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Anamnesis, Prolepsis, and the Work of the Spirit

Brant Copeland

Brant S. Copeland, now retired, served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Tallahasse, Florida, for thirty-five years.

Participation precedes cognition.

Long before I encountered words like anamnesis, epiclesis, and prolepsis, I sat in the front pew of the Beacon Hill Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, Texas, my twelve-year-old self decked out in a white sport coat bought for the occasion, my hair well plastered with Brylcreem, and my eyes fixed on the pastor. It was Maundy Thursday, and I was being admitted to the Lord’s Table.

Standing on the chancel steps in his Geneva gown, the pastor cast a benevolent gaze upon me and the other members of the communicants’ class. With warm solemnity he put to us the questions set forth in the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in the United States:

Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving his displeasure, and without hope save in his sovereign mercy?

Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and depend on him alone for salvation as he is offered in the Gospel?

Do you resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?1

We all knew the right answers. We had gone over them in the communicants’ class as we were memorizing the right answers to several other questions from the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

What is God?

What is sin?

And the question that preceded all the others: What is the chief end of man?

After we had answered all the questions satisfactorily, the pastor announced,

Inasmuch as you have made profession of your faith and obedience, have received Christian Baptism, and have by the Church Session been welcomed to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and admitted to the confirmed membership in this congregation, I declare you entitled to the privileges of confirmed membership in this particular church and to the full fellowship of the Church Universal.2

Moving down the line of young people, the pastor offered to each “the right hand of fellowship.” When he came to me, he started to reach out his right hand, but instead opened wide both arms. I fell into his embrace, the sleeves of his gown brushing against my cheeks. When we released one other, we were both in tears.

The pastor was also my father.

I thought in that moment, “I am now a communicant member of the church.” I had moved from the kids’ table, which had no bread and wine, to the Lord’s Table, where beneath a white linen cloth lay what my father had called “the elements.” (Not so much bread as uniform rectangles of hardened flour and not so much wine as Welch’s grape juice decanted into miniscule shot glasses, but even a twelve-year-old can make the symbolic transfer).

I have the well-thumbed copy of the 1946 Book of Common Worship my father used that night. His notes and underlines clearly show that he followed the first “Order for the Celebration of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion” with a few excisions. (He regarded the Sursum Corda and Sanctus as “too Catholic.”) First Corinthians 11:23–26 served as the scriptural warrant for the Supper. The cadences of King James English, strange to my young ears and delivered with a Texas twang, nevertheless evoked a connection to ages past:

The Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: and when He had given thanks, He brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is My body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of Me.

After the same manner also He took the cup, when He had supped, saying,
This cup is the New Covenant in My blood: this do ye, as often as ye drink it,
in remembrance of Me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup,
ye do show the Lord’s death until He come.3

What followed was not a “joyful feast of the people of God” but a solemn memorial for the crucified Jesus. The “liturgy” (a word that I would not encounter for many years) called to mind the Last Supper, not the post-resurrection meals at Emmaus (Luke 24) and on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (John 21), or indeed, the many other occasions of table fellowship mentioned in the Gospels.

As the elders passed the elements to worshipers seated in their pews, the organist played “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” and “Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees.” The cross on Calvary’s hill cast its shadow over words, actions, music—everything.

That communion service had a profound impact on me, even though when I preside at the Table today, my intention is to enact a liturgy that is a fuller expression of the Reformed and ecumenical understanding of the Eucharist. While I am deeply grateful for the way the church of my childhood used to do it, I am convinced that the Holy Spirit is nudging Presbyterians toward “a still more excellent way.” Despite the progress we have made, as evidenced by more frequent celebration and the use of the 1993 and 2018 editions of the Book of Common Worship, I fear that in many congregations, “best practices” of eucharistic celebration are wanting.

After college and a year of teaching in a high school, I enrolled as a divinity student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Through worship in the university chapel every Lord’s Day and participation in other eucharistic meals led by chaplains of the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church, I encountered an approach to the Lord’s Supper that was also deeply moving, but very different from the solemn commemorations of my childhood.

