist Church, said leaders of an international conference focusing on the sacrament.

The conference, “Teaching the Sacrament – Improving the Practice,” was held at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn. It attracted more than 100 clergy and other church leaders from as far away as Singapore, Canada and Alaska.

The April 26-28 conference was the first offered since the denomination’s top legislative body, the General Conference, adopted a 16-page study of Holy Communion as the church’s official, interpretive statement on the sacrament during its 2004 session. The study, “This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion,” clarifies the tradition, theology and practice of Holy Communion.

The General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, “unleashed a growing interest in communion,” said the Rev. Daniel T. Benedict Jr., a staff executive with the Board of Discipleship’s worship section.

United Methodist congregations are encouraged to move toward a richer sacramental life, including weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper. A seven-session study edition of “This Holy Mystery” was introduced to the conference participants. It includes commentary and guidelines for study groups.  

During the opening worship service, participants prayed for a new sense of mystery and grace and for the Holy Communion table to become a uniting place.

“This is a very important moment in the life of our church,” said retired Bishop Joseph Pennel, now a professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Nashville, Tenn. “We need teaching around Holy Communion because this is one place people – month after month – can have the experience without knowing the meaning.”  

With so many expressions of United Methodism today, Pennel asked, “Could it be that baptism and Holy Communion might be practiced in such a way that it will hold us together? We’re at a time when we need to consider what to teach, how to teach and what to do.”

Many United Methodist clergy need to improve how they preside at the communion table, Pennel and other leaders said.

In a workshop titled “Presiding with Grace and Freedom,” Benedict coached participants in leading Holy Communion smoothly, reminding them that their actions signify “receiving the richness of God.” They discussed rhythm, tonality, continuity, flow, emotion, showing hospitality, gestures, formality and informality. “If we’re awkward and embarrassed, they will be awkward and embarrassed,” he cautioned. 

Benedict said that even if styles of ministry are different, there should be unity in the practice of Holy Communion.  “It’s when we trivialize it . . . when we are excessive about innovation and creativity, we’re on thin ice,” he said.

During the workshop, the Rev. Jim Doepken, pastor of Girdwood (Alaska) Chapel United Methodist Church, said Holy Communion in his one-room church is informal, but he uses the full liturgy. “You can be liturgical but down home or laid back as well,” he said.

United Methodists are interested in the sacraments, but are also confused by them, said the Rev. Gayle Felton, principal author of “This Holy Mystery.” 

“The purpose of this week is to try to help us move from confusion to clarity,” she said. “We have a lot of the former and not a great deal of the latter.”

The intent of “This Holy Mystery” is not to lay down an authoritarian formula, but to provide guidance and direction, she said. “Also it might move us from apathy to enthusiasm. We have de-emphasized sacraments. The road to recovery is to recover our heritage – become Wesleyan again.”

In a panel discussion about moving to a richer and more frequent communion, retired Bishop Kenneth Carder advised participants to have patience as congregations increase the frequency of Holy Communion from every month or every quarter to every week. “It involves creating a new culture,” said Carder, now a professor at United Methodist-related Duke Divinity School, Durham, N.C. 

The Rev. Joseph Daniels, pastor of Emory United Methodist Church in Washington suggested, “Jump into it and teach as you go.”  He led his congregation into offering Holy Communion on a weekly basis last summer. The impact has been profound, including a more unified congregation and an increase in attendance, he noted.

“The very act of communion, the sacrament itself, forces us to break down the barriers,” Daniels said. “It’s all because we have placed emphasis on the table.”

Clergy have taken an active role in moving churches to weekly communion, noted the Rev. Mark Stamm, a professor at United Methodist-related Perkins School of Theology, Dallas. Stamm is involved with the Order of Saint Luke, an organization dedicated to liturgical study and education.

The Rev. Valerie Bridgeman-Davis, a professor of preaching and worship at Memphis (Tenn.) Theological Seminary, called for prophetic leadership. “We often are so scared about pushing people. People are willing to do more than we give them credit for,” she said.

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Bishop Kenneth L. Carder

In the closing session, Carder said there is a connection between Holy Communion and accounts in the Gospel of Luke about Jesus eating meals. “He eats with tax collectors and sinners,” Carder said. “Jesus’ life around the table is a challenge … and a source of help. God’s justice, generosity and joy are prevailing values. That new world dawns at the table, is celebrated around the table, nurtured at the table and empowered around the table.”

“This Holy Mystery” Carder said, “seeks to respond to critical issues raised in Luke about who is in charge, who is host, who is invited and how we are to behave.” 

The Holy Communion table is a continuation of the many tables Jesus and the disciples shared, he said. “What He said about other tables comes to fruition at this table. Look at all the dinners Jesus attended and see how he turned the tables,” Carder said, sparking an enthusiastic reaction from the participants.

Carder emphasized the importance of including poor people at Holy Communion. “You can’t have sacramental renewal if the poor aren’t present,” he said. “When we gather at the table, it is the meal in the new order of things, especially when we are coming with all of God’s children.”

*White is associate editor of Interpreter Magazine and Interpreter OnLine

News media contact: Deborah White News (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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