Across UCC, churches approach Eucharist with diverse traditions, meaningful practices
World Communion Sunday may come and go without much fanfare, foregoing celebrity hype and lacking attention-grabbing scandal.
But in an increasing globalized world, where differences can be divisive, sharing in the elements of the Lord's Supper is the quiet constant that unites believers of Christ — that grace, redemption and healing are afforded through the simple sharing of sacred bread and cup.
On Oct. 7, congregations across the UCC and countless other denominations will celebrate Holy Communion. For some it will be a somber occasion. For others, the elements will be received joyfully.
Sue Blain, the UCC's minister for worship, reflecting on the myriad of different ways that Holy Communion is celebrated, shared and distributed among Christians, says, "I think the ideal would be for folks to experience communion in a variety of different ways."
Blain says that when communion is served in the pews, it symbolizes God coming among the people, feeding them. "But having to make a choice to move forward has another level of commitment in some respects," she says. "Both are true, both are valid," says Blain. "I think we could experience all of that and be enriched spiritually."
At UCC's Cathedral of Hope, communion is weekly highpoint
Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas, Texas, regards itself as the largest liberal Christian church in the world with a primary outreach to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Each week, at Sunday morning services and a Wednesday night contemporary worship, communion is celebrated.
The Rev. Dr. Jo Hudson, senior pastor of Cathedral of Hope UCC, says the decision to serve communion each week came from both practical and spiritual reasons.
"Nobody grew up in this congregation," explains Hudson, who says that the 37-year-old congregation is comprised largely of transplants from the Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist traditions. "For those who come out of a tradition where communion, or the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist is served every week, that's essential to their worship life."
"I think this church also needed that sacrament of grace in a way many churches might not have felt that need," Hudson says. "This congregation suffered greatly during the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It had close to 1,500 people die of AIDS. [Communion] became an important part of the healing of the congregation."
Hudson describes communion as being a high point of each worship service.
"The emphasis is on celebration of the feast, the joy of receiving, and the hope contained within that," she says. "Some of the older liturgies are more focused on sin and repenting. Not that we don't recognize that sin exists, but we interpret the sacrament as an act of grace that is designed to bring hope, peace and reconciliation to people."
Having communion each week has become so central that Hudson feels its importance in worship is as a response to God's Word.
"The sacred moment of that sacrament is so powerful, in terms of helping people heal," she says. "It offers grace. We're so committed to the notion that 'Everyone is welcome to the table.' We want to demonstrate that every single week."
Join Cathedral of Hope UCC for worship online at www.cathedralofhope.com.
Disciples/UCC local churches prompt examination of communion 'frequency'
First Congregational UCC in San Jose, Calif., has a long-standing relationship with the United Disciples Fellowship, a congregation of the Disciples of Christ. The two faith communities share facilities and worship, but both keep true to their own denomination's interpretations.
The Rev. Nathan A. Miller says that the relationship between the two churches can sometimes seem confusing to outsiders, but says the partnership has worked seamlessly.
"[The UDF] resembles a house church," explains Miller, who shares his ministerial responsibilities with his associate, the Rev. Nancy C. Peters.
"They meet on the first Saturday of every month in someone's home. They have a worship time, a program time, and a business meeting time. Part of their worship time is always the sacrament of communion, in keeping with the Disciples tradition."
Each Sunday, both congregations share in a common worship service, and the church has found a way to honor the Disciples' tradition of weekly communion, even though the UCC congregation traditionally celebrates the Lord's Supper just once a month.
"At the close of the organ postlude — we're very careful not to say 'at the close of worship' because this is a continuation of worship — people have already been invited to come forward to communion if they wish," says Miller. The UDF furnishes the bread and wine, and communion is served by intinction up around the communion table in the chancel. All are welcome, and Miller says that besides the UDF members, many visitors and UCC members will also take part in the sacrament.
Miller admiringly describes the UDF congregation as "an empowered bunch" and says its members are very theologically astute.
While Peters is a member of UDF, Miller is not. Still, Miller says the UDF is very gracious in welcoming him to events, but says, "they are really self-sufficient in all the positive ways." And the UCC congregation has benefited greatly from the special interest the UDF has taken in sponsoring adult education events, such as a lectureship series.
Miller says while worship style between UCC and Disciples of Christ communities are very similar, the two sacraments — communion and baptism — are viewed quite differently.
"We understand the act of communion much the same, but the frequency hardly matches any UCC church," he says. As for baptism, Miller says, "The Disciples of Christ tradition practices adult baptism, which is a practice of the UCC, but infrequent. And the Disciples immerse."
While serving a church in Mesa, Ariz., Miller remembers his church, a union between Disciples of Christ and UCC, sprinkled the UCC babies and immersed the Disciples young teens and adults. "We'd roll in a tank and fill it up with a hose—it took a day to do it—and there was a heater so that the water wasn't too cold!"
These differences, Miller says, have never gotten in the way. On World Communion Sunday, the UDF members will lead the entire worship, serving communion in the joint worship service with First Congregational UCC in San Jose, and both congregations will partake in the elements, united in Christ.
"Our UCC people only see enhancement of our ministry," says Miller, "and I think the Disciples group sees only enhancement to their ministry. It's just part of who we are."
Pastor: Holy Communion calls us to universal solidarity
"There's a surplus of meaning in the sacrament, and we don't want to nail it down to one thing," says the Rev. Mary Luti, one of the pastors at First Church in Cambridge (Mass.) UCC.
Luti says her congregation celebrates communion once monthly at the morning worship, besides special feast days. A Sunday afternoon service featuring gospel and jazz music serves weekly communion.
Luti feels there is a renewed interest in ritual action across the UCC, not only in the sacrament of communion, but also healing and anointing.
"It's a positive development," she says. "It recovers some of the most ancient traditions of the church that are neither Catholic nor Protestant. They are simply practices that help our bodies and our minds."
To Luti, making sure the communion service never loses its edge is the key to making the ritual meaningful and thought-provoking.
"Very often we repeat the line, 'Jesus sat down to supper with the one who would betray him and the one who would deny him.' That line refers to Judas and Peter," she says.
"There is a challenge there. How do we sit with our enemies? How do we sit with the people we don't agree with, or who don't love us?"
"On World Communion Sunday, a lot of churches are rediscovering the universal aspect of our communion," says Luti. "These rituals are among the ways we show forth and also ground our solidarity with people all over the world."
For Luti, communion has a meaning that transcends time and place. "During communion," she says, "we really link up with the church as it has been, as it is now, and as it will be … we look forward to the day when everyone will be fed around this table with equal joy and equal justice."