transformed by font & table: the sacramental life of the pastor

This is the story of one pastor’s sacramental life. It is the testimony of the thirty-five year journey of one called and ordained to preside at the font and table. To my surprise it tells of the ways in which hosting the congregation’s celebration of the sacraments became central to my ministry and my life. 

It is a surprise to discover that my sacramental life as a minister in the United Church of Canada transformed my life. At the time of my ordination I felt ill at ease when presiding at services of Baptism and Holy Communion. Raised in a minister’s family I had regularly witnessed baptisms and participated in the Lord’s Supper. Baptisms were always of infants. Baptism was experienced and spoken of as a birth ritual. Communion was celebrated quarterly. My confirmation as a teen-ager marked my inclusion in the community that gathered to share the bread and wine. It meant that by the time of my ordination I had been to the table in my home congregation for just over a decade – perhaps on fifty occasions.

It is little wonder then that, at the age of twenty-six, when I began to preside at the font and table I felt ill at ease. Outwardly I tried to project confidence but inwardly I felt uncertain, uncomfortable, awkward. The sacraments were not in my bones. Nor were they in the bones of the congregations I served. It was hard to talk about this. After all, I was an ordained minister, set apart to preside at the sacraments. Of all people I should be at home at the font and table. Now, at the age of sixty-one, there are few places I feel more at home than when presiding at the font and table. Now the sacraments have become part of me, they are in my bones. They have become the interpretative centre of my preaching and teaching, of my ministry and of my life. How did this come to be?

An Ecumenical Formation
Raised in congregations of the United Church of Canada I received my education for ministry in ecumenical settings. First at the Pacific School of Religion and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California and then at the Vancouver School of Theology. In both locations I was introduced to faculty and students from a variety of traditions, many of which celebrated the sacraments with greater regularity than did the United Church of Canada. Weekly services of community worship almost always included celebration of the Eucharist. It was in this setting that I began to question the infrequent celebration of Communion in my own tradition.

Upon ordination I soon found myself ill at ease when presiding at the table. I did not look forward to Sundays when the Lord’s Supper was to be celebrated. Then I discovered the book “Strong, Loving and Wise: Presiding in Liturgy” by Robert Hovda (Liturgical Press, 1981). Hovda taught me how to preside not only at the table but also throughout the liturgy. I recall studying the photographs of liturgical gestures and carefully practicing my own embodiment of the liturgy. Slowly but surely I became comfortable and at home at the table, serving the community by submersing myself in the role of presider.

It was at this time that the World Council of Churches published “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” otherwise known as the Lima document (Faith and Order Paper No. 111, World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1982). The document signalled a growing convergence on the Eucharist as a sign of Christian unity. It encouraged a recovery and rediscovery of the ecumenical tradition of more regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper patterned on the shape of the sacrament inherited from the early church. When the 6th Assembly of the World Council of Churches met in Vancouver in 1983 those of us who lived in proximity to the gathering were privileged to witness the first celebration of the Lima liturgy with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding. My desire to grow as a presider and to encourage my congregation to celebrate the Eucharist with greater regularity was an outgrowth of the movement of the Holy Spirit throughout the ecumenical church in the twentieth century.

Welcoming Children at the Table

In those same early years in my ministry the most heated debate about the sacrament of Communion was not about how often it should be celebrated but about who was welcome at the table. A growing movement urging inclusion of children in the worshiping life of the congregation led to the proposal that the Eucharist should not be restricted to adults. Teen-age confirmation had been the traditional point of entry to the table in the United Church. It was now proposed that Baptism – at any age – was the rite of membership in the church and, therefore, granted access to the table.

This was cause for significant disagreement in the congregation I served. Concerns were raised that children would not understand, would not take the sacrament seriously, that their participation would diminish the sacredness of the celebration of Communion. At the same time it became clear that we were confused about the sacrament of Baptism, having relegated it to a ritual of dedication rather than of membership in the ecumenical church.

I recall a turning point in the lively debate among the congregation’s elders when one said “Will the children understand what Communion is all about?” In reply another elder said “Let’s go around the table and share our understanding of the sacrament.” There was stony silence as the elders struggled to articulate their understanding of communion. Then she said, “I believe that our children will learn by experiencing the sacrament as will we.” This was also how I was to grow in my understanding of the sacraments – by experiencing them as presider in the midst of the worshiping congregation.

