Still in storm-enforced exile from the land of cold showers and four-hour gasoline lines, we went to church in a tiny upstate New York village this morning. The choices being limited (and the Roman Catholics having failed, on a previous visit, to distinguish themselves liturgically), we and our family stopped in to see what the Methodists were doing.
It was a curious experience.
The assembly, about fifteen people with an average age of 80, could not have been warmer or more welcoming. They gave us coffee and chatted with us. They passed Kindergartener A. crayons and a coloring book to use during the service. They invited us to their chicken dinner next Tuesday. They offered us gifts -- a cup, a pen, a little flashlight. (As our home has no electricity, we anticipate letting that little light of theirs shine to good effect.)
The parish being vacant, this was a lay-led service; the Sunday including the propers for All Saints, Holy Communion was offered. Communion, that is, by extension. The elements had been previously consecrated, we were assured, by an ordained person. (The lay leader who offered this assurance added with a touch of asperity, "Just so that you know we have our legalistic details covered.")
We'll get back to those elements in a moment -- they're important -- but first a few more general notes.
The hymns, pounded out by a hard-working organist, were pretty good. Better, to be frank, than the ones we've been hearing in Lutheran churches lately. [Insert here customary rant about ELW.] Some we knew, some we didn't, and there were plenty of them. None, we regret to say, had been written by Charles Wesley -- but one cannot have everything.
The sermon was quite good. The lay preacher plans to attend seminary, and one suspects she has already had some basic homiletic training. The usual failings of the amateur -- self-involvement, rambling, irrelevant quotations and canned anecdotes -- were conspicuously absent.* Quite the contrary: it was a solid, thoughtful message, proclaimed in a strong voice with no theatrics. If she did not make a smooth transition from the raising of Lazarus to the memory of those who have inspired our personal faith, one can hardly blame her too much.
The liturgy was a shambles. It proceeded by fits and starts, and was largely sidetracked by announcements. Although none of the other traditional canticles was used, the Gloria Patri appeared, only loosely connected to a reading from Romans that served as a sort of Creed. (The semi-independent use of the lesser Gloria is, to our mind, an almost certain indicator that the degenerate liturgical practices of the 18th and 19th centuries continue to inform an assembly's worship.) The placement of a penitential rite just before the Gospel seems ... odd to us.
But, although there was no psalm, its place was taken by something that we found genuinely enchanting. The 1989 Methodist Hymnal provides a responsive reading (#652) which warmly afirms the resurrection of the dead. It is taken from the Wisdom of Solomon (3:1-9), and we were delighted to hear the Apocrypha used as part of a worship service. We would have been more delighted had the officiant not attributed it -- twice -- to the Song of Solomon.
So, honestly, it would be more accurate to say this: that, judged by the standards of snooty high churchmanship, the liturgy was shambles. By the standards that apply here -- those of a pietistic prayer meeting -- it was pretty good. The Scriptures were heard and expounded; the people shared the concerns of their hearts, prayed for themselves and the world, and affirmed their faith in Christ's saving power.
All of which brings us to the Eucharist, something which doesn't really fit into a pietistic prayer meeting, despite the effort of centuries to splice them together. As we said, this a the distribution of previously consecrated elements. The practice does not please us; but, if it must be used, one would expect forms which clearly distinguish this distribution from the celebration proper. You know: "At St. Bob's yesterday, Pastor Jerry told us the story of the Last Supper, in which ....." Instead, we got a modified Sursom corda which led directly into a Eucharistic Prayer.
Worse yet, although the Methodist Hymnal provides a couple of serviceable Eucharistic Prayers, this one was taken from another resource (apparently, from this liturgy posted by the UMC's Global Board of Discipleship). It's not despicable, by any means; but it's a bit longer than it needs to be, mixes up the anamnesis and the epiclesis, and has a few bits of tortured syntax. Note to worship leaders: If you've got a decent service book, why not use it?
And then came the communion proper. And those elements.
We had seen some of it coming. The huge white napkin on the altar did not hide the presence of pre-filled individual comunion cups. (As there was no celebration, we would not have expected a chalice). Remembering that Dr. Welch invented his diabolical grape juice for the use of the Methodist Episcopal Church, we were not surprised to find it sitting in those very full shot glasses.
But the bread did catch us off guard. We do not recall ever before seeing the Lord's presence communicated under the form of a hamburger bun. A soft, flat, white hamburger bun, the kind you buy in supermarket eight-packs.
Sigh. We know it's bread. Real bread, the kind people eat at their tables. In that regard, it is arguably superior to either the evanescent wafers we snooty high church types so love, or to the flat loaves of gummy brown bread baked by pious churchgoers all over the country for sacramental use. It is at least equal to a pita. We know all that.
But come on. Even with the fortification of eight vitamins and iron, this is the worst bread on earth. It is hard to imagine Jesus choosing to be present in develomentally-arrested wine; it is harder still to imagine him choosing to be present in tooth-decay-and-and-diabetes-promoting hamburger buns.
But then, our challenge isn't to imagine his presence, as if our imagination made it real. Our challenge is to recognize the objective reality, the fact accomplished by the promise. Especially when we have trouble believing.
All of this sounds like a slam, but we don't mean it that way. This was a church full (okay, one-twentieth full) of truly gracious people, gathered to worship their Redeemer. We will happily worship with them again, and have no trouble acknowledging them as partners in a full communion. We just want to offer a loving and fraternal suggestion: anything but burger buns.
*Ordained preachers display these failings too, of course, but we are likelier by far to fall into our own peculiar traps: groupthink; political rants; and - -worst of all -- exegesis that is either lazy or too creative by far