The UCC's longstanding commitment to inclusivity in church and society appears to be affecting members' understandings of Holy Communion, according to preliminary results of a new churchwide study of worship beliefs and practices.
About 70 percent of respondents indicate that, in their congregations, the communion sacrament is now open to everyone, regardless of baptismal status, with about 60 percent also saying that the table is open to children of all ages, regardless of whether they have been baptized or confirmed.
"Our radical inclusivity appears to be affecting our sacramental practice," says the Rev. Sid Fowler of the UCC's worship and education ministry, which designed the survey with broad input from persons across the church and will unveil additional, hands-on resources—as part of the project—in coming months.
While significant differences still exist in UCC churches about the nature of the Lord's Supper—including what it's called, its frequency and its method of distribution—UCC members are apparently becoming increasingly comfortable with making it open and available to all.
That's one of the more substantial findings of "Worshiping into God's Future," a denomination- wide worship survey that was an outgrowth of a 2003 General Synod resolution—proposed and implemented by the UCC's Local Church Ministries, in partnership with the UCC's research office. It is hoped the project will inspire greater discussion about worship life in the UCC and, in the end, a greater commitment to worship renewal by enhancing the availability of worship resources and providing better training for worship planning and leadership.
The survey's results are being compiled from preliminary, initial responses submitted by 1,190 clergy, 970 lay members, 330 musicians and 323 church bodies—representing 1,600 UCC churches or almost 30 percent of the denomination's congregations. More responses are being received daily, Fowler says, and could impact the final report to be released in November. Likewise, he says, responses to the more open-ended questions are still being recorded.
What will our neighbors think?
Regarding the Eucharist, clergy more than laity (77 percent to 68 percent) said they personally preferred that "youth and adults, regardless of whether baptized or confirmed" be allowed to receive the elements. Sixty-nine percent of responding congregations said, indeed, that is their practice.
The preliminary findings, even if not surprising, are significant because Holy Communion in the church has historically been made available only to baptized believers.
"This is basic departure of orthodox Christian practice and it puts us outside the mainstream of our ecumenical partners," says the Rev. Gabriel Fackre, Abbot Professor of Christian Theology Emeritus at UCC-related Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts and a founding member of the UCC's Confessing Christ movement. "The norms for baptism and Eucharist have been worked long and hard. There has been an ecumenical consensus and that has included the UCC. É If we violate that, we are simply putting ourselves outside the church universal. We risk becoming a sect."
When it comes to communing children—those baptized but yet-to-be confirmed—Fackre says it is a practice that has theological merit and is one that has been met with increased acceptance over the past 20 years. However, Fackre believes that communing non-baptized persons—regardless of age—is a theologically flawed idea.
"Here inclusivity seems to trump traditional Christian teaching," he says. "It's a sad day for the UCC."
No admission ticket necessary
The Rev. Michael Kinnamon, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister and professor of mission and peace at UCC-related Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, agrees with Fackre that communing the non-baptized is something that deserves deeper discussion in the church, but he also believes it is a practice that has theological and biblical merit.
"Just because three quarters of us say it does not make it right. We don't do theology by polls," Kinnamon says, "but you can make the case theologically and biblically, not just sociologically, that this is a meal without boundaries. Christ invites those from the highways and byways and not just those that have been approved by our institutions."
Kinnamon says he appreciates the theological seriousness of the issue, especially as it impacts relationships with ecumenical partners. "But having said that," he says, "I don't think you fi nd in scripture that baptism is an admission ticket to the table. You learn to participate in the body of Christ by participating in the body of Christ. And what is the body of Christ's central act? The communion meal."
He points out that in some Christian traditions, most notably among Methodists, communion is a "meal of the reign of God, not simply a meal of the baptized, believing community." He says that Methodism's John Wesley taught that communion could be a "converting ordinance," meaning that it could be a vehicle for bringing people into the Christian community.
"Even though Wesley did believe that [the non-baptized] should be baptized as soon as possible, he did believe that they could be brought to the meal," Kinnamon says.
Let the little children come
The Rev. Bette Anne Crowell, a recently retired UCC minister from the Connecticut Conference and a longtime advocate for children's presence at the table, says she is happy to hear that the practice of communing children—before confirmation—is gaining greater acceptance.
"It should not be the dessert you won because you ate your dinner," she insists.
As the author of several resources on children and communion, Crowell says, "More and more churches are understanding that we learn by doing. We now have some kids who have been at the table for 15 or more years, and they feel more included in the life of the church than [earlier generations of children] ever did before."
The worship survey found that, increasingly, churches are adopting the hands-on method for learning, not only for children but also for adults. When asked open-endedly how new adult members were nurtured in the faith, some responded by saying, among other things, Ôby doing.'
"If you are bringing up your child at the family table, you do not deprive them. And the same should be true for those at the church's table," Crowell says. "You are offering that nourishment. You are building that connectedness. It's not something that you have to wait for."
"I've seen the wonder of a child as that child reaches for that bread or reaches for that first sip," Crowell says, "and that child understood that it was the special meal of Jesus."
Additional survey gleanings
Clergy and laity agreed that, primarily, worship is a time to encounter God, with a large majority of respondents saying their congregation's worship is grounded in sound biblical teaching.
By more than a two-to-one margin, "sensing God's presence" was the descriptor chosen by both clergy and lay respondents over those who believed worship was primarily a time to celebrate among the redeemed, an occasion for learning or seeing friends or an opportunity to reach the unchurched.
While most clergy and laity tilted toward defining their worship as traditional over contemporary, respondents also tended to define their worship experiences as exciting rather than boring, informal more so than formal, and more intellectual than emotional.
