Ye that truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort, and make your humble confession to almighty God.
† Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all things, judge of all men: We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed against thy divine majesty. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father. For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, forgive us all that is past; and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life, to the honor and glory of thy name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Thus began the old Lord’s Supper service handed down to the American Methodists by our founder, John Wesley. Many of us “older” folk remember it well! And many of us love it!
But have you looked at it lately? It’s all old English, the type of English we don’t speak any more. Most of us don’t even understand most of it, if we ever did. It’s badly in need of some updating.
If you’re like me, some years back you noticed that the liturgy we use for communion was suddenly different. Gone was the old English, and we had begun sounding like Catholics. At least that’s the way the Great Thanksgiving sounded to me. I was very uncomfortable with it for a long time. It all sounded so … almost foreign! It seemed to me that the UMC was trying to take a big step towards becoming like the Catholics and the other mainline churches, working towards a false, reductionist ecumenism. I started wishing for a return to the old communion rite. It just wasn’t the Lord’s Supper to me anymore. We were not only using this new Great Thanksgiving, but we also frequently took communion by intinction like the Catholics, or by passing the elements down the pews like the Presbyterians. The communion kneeling rail was gone from the front of the church, so nobody went up there and knelt to take communion any more, either. So much for Wesleyan tradition, huh?
In recent days I had been contemplating blogging about this issue, and I was going to call for, not necessarily a return to the old ritual, but at least the occasional use of the Service of Word & Table #4, which is the way we find that old ritual in our hymnals today (Yes, we still have it!). And I still think that would be kind of neat. We should also use the old Wesleyan Covenant Renewal service at least once a year, too, preferably on New Years.
But before I took pen in hand … er, I mean … before I sat down at the computer, I decided to see what I could find out about both the old ritual and the new one as well. Google searches led me to a couple articles that told me about the history of both, and how it was decided back after the merger of the churches into the UMC in 1968 that we needed a new ritual for communion. And I discovered that the ritual that our new one is patterned after was the communion ritual of the early Christian Church, and is very ecumenical (truly ecumenical), and represents very truly what the Church has believed and taught down through the centuries since the founding of the church on Pentecost. It sounds Catholic because it is catholic (with a small “c”).
We can discuss the fine points of theology contained in the new ritual, some things that seem a bit ambiguous and would seem to open the door to a more Roman Catholic understanding, i.e., transubstantiation, but the Bible is even ambiguous enough on that point that the understanding not only exists, but is vigorously defended by the RCC and others. Now we don’t hold to that view, but perhaps the ambiguity opens a door for us to explore what we do believe about communion, and why. Perhaps that ambiguity is a good thing. There are other interpretations as well: consubstantiation, Calvinist, Zwinglian. The church down through the centuries has been unable to settle on just one.
But what we have today, I am convinced, is just as Wesleyan as the old Anglican rite that John Wesley prescribed for the American Methodists back in the 18th century, because it is a catholic ritual. I therefore embrace it as an expression of the historic, orthodox Christian Faith as well as the Wesleyan faith.
Now, if we can just get that communion railing back! 😉