In those celebrations the familiar Words of Institution appeared not as a warrant, but anamnesis—of active remembrance—and of prolepsis—future longing. Instead of sitting passively in a pew, I joined my neighbors in the chancel, where we formed a semicircle in front of the Holy Table. The bread the minister broke was recognizably bread, rich in texture and smelling fresh from the oven. The wine was tawny port, poured into a plain pottery chalice and passed from person to person. It warmed my throat as I drank. Gazing at the faces round the circle, I recognized a fellow divinity student from Kenya, an art student from Ireland, a professor whose latest book lay open on my desk back in the residence hall. I was “discerning the body” in a way that I had never experienced at the Table of the Lord.

This way of enacting the Lord’s Supper was new to me, but in time I would learn that it is in fact much closer to the practice of the early church and even to John Calvin’s theological affirmations than I had imagined. My father would have found this Lord’s Supper in the university chapel, with John Knox’s pulpit a few feet away, surprisingly Catholic. My surprise sprang from the thrill I felt while communing with the risen Christ as a member of his body. And Dad was right; this way of enacting the Lord’s Supper was surprisingly catholic.

There is a reason behind this personal testimony. I want to bear witness to the formative power of liturgy to be what Martha L. Moore-Keish terms “primary theology.”4 I experienced the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist before I knew that was “a thing” to be defined and debated by theologians ancient and modern. Through participation in the liturgy, not as a leader but as a member of the assembly, I was brought into “nearer presence” of the triune God. This was not because I understood what was happening. Rather, it was because the Spirit was at work.

Participation precedes cognition.

Although I trained for ministry on both sides of the Atlantic, I received almost no instruction in liturgics, hymnody, or liturgical theology. Newly minted pastors in my generation were well schooled in biblical exegesis and homiletics, but no one taught us how to enact the liturgy. For that I turned to the Office of Theology and Worship and to the yearly conferences of the Presbyterian Association of Musicians.

Ordained in 1979, I was serving my first church when the Office of Theology and Worship of the PCUSA began publishing its Supplemental Liturgical Resources, large portions of which would eventually comprise the 1993 edition of the Book of Common Worship.5 I eagerly awaited the arrival of each of those paperbacks. I devoured them with gusto. I tore them apart, punched holes in the severed pages, and assembled working service books. Standing at the bathroom mirror, I practiced saying the words I found in those liturgies. Standing at the Communion Table in the empty sanctuary, I practiced coordinating the movements of my hands and body with the words I was attempting to embody.

I was learning that it is not enough to say the words. The minister should strive to enact the liturgy without calling attention to oneself.6

I learned, too, that worship is not a theatrical performance starring the minister, but rather the response of the entire assembly to the grace proclaimed in the gospel. The minister is not the star, but the prompter, and the movements within the drama of the Service for the Lord’s Day follow an ancient ordo whose roots reach deep.

What the presider says at the Table is vitally important, but the liturgy is more than words. The liturgy is everything that happens, including words said and sung, bodily movement, facial expressions, the arrangement of furniture, visual art—even the vessels used for bread and wine.

Martha L. Moore-Keish offers an example of how one congregation came to experience the “joyful feast of the people of God” when the setting of its observance changed.

For three years in the 1990s I worshiped with a Presbyterian congregation that celebrated communion once a month. For the first year the tone of each communion service was about the same: the words emphasized joy and inclusiveness, but the performance was fairly somber and quiet. . . . Then, during the second year, the congregation worshiped in a neighboring Catholic church while our building was undergoing renovation. The shift in place necessitated a shift in the way we celebrated communion; rather than passing the trays of bread and tiny glasses of grape juice down the rows, we began processing down the aisles to receive the elements from the servers in the front of the sanctuary. Suddenly the mood was different. People looked at one another. They smiled. The servers and the partakers exchanged words over the bread and cup—something that happened rarely before. The gathering took on the tone of a joyful celebration rather than a somber time of individual reflection. This was not due to the words, which had hardly changed from one location to the other . . . the assembly met God in a new way in that celebration, which changed their relationship to the Eucharist ever after.7