Both clergy and laity were most likely to describe baptism as "a gift of the Holy Spirit and the grace of God" and "an incorporation into the Church universal, the Body of Christ." They were less likely to describe it as "a time of conversion" or as a "sharing in Christ's death and resurrection."
Seventy-three percent of churches reported offering Holy Communion on a monthly basis, and 68 percent said they preferred it that way.
However, 34 percent of former Roman Catholics, who are now members of the UCC, said they wished that Holy Communion would be offered weekly.
Only 16 percent of all laity said that a weekly observance would be their first preference.
UCC members' beliefs about Holy Communion center around the generations-old debate of "real presence" verses "remembrance." Although both descriptions were the top two responses offered by both clergy and laity, pastors tilted toward describing the sacrament as "a meal in which we encounter God's living presence."
Laity, however, by more than a two-to-one margin, described it as "a time of remembrance of Jesus' last supper, death and resurrection."
"Obviously, there is some difference in what clergy think they are doing and what the laity think they are receiving," Fowler says.
When asked what was "distinctive" about UCC worship, respondents most often commented on the UCC's variety of worship styles, its warm welcome and acceptance, its local autonomy on matters of worship, its emphasis on God's love and the invitation to grow in one's faith journey and to participate in social action.
How's the worship at ÔAmalgamated United Church of Christ'?
True, no two UCC churches are exactly alike. But if one considers preliminary findings of the UCC's 2004 worship survey, here's a description of the "average" UCC congregation's worship practices:
The worship service of the fictitious Amalgamated UCC in Anytown, USA, begins at about 10:30 on Sunday mornings and lasts anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes. Its purpose for gathering? To encounter the presence of God so that church members might be transformed to do God's work in the world.
The 70-plus attendees almost always are handed a printed order of worship, but it's not necessarily one produced by the UCC's Bulletin Service.
Built in 1925 and remodeled in 1990, Amalgamated UCC's worship space includes an altar, communion table and a non-central pulpit; its people sit in stationary pews surrounded by stained glass windows. Decorations include a cross, flowers, candles, banners and seasonally appropriate paraments, a Christian flag and, yes, a U.S. flag in the chancel.
Scripture is read from the New Revised Standard Version, and music originates from two primary sources (The New Century Hymnal and the hymnal of the church's predecessor denomination). The pastor—wearing a robe/alb and stole—preaches biblically-based sermons drawing on the recommended lectionary texts for the day.
The service almost always includes a prelude, call to worship, invocation, time with children, a pastoral prayer and the Lord's Prayer, sharing of joys and concerns, bible readings, a sermon, announcements, an offering followed by a dedication prayer and Doxology, benediction and postlude.
The sacraments are open to all, including young children. "Holy Communion," as it is called, is celebrated monthly—either down in front or in the pews—using grape juice and real bread pieces. It's open to all who want to participate, and "intinction"—dipping the bread into the cup—is generally the preferred method. Inclusive language for God and humanity is becoming more commonplace, but the liturgy for baptism still uses the ancient wording: "Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
Occasionally, worship begins with a processional, includes a confessional prayer followed by words of assurance, or features the recitation of a creed, responsive reading, Psalm or the UCC Statement of Faith. Members might be asked to offer individual prayer concerns—either verbally or in writing—or to share neighborly words, hugs and handshakes during the passing of the peace.
It is unlikely that Amalgamated UCC begins its service with a more-liturgical "collect" or uses items from the UCC's Calendar of Prayer. It's not often that it offers time for "mission/stewardship moments." It shies away from drama and video clips, except on special occasions, and its people are not comfortable with altar calls or sharing personal testimonies. Members rarely hear readings from contemporary, non-biblical texts, nor do they stand when listening to the biblical ones.
When all is said and done, Amalgamated UCC's members hope that the worship service will make a difference in their daily lives. Its pastor prays that the experience will transform them and propel them to be in service to others.
Who is normally including or who should be included in receiving the elements of Holy Communion?
(Respondents were asked to check all that apply)
Source: 2004 worship survey
Worship-planning help on the web
Nineteen percent of pastors say that the UCC's website is their most helpful worship-planning tool. The website offers multiple, online worship resources. Here's a sample of what's available at ucc.org/worship:
SAMUEL Lectionary-based worship planning resources, including weekly scripture texts, sermon seeds and the "back of the bulletin" text used by the UCC's Sunday Bulletin Service.
COMMONLY USED LITURGIES from the UCC's Book of Worship and The New Century Hymnal, including orders for word and sacrament, baptism, confirmation, marriage, funerals, and more.
WORSHIP WAYS A library of new and archived liturgies to help in planning calendar-specific services, including resources for Advent and Christmas, Lent and Holy Week, Amistad Sunday, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Labor Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and more.
LITURGIES IN SPANISH
THE UCC CALENDAR OF PRAYER with daily stories about local church mission and ministry.
WEEKLY ÔMISSION MOMENTS' to help illustrate the UCC's shared ministries at home and abroad.
MUSIC AND THE ARTS Helpful, practical suggestions for church musicians and worship planners, especially for those in small- to medium-sized congregations.
Climb on your soapbox. United Church News wants to hear from you.
An early glimpse at a churchwide survey indicates that about 70 percent of UCC congregations offer Holy Communion to everyone, anyone—regardless of whether or not they have ever been baptized. Some say it's an unfortunate break from orthodox Christian teaching; others say it's an inclusive and biblical view of Christ's radical welcome.
What do you think? If you can tell us where you stand in 75 words or less, we'd like to share your views with others.
Send your short responses by Tuesday, Aug. 10, to: