Formality and intimacy at the Lord’s Table

Not so long ago I was in a group where we were discussing the tension between formality and intimacy at the Lord’s Supper. We began by acknowledging that the setting of the service is a major influence on how the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. A Sunday morning celebration where there are several hundred people and the service needs to be over within an hour and a half (for the sake of the children, let alone the timing of lunch!) is inevitably very different from a small evening celebration in a country chapel – let alone from two people gathered around the bedside of an elderly person at home. Yet the shape of the service remains the same – and within that shape there is room for intimacy even in the largest of gatherings.

Let me begin with the shape of the service I use as a Baptist minister – the Peace is in italics because this is not customary in most Baptist churches; similarly, the hymn of resurrection is in italics, because in many churches the resurrection is not to the fore. Neither the Peace nor a hymn of resurrection would be part of a home communion.

  • The giving of the Peace. It is at this point that Baptists would ‘give the right hand of fellowship’ (see Galatians 2.9) and welcome new members into the fellowship
  • An invitation to the Table. It is the Lord’s Table, and he is the host. ‘Strict Baptists’ apart, Baptists have an ‘Open Table’ to which we invite ‘all those who love the Lord Jesus and seek to follow him to come’. Traditionally the Table is not open to children – we expect our children to commit themselves to the Lord Jesus in believers’ baptism before they share in the Lord’s Supper. The invitation might often be reinforced with some further appropriate words.
  • The reading of the words of institution: 1 Corinthians 11.23-26
  • A prayer of thanksgiving. In contrast to the liturgical churches, there is no form of agreed words – and normally the prayer is taken by one of the church’s lay leaders to emphasise we need no priest to transform the bread and wine!
  • The breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine. In a church setting the bread and wine are served to the people as they sit in their seats. In part this is to reflect the fact that the Lord’s Supper was originally a meal; and in part, to emphasise the priesthood of all believers – we serve one another. In Baptist churches the Lord’s Supper is an opportunity for expressing personal devotion. There is an intensity of silence as we focus upon ‘the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’. For us the Lord’s Supper is a time for remembering, looking forward, and encountering the Lord Jesus.
  • The pastoral prayers – for the fellowship, the wider world, and ourselves.
  • [A hymn of resurrection: we worship not a dead Saviour, but a risen Lord]
  • A benediction

Within this structure there are variations. In a smaller and more informal setting members of the ‘congregation’ could well sit around the Table and take a more active part by sharing words of Scripture which seem to them meaningful and appropriate; instead of one prayer of thanksgiving, they might engage in short prayers of praise; and then after the bread and wine, they might lay hands on one another and pray for one another. However, as the presiding minister I would always conclude each section. I fully recognise that for many Baptist ministers today such variations might seem tame, and that they themselves would make more radical changes. However, I would argue that even the most creative of liturgists must still respect the basic shape of the service.

As regular readers of this blog will know, in my retirement I now worship in a flourishing Anglican Cathedral, where every Sunday morning there are queues of people lining up to receive communion. Inevitably in such a setting there has to be a degree of formality – and yet within the formality there are opportunities for intimacy. As I wait in the queue, I look up to the massive figure of Christ the King of Glory, whose pierced hands are spread out in welcome and sense the love of God for me. I appreciate too the way in which the clergy team when giving out the bread look me in the eye and smile as they say ‘The body of Christ was broken for you’ – their smile is for me an expression of God’s love for me. Even in a formal Cathedral setting the Lord’s Supper is for me no mere pious act of devotion – but rather a moment for encounter with the living Lord Jesus himself.

One comment

  1. Just a few comments.
    1. In our church we do welcome children to the Table, on the grounds that they should not be excluded from a “family meal”. That’s one good argument for having non-alcoholic wine!
    2. It’s interesting – especially as you now worship in an Anglican setting – that you haven’t included a time of confession (something which in general I find lacking in Baptist contexts).
    3. I would generally include a form of epiklesis before we “partake”, though this is more to ask the Holy Spirit to come upon us as we eat and drink – I don’t want to give the impression that the elements themselves will be transformed!
    Generally speaking I use a more liturgical (and responsive) form of service than most Baptists. That reflects my own Anglican upbringing, the fact that my last two churches have been ecumenical, and my desire to not do things “sloppily” or give the impression that Communion is an “extra” to the “main” service. Hospital or home Communion is of course less formal.

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