The setting matters, but so do the words. Especially when presiding at the Table, the minister is the servant of the liturgy. The prayer offered at the Table is not the minister’s prayer, but the church’s prayer. Although there is always room for creativity and variation due to local custom, care must be taken to preserve the integrity of the overall form of the eucharistic prayer, the Great Thanksgiving. When the Great Prayer is carelessly emended or contracted to the point that it no longer retains its Trinitarian form, doxological character, or eschatological longing, the Supper becomes a pale reflection of what it should be: the sign and seal of the promises of the gospel.

Following the principle of Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, the danger of such truncated prayer is that it produces truncated Christians.

In his exhaustive and enlightening study of Reformed eucharistic prayers, Ronald P. Byars shows how the model eucharistic prayers provided in the Book of Common Worship reflect both Reformed and ecumenical perspectives—what he calls “A Crescendo of Consensus.” Byars is especially concerned that John Calvin’s emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament be reflected in the Great Prayer.

In the sixteenth-century debate over the presence of Christ in the sacrament, Calvin affirmed the real presence, but did not locate the risen Christ “in” or even “by, with and under” the bread and wine. Christ is spiritually present in the Supper because in the Supper we are drawn into the communion he shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Calvin emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit who “lifts our hearts on high” to sit at table with the risen, ascended Christ. In this regard Calvin’s thinking shows a kinship with the liturgies of the Eastern churches. It follows that

the Epiclesis would seem to be, for Reformed people, the sine qua non of a liturgy informed by Calvin’s thought. Insofar as the Reformed tradition has anything to say to the whole church about Eucharist, it would seem that we need to say Amen to Calvin’s affirmation of a theology informed by sources Eastern as well as Western, that is, to his eucharistic theology rooted in the action of the Holy Spirit.8

Byars observes that, useful as the models of eucharistic prayer in the Book of Common Worship can be, there appears to be an erosion of the Great Prayer in the liturgies of at least some Presbyterian churches. At some services,

one may hear the equivalent of a brief table grace, with no Trinitarian form, no rehearsal of God’s mighty acts in creation or in Christ, and, most astonishingly in a Reformed setting, no prayer for the Holy Spirit to bless us and the gifts of bread and wine. Sometimes one may hear what begins as a classical eucharistic prayer but concludes prematurely, with no Anamnesis, no Epiclesis, and no Trinitarian doxology.9

The point is not to adhere unwaveringly to printed prayers in the BCW. The point is, rather, to honor the deep wisdom of the church through the ages and the power of liturgy to form the faith. Because participation precedes cognition, it is vitally important that what is said and done at the Table embody the faith of the church, not merely the cleverness or creativity of the presider.

In my opinion, presiders should be particularly wary of liturgies that reflect neither ecumenical nor Reformed consensus, but rather the idiosyncrasies of their writer alone.

Based on materials from the watershed document Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry and Ronald P. Byars’s summary, the Great Prayer takes more or less this form10-11:

Opening Dialogue

(said or sung in response)

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

The Preface

Thanksgiving to the Father for the marvels
of creation, redemption, and sanctification,
concluding with the singing (or saying)
of the Sanctus and Benedictus.
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, (Sanctus)
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. (Benedictus)
Hosanna in the highest.

The Post-Sanctus (or Anamnesis)

A memorial of the great acts of redemption, the witness of the prophets, the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and God’s steadfastness in spite of human sin.

The Words of Christ’s Institution of the sacrament according to the New Testament tradition. (In keeping with earlier Reformed practice, the Words of Institution may be used as a warrant for the Supper or in relation to the breaking of the bread. In my
own practice, I tended to include the Words in the body of the Great Prayer).

