Do We? Or Don’t We?
Ron Byars is professor emeritus of preaching and worship at Union Presbyterian Seminary. He lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
It may be that a service does include intercessory prayers, but they are framed so abstractly that one is unable to discern a connection with the real-time world whose trials weigh on us when we come to worship, trials that may involve natural disasters or human injustices.
Basic Christian theology becomes distorted when the service lacks a strong element of thanksgiving, turning away from our vocation to be a eucharistic people. (Eucharist means “thanksgiving”).
The absence of the Eucharist has another unintended effect. When the Sacrament of the Table is only occasional, it leaves the Word isolated, without its natural and intended accompaniment.
Ordained by another denomination, I have been a Presbyterian minister for nearly my whole ministry. Like many others, I was drawn to Presbyterianism impressed by the way the denomination explains itself on paper. The first Presbyterian congregation on whose staff I was called to serve was led by a pastor whose own views and practice corresponded relatively closely to the official documents by which the PC(USA) describes itself in terms of polity, theology, and liturgy. I felt assured that my decision to ally with this community of God’s people had been the right one. What I love most about my church is that so much of what I value overlaps with ecumenical norms that are shared with other ecclesiastical communities. Presbyterianism expresses those norms in a way that seems to me to be exquisitely balanced—on paper. For example:
Polity: Our church is a church committed to the practice of episcope—oversight. No prelates, of course, but a graded system of church “courts,” corporate “bishops” whose duties include attending to issues at all levels having to do with integrity in faith as well as in practice. It becomes increasingly obvious in this era of independent congregations that ecclesiastical oversight is essential.
Theology: Ours is a teaching church, and the content of that teaching is exemplified by the Book of Confessions, anchored by the ecumenical creeds. Our church professes, on paper, to believe that theology matters. While membership in the church calls for a profession of faith (no small thing), it does not demand that members conform to a particular theological system. However, its commitment to being a teaching church does require that officers in the church—ministers, elders, and deacons—must answer ordination questions in the affirmative, including those having to do with doctrine. For example, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church . . . and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?”1
Liturgy: The PC(USA) is a church that is officially attentive to the integrity of Christian worship—in both Word and Sacrament. Certainly, for a teaching church concerned for the soundness of its doctrine, it is important to recognize that any and every service of worship, of whatever kind, embodies, projects, and eventually imprints a theology on those who are exposed to it over time. Our Directory for Worship is a marvelous guide to the ways that our faith might be best expressed in what is done and said as we assemble around Word and Sacrament. And our Book of Common Worship provides models to guide practice.
On paper, our church is impressive in the care with which it tries to follow biblical and ecumenical norms in a Reformed way. So, one might imagine, for example, that each section of the Book of Order would be equally honored in practice. And yet, while presbyteries rightly provide oversight appropriate to the Form of Government—for example, examining session minutes and noting errors in procedure—and also turns to the Book of Discipline in cases that require intervention, the Directory for Worship seems to be entirely advisory, and easily set aside as soon as candidates for the ministry have passed their ordination exams. (This is not surprising. since the majority of models, mentors, and those preparing candidates for ordination are more likely to think of liturgy as a set of techniques rather than as the liturgical representation of “essential tenets.”) The result is that, in practice, the worship in a PC(USA) congregation may communicate a different theology from that which is intended in various constitutional documents.
For example, it is possible that one may find oneself in a PC(USA) congregation in which the service ends without any actual intercessory prayers. When a congregation either omits intercessions, whether always or only now and then, the service misrepresents both denominational and ecumenical theology. The church is called, after all, to be “a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:9). What might such “spiritual practices” look like? In worship, ecclesial priesthood certainly includes both advocacy and intercession for the world.