An Oath of Allegiance
I had always imagined that the word “sacrament” had to do with a sacred ritual. I thought of the sacraments as embodied expressions of the gospel, as living parables of the kingdom. But it was in reading Hans-Reudi Weber’s little book “Salty Christians” (Seabury Press, 1963) that I first learned why Christians had adopted the term “sacramentum” to describe their central rituals. In the ancient world a sacrament was a sacred oath. Sacraments were legally binding in law. Soldiers swore a sacramentum with the emporer in which they pledged to give their life on behalf of the empire. So it is that the church came to call baptism the sacrament of entry in which the candidate pledges allegiance, not to the emperor or to other gods, but to Jesus as Servant Lord. Similarly the Eucharist came to be seen as a regular renewal of the sacramental oath of allegiance in which Christians are joined with one another and with Christ in communion (literally, made one).

I noticed that the risky drama of participating in the sacraments is easily forgotten. Baptism becomes a domesticated photo-op with newborn infants. In a consumer culture Communion can be reduced to a meal for the spiritually hungry. It is spiritual food, surely. But it is much more. Every time we step forward to receive the bread and wine we are participating in an oath of allegiance to Jesus that trumps all other allegiances in heaven and on earth.

Now the sacraments became for me a crucial lens through which to view the life of discipleship. Over the years the number of infants being brought for baptism decreased as the remnants of Christendom faded. Increasingly those coming for baptism were adults who sought to commit themselves as a follower of Jesus. I came to think of every sermon as a baptismal sermon – either a sermon preparing a congregant for their baptism or reminding a congregant of their calling as one of the baptised. Baptism was no longer an infant ritual of dedication but, instead, the moment of entry into the community of those bound by their sacred oath to serve Jesus Christ as Lord.

Ministry in a Missional Location

Arriving at University Hill Congregation in Vancouver in 1995 I soon discovered the importance of the sacraments in a church without a building. Access to a rented chapel provided a worshiping home on Sundays. But unlike any other congregation I had served there was no location called “University Hill United Church.” The congregation was not tied together by its connection with a building. Instead, it was connected by a common commitment. 

University Hill was a congregation in the process of discovering a missional identity. No longer was mission something to be carried out in other locations by missionaries of one sort or another. Missions were no longer projects to be undertaken. Now mission was the very essence of what God was up to here and now, among us. We were caught up in God’s mission of redeeming and reconciling us and our neighbours. We were those being co-missioned to participate in God’s missionary endeavour. This call to be salt and light meant being prepared to live the peculiar life of discipleship that sets one apart.

At University Hill this was highlighted each year by the annual congregational service of Baptismal renewal and Covenant renewal. Each year, on the last Sunday in Lent, those who have been baptised are invited to come to the font and to be marked with the sign of the cross with the words: “Remember your baptism and be thankful. Walk with Christ in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Once marked, the baptised member remains at the font to mark the person who comes next to the font. Following the individual renewals of baptism the congregation is invited to participate in the service of covenant renewal inherited from our Methodist forbears. This was all new to me. It was as close as I had come to presiding at an altar call in worship. At first it felt awkward. Yet over the twenty years of ministry at University Hill that were to follow I came to cherish and look forward to this annual renewal of the ties that bind us to Jesus Christ and to one another.

The Sacred Geography of Architecture

For thirty-five years University Hill Congregation has worshiped in the Chapel of the Epiphany at the Vancouver School of Theology. This simple chapel has functioned like an incubator, fostering Christian community that is rooted in a rich worship life. It turns out that the architecture of a sanctuary, like that of a home, can foster or hinder communal life. In the case of University Hill the simplicity and beauty of its worship home have powerfully informed the liturgical imagination of the congregation.

Seated in chairs that form a semi-circle the congregation gathers around the table. In front of the table stands a large wooden font. Behind the table stands a lectern. At the beginning of each service the presider steps to the table and announces that in this community Jesus is at once host at the table and also the unseen guest in our midst as he/she invites the community to pass the peace of Christ. Then the church bell is rung and a processional brings the large pulpit Bible to the lectern, water to the font and a flame to light the candles that stand on either side of the table. The congregation is reminded each week that the font provides entry to the table at which the community is addressed by the Word.

When there is no church building in which to gather throughout the week the congregation soon becomes creative in finding locations to gather. Meetings that would otherwise be held “at the church” now take place in homes, offices and restaurants. Invariably these gatherings involve food shared around a table and take on a different tone than they would if held in a church building. They are hosted. They are meals. They are not so much meetings as they are opportunities to gather in Christian community. And they are informed by our gathering around the table on Sunday. These gatherings become, in their own way, sacramental.