A Memorial Acclamation, such as:

Christ had died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

The Invocation of the Holy Spirit


The presider calls for the Holy Spirit to be poured out upon the assembly and the gifts of bread and wine, lifting all who share in the feast into Christ’s presence, and uniting us with the risen Christ and all the faithful in heaven and earth, keeping us faithful as Christ’s body in anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s kingdom (Prolepsis).

Trinitarian Doxology

The Amen of the Whole Assembly

(Great Amen)

The Lord’s Prayer

The 2018 edition of the BCW contains sixteen generic eucharistic prayers (Great Thanksgivings) as well as eucharistic prayers for the Season of Advent, the Season of Christmas, Epiphany of the Lord, Baptism of the Lord, Transfiguration of the Lord, the Season of Lent, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, The Great Vigil of Easter, the Season of Easter, Ascension of the Lord, the Day of Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, All Saints’ Day, and Christ the King/Reign of Christ. While some of these Great Thanksgivings are shorter than others, none is excessively long.

Regarding the time it takes to enact a liturgy that includes a complete Great Thanksgiving, worship planners should consider whether the pressure to shorten the service springs from legitimate pastoral concern or is simply an accommodation to “itching ears” (2 Tim. 4:3). If the presider feels that he or she must offer a brief version of the Great Prayer, it is far better to choose one of the less wordy models offered in the BCW than to lop off portions of longer versions. Even the briefest of the Great Thanksgivings in the BCW preserves the classical ordo.

Great Thanksgiving 8 in the 2018 BCW, a contribution from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is an example of a brief but complete Great Thanksgiving. Following the introductory dialogue (“The Lord be with you”) the presider prays:

Holy God, Preface (and Praise)
you alone are holy,
you alone are God.
The universe declares your praise:
beyond the stars;
beneath the sea;
within each cell;
with every breath,
We praise you, O God.
Generations bless your faithfulness:
through the water;
by night and day;
across the wilderness;
out of exile;
into the future.
We bless you, O God.
We give you thanks for your dear Son: (Anamnesis)
at the heart of human life;
near to those who suffer;
beside the sinner;
among the poor;
with us now.
We thank you, O God.
(The words of institution are included here,
if not elsewhere.)
Remembering his love for us
on the way,
at the table,
and to the end,
we proclaim the mystery of faith.
(The memorial affirmation may be sung or spoken).

We pray for the gift of your Spirit: (Epiclesis)
in our gathering;
within the meal;
among your people;
throughout the world. (Prolepsis)
Blessing, praise, and thanks to you,
holy God, (Trinitarian Doxology)
through Jesus Christ,
by your Spirit,
in your church,
without end.
Amen.12 (Great Amen)

To offer the Great Thanksgiving extemporaneously is, of course, an option. However, it takes skill and practice to do this well. The rubrics in the BCW are extremely helpful for those who undertake this approach.13 However, care must be taken to avoid unintentional bowdlerization. In my experience, presiders do well to remember that the Great Prayer is not the presider’s prayer. It is the church’s prayer.

Hymns can be adapted into Great Thanksgivings. Here is an example of a hymn from the Church Hymnary (fourth edition) of the Church of Scotland that formed the structure for a Eucharistic Prayer offered at First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee, Florida. The italicized words are from the hymn by Colin Peter Thompson. I composed the rest of the prayer, following Thompson’s meter (but not always his rhyming scheme). The sung responses are those set to Land of Rest (Glory to God, 552, 553, 554). On this occasion, the Words of Institution were included in the Invitation to the Table.