It may be that a service does include intercessory prayers, but they are framed so abstractly that one is unable to discern a connection with the real-time world whose trials weigh on us when we come to worship, trials that may involve natural disasters or human injustices. Perhaps there is a “pastoral prayer,” or “prayers of the people,” but they include no prayers specific to those near or far whose land is burning today, or flooded; or to school shootings or starving Afghans. In such cases, the church minimizes its priestly role as intercessor. If the church prays only for its own members, its very identity is narrowed and distorted, as though it has no vocation and no responsibility beyond its walls.
It would be unusual, but not unheard of, for a Presbyterian service to omit a prayer of confession. One pastor was approached by a member of the congregation who complained about this prayer, a practice to which she had not been accustomed in her former denomination. She claimed not to be guilty of the corporately confessed sins—or, not usually. The pastor’s remedy for her grievance was a simple one: to remove the prayer from the liturgy! When confession seems to be framed in such a way that it has to do only with acknowledged sins of individuals present, it ignores the shared obligation to confess sins not only for those participating, but also on behalf of persons and entities who cannot or will not themselves confess. We are all complicit, for example, in sins of the church local and universal, sins of the city and nation, sins of principalities and powers that may privilege some at the expense of others.
Of course, there may be a time of silence during the corporate prayer in which one may acknowledge personal sin in one’s own way, but the prayer as such is not about me and is about me, whether recognized or not. The prayer of confession is intimately linked to our identity as baptized people, whom God loves not in proportion to whatever virtues we may exhibit, but out of God’s pure grace. Prayerful confession is a testimony to that grace exhibited in the sacrament. Omit it, or sweeten it up with excuses, and its absence or lack of seriousness obscures the baptismal commission that sends out sinners washed in grace to participate in God’s healing of the world.
In a recent Presbyterian Worship and Music Conference, a leader of one of the seminars had been entertaining questions and comments from the group. One person commented that his congregation had studied the history of the Nicene Creed and discovered that debates over its adoption in 325 C.E. had been marked not only by careful discussion, but also by unseemly conflicts. People back home didn’t entirely approve of it, or the Apostles’ Creed, either. Why should they say or sing them? The leader of the seminar, a musician, responded to the effect that it was rare that anyone experienced faith without doubts. It is possible, even likely, to experience both at the same time. “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
When a member of the congregation comes to the pastor to complain about a creed (either Apostles’ or Nicene), the pastor may decide that the way to solve the problem is to do away with both, or to substitute something up to date and culturally acceptable in their place. Both of these creeds are, for the most part, direct summaries of core affirmations of the Bible. They represent nothing less than doxological versions of the faith of the church. The heart and soul of that faith is very often countercultural, not part of the approved repertoire of the twenty-first-century consensus. When doubts shape worship more than does faith, the church is left with nothing to say at all. A creed removed, or never used, is noticeable by its absence, just as a prose substitution seen for the first time reveals discomfort with the classic faith of the church embedded in the constitutional documents of the PC(USA) as well as the teaching of the church catholic.
Basic Christian theology becomes distorted when the service lacks a strong element of thanksgiving, turning away from our vocation to be a eucharistic people. (Eucharist means “thanksgiving.”) As a community of Christ who claim to live by grace, the giving of thanks would seem to come naturally; at least, grace and gratitude belong together. Historically, ecumenically, and in the agenda of our Reformer, John Calvin, the giving of thanks is the norm for every service for the Lord’s Day. since it is foundational to the character of the Sacrament. But the authorities in Calvin’s Geneva refused to give permission for weekly Eucharist, probably worried that most parishioners would find it too hard to adjust, since before the Reformation they had communed only once a year, at Easter. So, their practice became quarterly communion. Calvin hoped that in time the norm of weekly Eucharist would be restored; meanwhile, he considered the interim arrangement to be a “defect.” However, as the centuries rolled on, the “defect” acquired a kind of historical sanctity, as though occasional celebration of the Sacrament was meant to distinguish the Reformed from their Roman Catholic rivals, and therefore must be claimed and cherished as though it were a practice intended to be defended and perpetuated.
The Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, rightly celebrated, is a multilayered representation of thanksgiving, and can impress upon us the importance of our calling to be a people whose work it is to learn how to live eucharistically; that is, gratefully. Gratitude points to grace received as a gift, unearned, beginning with life itself. When thanksgiving is represented not only in words but in the actions at the table and the giving of bread and cup, it speaks more eloquently and more ardently than when thanks is expressed only in a passing sentence or two, if that, in one of the prayers of the day. When expression of gratitude is absent, or when it is reduced and/or muted, the gospel of grace is not likely to be as evident as it is when grace is our food and drink.
Of course, the Book of Common Worship provides a fallback for those who, for whatever reason, are not able to celebrate the sacramental meal. A rubric (note of instruction) in the BCW reads, “The norm of Christian worship is to celebrate the Lord’s Supper on each Lord’s Day. If the Lord’s Supper is omitted, the service may include a prayer of thanksgiving,” and directs the reader to pages 149–151, where examples of non-eucharistic thanksgivings may be found.2 These prayers resemble the Great Thanksgiving insofar as possible when there will be no communion. This sometimes necessary substitute (see pandemic!), is less than optimal, but it does honor the need for some substantial expression of gratitude every Lord’s Day. When even that is missing, the service is likely to embody and bless an unintended theology, one that does not conform to an essential component of the church’s faith as expressed in its teaching tradition.
The absence of the Eucharist has another unintended effect. When the Sacrament of the Table is only occasional, it leaves the Word isolated, without its natural and intended accompaniment. The Reformers pointed out that without a sermon, or only an occasional sermon, the Sacrament is likely to be distorted by its separation from the Word. After centuries in which the Protestant norm came to be Word only, it is time to take note that when there is Word but no Eucharist, it becomes the Word that is at risk of being distorted. The Sacrament alongside the Word can awaken us to the sacramentality of preaching. In other words, as Scripture is not a textbook, neither is preaching a lecture, or a motivational speech. Scripture read and the Word preached serve as a kind of meeting place where God reaches out to nourish us, just as in the holy meal. Sacramental.
In today’s Zeitgeist, sacramental is always countercultural, because contemporary culture understands God not as One who engages with us, but rather as a concept about which we need to form an opinion. Many presume God to be impersonal, secularly addressed as “the universe,” rather than One actively in search of us. In a barren spiritual context, it is easy to suppose that rather than an occasion in which God and God’s people interact, worship is a kind of school, a place for learning something or rallying around a social issue, or perhaps exploring various modes of “spirituality,” accompanied by a little music to make it more palatable. In other words, a program of de-theologizing to satisfy contemporary reservations.
Miroslav Volf of Yale Divinity School decided he had to leave churches where Eucharist was only occasional. Volf was “disturbed by the failure of many preachers to make the center of the Christian faith the center of their proclamation.” He notes that “where the Sacraments are left intact, they point straight back to Christ’s self-giving on the cross . . .”3 In other words, where they are left intact, the sacraments direct us to the heart and soul of the Christian faith, cross and resurrection, the foundational testimony from which all Christian preaching draws its vigor and authority.
Equally important is that the Lord’s Supper directs us forward, toward a cosmic redemption, a transfigured creation, where “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29).
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.4
The sacramental meal is an anticipation of the messianic banquet that represents what Jesus called “the renewal of all things” (Matt. 19:28), and the apostle Peter described as a “universal restoration” (Acts 3:21), the ultimate realization of God’s promise, “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). When it is present (and left intact), the Sacrament testifies to the “big picture,” the ultimate hope, the indescribable outcome that by grace we have been enabled to glimpse in the ministry, cross, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This picture clears the sight, shows a way, and chases away the ever present temptation to despair. Will we? Or won’t we?
- The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part II, Book of Order (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, 2017–2019), W-4.04c, 104.
- Book of Common Worship, prepared by the Office of Theology and Worship for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2018), 149–151.
- Miroslav Volf, “Proclaiming the Lord’s Death,” The Christian Century (March 3, 1999): 253.
- Book of Common Worship, 27, and others.