The other Sunday morning the distribution of the bread at Chelmsford Cathedral took a little longer than normal. Pre-pandemic we used to go forward to the Lord’s Table to receive bread and wine, but now the bread is brought to us by the ministers. The spacing of the chairs ensures that this is normally a fairly speedy operation. However, on that particular Sunday there were a number of people who did not want to receive the bread: some were children, but there was also a group of visitors who were more observers than participants. Normally the minister serving offers the briefest of blessings to ‘non-communicants’, but that morning an associate minister was on duty who took her time as she prayed God’s blessing on each one of the those who did not want to receive the bread. By the caring way in which she approached the blessing of the ‘non-communicators’, she seemed to suggest that they were more important in God’s sight than the rest of us. Her approach to praying God’s blessing on those who had yet to become full members of God’s church reminded me of Jesus who said he came “to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2.17). Strange as it may seem, for me this was the most memorable part of the service.
So, the following day I wrote to the associate minister, who some years ago had been a member of my former church, and told her how moved I had been by the unhurried way in which she had prayed a blessing over those not taking the bread. What was the form of words she used for the blessing? Was it a verse of Scripture or some words borrowed from a set prayer – or was it an extempore prayer? Did the prayer vary according to whether she was praying for a child or for an adult?
I have always believed that those who don’t receive the bread and wine are particularly cherished and loved by God and not excluded. I am sure not everyone enjoys me taking my time, but it is what I do. So, thank you for noticing. I use a mixture of words depending on the person and age. If it is an adult, I use the words from Num 6: 24-26: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace’. If it is a child, it is more fluid and I say something like, ‘May you know that you are God’s special gift, may you be filled with joy and kept in God’s peace.’ I also use it as a time to discern if there is something that the Spirit wants to say, in which case it is more extempore. On Sunday it was a mixture of all the above!
As I reflected on her response, three thoughts came to mind. First, there is much to be said for using familiar words of Scripture as the basis for a blessing. As a pastor I often used as a blessing an adapted form of Paul’s words in Phil 4.7: “May the peace of God which is beyond our utmost understanding and of far more worth than human reasoning, keep guard over your hearts and thoughts”. I also used the Aaronic blessing in Num 6.24-27, but preferred the simpler version found in Good News Bible: “May the Lord bless you and take care of you; may the Lord be kind and gracious to you; may the Lord look on you with favour and give you peace”.
Secondly, however strongly Baptists and others may believe in the ‘priesthood of all believers’, there is a place for leaders in God’s church having a priestly role in praying God’s blessing upon people. There are times when we need with authority to declare: “May God bless you”, as distinct from “May God bless us”. Unfortunately, some Baptists appear to be afraid of blessing people: so we tend to mark the birth of a child with a service of ‘dedication rather than a service of ‘blessing’!
Thirdly, I asked myself, is there a way in which a traditional Baptist celebration of the Lord’s Supper can be made more accessible to those who are still on a journey of faith and have yet to commit themselves to Christ in baptism? Can we structure the service in such a way that it becomes a means of blessing to them, and not just to ‘the committed’?