Words of Institution

The Lord be with you. (Opening Dialogue)
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Word of the Father, the life
of creation, (Preface)
emptied of glory, among us you came;
born as a servant, assuming our weakness,
drank from the cup of our joy and our shame.
Each human child bears your image
and likeness,
yet all are heirs to the sins of our earth;
once from death’s flood you arose to
redeem us,
water and Spirit now seal our rebirth.14
Therefore, we praise you, O God of one story
joining one chorus as angels reply,
with all the faithful of past and of present
we sing to your glory and praise you on high:

Sanctus (sung)

Yours is the manna sent down
from heaven. (Anamnesis)
Yours is the bread broken for us.
Yours is the cup sealed for salvation.
Yours is the mystery we handle and touch:

Memorial Acclamation (sung)

Taking this cup, the blood of salvation,
taking this bread from the gifts of the earth,
proclaiming Christ’s death and his resurrection,
we await his return and
creation’s rebirth. (Prolepsis)
Pour out your Spirit, and make
this communion (Epiclesis)
one with your Christ and all who believe.
Unite us in hope, inspire us to serve you,
until all are one in your love and your peace.
Through Christ who came in self-emptying service, (Trinitarian Doxology)
with Christ who saves as the servant of all,
one in the Spirit who moves where your breath blows,
all glory and honor are yours, Sovereign One.
Amen. (sung) (Amen)

In retirement my place in corporate worship is most often in the “body of the kirk,” not in the presider’s chair. From the pew I encounter liturgies informed by editions of the Book of Common Worship that did not exist when I graduated from seminary. These liturgies reflect a Reformed and ecumenical consensus that is the product of decades of careful study and prayerful discussion. I have also noticed a tendency to use ready-made liturgies copied and dropped into the Sunday bulletin. Copy, paste, and you’re done. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this practice, ease of use does not guarantee theological integrity or contextual relevancy. From my perspective, these copy-and-paste concoctions tend to yield thin gruel.

Even when the classical ordo is followed, the Great Thanksgiving can fall victim to ham-fisted emendation. One gets the feeling that, because the service is running long, the presider is editing the Great Thanksgiving “on the fly.” This results in what one astute worshiper I know calls “communion lite.”

It is up to the presider to maintain the integrity of what is spoken and enacted at the Holy Table. While there is always a place for creativity and variation, the Great Thanksgiving is not the place for time-saving tinkering or off-the-cuff redaction. When offering the church’s prayer, the presider should be mindful of a structure whose roots run deep and whose wisdom endures from age to age.15

Sixty-eight years have passed since that twelve-year-old first communed at the Table of the Lord. In the course of those years many churches in the Reformed tradition have, true to the motto Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, reformed the way they enact the eucharistic liturgy. I rejoice in the progress Reformed churches have made toward “a still more excellent way.” What we say and how we act at the Table shapes the faith of future generations.


  1. The Book of Church Order (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 104.
  2. Book of Church Order, 105.
  3. The Book of Common Worship (John Knox Press, 1946), 160.
  4. Martha L. Moore-Keish, Do This in Remembrance of Me: A Ritual Approach to Reformed Eucharistic Theology (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans, 2008).
  5. For an account of the sources and development of the Book of Common Worship, see Harold M. Daniels, To God Alone Be Glory: The Story and Sources of the Book of Common Worship (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2003).
  6. “The minister at the liturgy, like a Zen master, should be as ‘uninteresting’ as a glass of cold, clear, nourishing water.” Aidan Kavanagh, Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1966), 53.
  7. Moore-Keish, Do This in Remembrance of Me, 72 (italics mine).
  8. Ronald P. Byars, Lift Your Hearts on High: Eucharistic Prayer in the Reformed Tradition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 72.
  9. Byars, Lift Your Hearts, 71.
  10. World Council of Churches, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982), 16.
  11. Byars, Lift Your Hearts, xvii.
  12. Book of Common Worship (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 128–9.
  13. Book of Common Worship, 122–3.
  14. The italicized words are verses 1 and 2 of a hymn by Colin Peter Thomson (born 1945), as they appear in Church Hymnary, 4th ed. (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press), no. 634.
  15. “Ritual forms worshippers more deeply than does formal instruction, and when shaped by an ecumenical tradition that is older and deeper than the commonplace generic, it protects worshippers from the idiosyncrasies of services cobbled together as though faith and form have nothing to do with each other.” Ronald P. Byars, Finding Our Balance: Repositioning Mainstream Protestantism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 12.


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