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On the manner of Eucharistic sharing

Note: I actually wrote this way back in May and somehow never got around to posting it… but I keep pondering the question, & would love thoughts from others.

Experiencing the Eucharist in some settings outside my home parish recently has caused me to ponder ways to get the bread and cup to everyone. I’m pretty comfortable with the familiar model in which people in robes (clergy, LEMs) carry the bread and cup around to the laity, who are kneeling or standing along an altar rail or in a line or arc. But I’m aware that this practice reinforces the message that there are people who are privileged to dispense holy things, and others who are not – even more so if there’s an altar rail separating the hoi polloi from the holy folk. Most days this doesn’t bother me much, but I’m not terribly satisfied with it, either. How else can we do this?

Often churches go to a “stations” model, where the congregation files up to a station where bread and wine are dispensed. This approach seems to get used especially when there are bigger-than-usual crowds – perhaps leaders are concerned that having everyone come to the altar rail will take too long.

I can see the rationale, but I don’t care for stations. This model further dilutes the little sense we have of being fed from a common table, which is pretty important in my understanding of the Eucharist. The folk kneeling at the altar rail, or standing shoulder to shoulder in a row, are momentarily embodying the oneness of the larger community as they gather around the altar. There’s a beauty in the casual closeness of kneeling elbow-to-elbow, even though we go back to our pews to sit a comfortable arm’s length apart. In contrast, walking up to a station is a solitary act – this is your little moment with the bread and cup, just like walking up to the counter when it’s your turn is your little moment with the bank teller.

Then there’s the everybody-pass-the-plate model, wherein the clergy and LEMs cede control and the plate and cup are passed among the community. The symbolism appeals to me. We are all God’s holy people, and we can all handle this holy food and share it with one another. I doubt Jesus handed a little individual bit of bread to each disciple at the Last Supper; he probably handed a chunk to the person on his left and another to the person on his right, and they took some and handed it on. The community is united around the table, AND empowered to feed one another.

So I want to like this model, I really do. But I have yet to see it work. I love the theology, but I’m not convinced it can be translated into good liturgical practice. Here’s the basic problem: People who aren’t used to serving others bread and wine are distracted by having to do so. They have to think about the words, and worry about getting them right. They aren’t sure whether to eat their bread (which means a pause in the action) and then serve the next person, or palm their bread and serve the next person, and then eat the bread surreptitiously once that anxiety-producing plate has moved along. They don’t know whether they should wipe the cup after themselves, or after the next person, or both – and how do you hold that little napkin, exactly? The upshot of this is not an embodied experience of the oneness of the Body of Christ, but a liturgical procedure carried out with a certain amount of fumbling and many uncertain glances.

Maybe these issues would be eased in a community that followed this practice all the time. But I recently attended Eucharist with a community where I believe this is their usual practice, and the awkwardnesses I’ve outlined above still seemed to be present. Has anyone seen differently? I would love to be convinced it can be done.

And what other models are out there that I have yet to encounter?

{ 3 } Comments

  1. Mary S. | September 18, 2009 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I believe we’re talking holiness. The bread and wine become holy stuff only touched by appropriately holy people and to be revered as such. I desire it yet at the same time repeled by it. For such things the intricate cult of Leviticus was established. Then comes Deuteronomy and you are a holy people. My observation is that the church has reinforced that ordered access to the holy. To me, anything that can work towards making hard lines like altar rails open lines even if it’s a simple as leaving an opening in the rail or bringing stations out to the people symbolically makes the holy more approachable. We are a holy people.

    What’s driving conversation here around the distribution of communion is the real fear around the perceived risk of infection of H1N1. Science set aside, perception in 9/10th of reality and people are becoming afraid. What is our responsibility as a church? Who are the marginalized for whom we should set aside privilege?

  2. Phil | September 18, 2009 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    If this is to work, it sounds to me like there are two related problems:

    1) the existing protocol does not work well for distributed distribution, because there are too many fussy details–things to be remembered and said, actions performed, sequences to try and remember. These things can be trained into a handful of LEMs fairly easily, and they quickly get it with a little practice. But when everybody is doing it, no one gets much practice, there’s no feedback mechanism, and there’s no net.

    2) There needs to be better instruction in what to do. But given the challenge, this will only really work when the action has been reduced to the barest essentials. Ideally, that probably means to just an action, a or a short series of simple actions (take, break, give, eat/take-drink-give). Nothing to say. Just the action itself.

    Maybe words of administration would have to be done collectively, although that’s also problematic. There’s something good, I think, in the individual offer and acceptance.

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