The Power of Regular Celebration

When I began in ministry quarterly celebration of Communion was the norm. Soon the congregation I served doubled its celebration to eight times in a year. Upon arriving at University Hill Congregation I found a community that celebrated the Eucharist monthly (on the first Sunday of each month except when that month included a major festival day in the Christian Year). Over the years at University Hill we increased our celebration of the sacrament of Communion by moving to weekly Eucharist in Lent and then in Advent. Normally we would celebrate at the table on some two dozen occasions in the year.

When celebrating the sacrament of Communion weekly we chose to maintain a common pattern and Eucharistic prayer. The congregation was invited to make its way forward to the table to receive the elements. Children were welcomed back from their classes to join in as participants. Songs were sung as the people came forward, one by one, to receive the bread and wine even as they gave their lives once more in service to the God made known in Jesus Christ. Over the years I have realized what a privilege it is to place the bread into the hands and look into the eyes of those who reach out to receive. I know so many of their stories, their hopes and their heartaches. I am awestruck at their willingness to take up the cross of Christ.

By chance, early in my ministry, I experienced a deaf presider who led a powerful, silent Eucharist. Following that experience I experimented with including a silent fraction of the bread and pouring of the wine in which I held the bread and wine aloft, pointing to the cross behind me as if to say “This is the Body of Christ, the blood of Christ” and then gesturing to the congregation as if to say “For you”. The response of congregations to these silent powerful gestures has been strong. Adults notice that children who are present are silent as they watch with interest. The whole community is focused on the bread and the wine, on the cross and on the gift that is being offered. And I realize that the sacrament of Communion is now in my bones as a presider. It has become a part of me and of my reason for being.

The Clarity of Invitation
Located on the campus of the University of British Columbia one thing that can be counted on at University Hill Congregation is that there will be visitors present when the sacraments are celebrated. Some will be from various Christian denominations. Others will come with no Christian background. It means that the invitation to Communion needs to be clearly stated so that each person knows what is involved in stepping forward to the table.

I notice that in an attempt to be sure to include all in a generous welcome many United Church invitations to the table seem to be “All are welcome … come and eat for your spiritual strengthening.” While this inclusive impulse is certainly gracious it undercuts and ignores the importance of the sacraments as decisions to serve Jesus Christ. Yes, all are welcome to become disciples of Jesus but not all choose such a life.

Over the years I developed an invitation to the table in which I noted that all who have been baptised, no matter whether as an infant or an adult or as a Catholic or Protestant were welcome at the table as members of the Body of Christ. And if one is not baptised but desires to be a follower of Jesus they, too, are welcome to receive the bread and wine as a sign of their desire to be among the baptised. At the same time, those who choose not to come forward need not feel unwelcome but rather are welcome witnesses to what we do and promise here. In clarifying the invitation to the table I hope as presider to make an inclusive welcome even as I maintain the significance of what it means to offer one’s life to Jesus Christ.

A Sacramental Heart
Frequent celebration of the sacraments has led the congregation to have a sacramental heart. The community is increasingly comfortable with embodied ritual acts. A rite of healing is held twice each year. On the fourth Sunday of Lent and on All Saints Sunday there is an opportunity following the sacrament of Communion to step around the table and come to one of three stations to sit, stand or kneel and receive a prayer for healing along with an anointing of oil. Over the years the number of those who participate has increased, with lines of congregants waiting to receive the anointing. It is a sign for everyone that there is much ache and pain in need of healing within the community.

When members of the congregation move away they are invited to come to the font at the conclusion of their last service where they offer a testimony about their time in the congregation. Then they kneel and receive a laying on of hands, a commissioning and a blessing. Congregants are invited to come forward and to participate in the laying on of hands. This regularly sees a large gathering around the font.

In 2011 when I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma and was to be away from the congregation for five months in order to have a stem cell transplant we knew what to do. We gathered at the font on my final Sunday where I kneeled and received the laying on of hands by the elders who commissioned and blessed me on my way. It was the same sacramental act that occurred upon my retirement this year. There, kneeling at the font, on my last Sunday as presider I knew that the sacramental life that once felt so foreign to me had become precious to me. I had been transformed by my life as presider at the font and the table. For that I will always be most grateful.

                                                                    (first published in Touchstone - September 2015)

1 comment:

  1. Ed, thanks for these musings. A different journey for me (having been steeped as a child in RC sacramentality), but as you name here the 'discomfort' that often precedes, or is part of, the personal and communal transformative grace of a sacramental life, I find echoes in my own experience, and that of the community with whom I serve Christ. The recovery of the aesthetic of sacramental action is, by grace, taking us deeper than we could have imagined. Thanks, Ed, for being a sounding board, so often over the years.