Tom Arthur: How should I preside when my church doesn’t care for the Eucharist?

What would you recommend to someone who has been trained with a high sacramental theology but ends up in a more entrepreneurial, low-church setting?

In the ancient church, a young monk would approach an elder and ask, 'Abba may I have a word.' Tom Arthur, in his first year out of seminary, seeks advice from elders in these letters. Ed Phillips' reply is here.

Dear Ed Phillips,

What a joy it was to study worship with you during my time in seminary. I did not always appreciate what you taught me at first, but over time you began to shape my imagination. This is especially true regarding the Eucharist.

I came into seminary with a very low-church ecclesiology. I remember one friend who called the church an “administrative unit.” The rest of our friends shot that idea full of holes. But I agreed with him. Later I came to see the inadequacy of such a definition of the church. It does not take into account the holy mystery of the Eucharist and the role that the church plays in providing this means of grace to those who follow Jesus.

I also came into seminary with a Pentecostal framework of worship that did not include a place for formal, written liturgy. I must admit that I found the liturgy of the divinity school chapel very tedious my first couple of years. But by the third year it had begun to grow on me. I even found that I thrived in worship that had a formal liturgy. Part of the reason for this change was that I was simultaneously being taught how to “perform” the liturgy -- the “work of the people.” I could now appreciate what was going on in a way that I had not been able to before.

In your worship class you had us memorize the Great Thanksgiving of our respective church hymnals. I didn’t have a very hard time memorizing it because at the time I was attending a United Methodist Church that used it in worship every Sunday. I still have most of it memorized.

When I graduated from seminary I had a very different appreciation for formal liturgy, and especially the Eucharist, than I did when I began. I was ready for my first appointment, and was excited to find that I was being appointed as the second pastor to a church plant that was only eight years-old.

My church has been built on the “Purpose Driven Church” model of ministry. There is much that I appreciate about this model of ministry, but I am also finding it challenging to adapt my higher ecclesiology, and especially my higher sacramental theology, into this context. Naturally I decided to serve communion on my first Sunday, since the Eucharist would be a central part of my ministry of connecting us to the church universal. I also did my best to live into your teaching about following the patterns of the General Thanksgiving without being tied to the exact wording.

Yet something still didn’t fit the context. Some of this had to do with the fact that this was the first time I had ever presided over communion. Some of it had to do with an imagination not well formed for this context. Slowly, over time, I have found myself relying less and less on what you taught me.

What would you recommend to someone who has been trained with a high ecclesiology and sacramental theology who ends up in a more entrepreneurial, low-church or free-church setting that may not even consider the sacraments of much significance? Does following the ancient patterns still work? Does my own uneasiness have to do with my relative newness to presiding over communion, which I have now only done four times, or is there something deeper?

I look forward to your guidance and insight.

Peace,

Tom Arthur

Tom Arthur is pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan.