the gift of tradition

Its my granddaughter's birthday today, and she had three candles on her Winnie the Pooh icecream cake. After the usual fairy bread and cheerios, we sang the traditional Happy Birthday song and she blew out the candles. But not every family does it like that. My own family of origin always blew the candles first and then sang the song. I grew up thinking that to do it any other way was a ghastly American tradition, like Trick or Treat. It was only after I got married, and had kids of my own, that I found out that the McLeays were in the minority. Most Kiwi families do the song first, then blow. I had to humble myself and let my kids do it the way my husband's family - and it seems most other families - do it.

Why do we do it at all though? Because rituals and shared memories have an important part to play in consolidating the culture of a family. The ParentsInc Toolbox programme points out that Kiwis tend to be suspicious of words like ritual and tradition, that we are wary of anything too formal or pretentious. But ritual is just a way of describing the way we do things. It might be the way we sing Happy Birthday, the way we open Christmas presents, the way Mum folds the towels, the way Dad cooks a barbeque, the way we share the newspaper or the games we play in the holiday tent or caravan. These predictable patterns give children a sense of stability and security, as well as being very natural ways to impart spiritual values and faith. Research shows children learn about who they are and where they fit through these patterns of family interaction and gain from them a sense of identity and community.

My thinking in such a direction this week is partly a product of my current engagement in a process for teaching lay leaders how to celebrate communion in a home, a small group or a Sunday service. In Baptist churches we believe the celebration of Communion can be appropriate in all these contexts. While many denominations confine the responsibility of leading ‘The Lord’s Supper’ to ordained clergy or licensed lay ministers, that was not the case in the Free or Nonconformist Church tradition of the seventeenth century English Baptists, from whom we in Baptist Churches of New Zealand received much of our heritage. Nor do we lay down the times or places of the ordinance - the Baptist word for what other traditions call a sacrament. However, given that the Communion tradition has been around for nigh on two thousand years, I believe it is is vital that leaders understand its background, its meaning and its common features within the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ.

It has never been mandatory in Baptist churches to use a particular liturgy for communion, or for worship generally. Leaders are free to select from or adapt any possible framework, and the service can vary widely from a more liturgical style, with congregational responses, through to the reading of a couple of Bible verses and the silent distribution of the elements. However, in light of the fact that this tradition is one we share with millions of other Jesus people all over the world, we should be aware of the historic consensus of what should normally be included in communion.

Dr Paul Beasley-Murray, a leading English Baptist, outlines a typical service:

  • Opening Worship (praise and confession)
  • Scriptures and Sermon
  • Reception of new members
  • Song of fellowship
  • Greeting
  • Invitation to the Table
  • Words of Institution or other scripture
  • Prayer of Thanksgiving
  • Re-enacting the Drama - Distribution of Bread and Wine
  • Prayers for one another and beyond
  • Prayer of Commitment
  • Hymn of hope and joy
  • Blessing and Sending

The items in purple are what I would see as the core elements of a Communion, however brief the service might be. Even in a home or hospital setting, they can be included in a sentence or two.

Why are these the core elements? Because they have been present in communion liturgies since the very beginning of the Christian church, or because they are practised today by such a wide cross-section of denominational traditions that they are taken as the faith community's consensus of this age-old spiritual practice. When the World Council of Churches outlined the elements of the Eucharistic liturgy in its document ‘Baptism Eucharist and Ministry’ at Lima in 1980, those eight elements were all included, along with others Baptists may find less appealing, such as a Creed, Lord's Prayer, or the Passing of the Peace. In addition the Lima document specified two ancient traditions which Free Church ministers tend to either overlook or to wrap up in the Communion prayers. These are:

  • The Anamnesis - remembering the mighty acts of God, especially in the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ
  • The Epiclesis - inviting the Holy Spirit to come as we share Communion.

These two movements are interpreted in different ways in different Christian traditions but form an important link between what Baptists, Catholics and Orthodox Christians do as we celebrate the same ritual of Eucharist around the world.

Although the basic structure of a communion service dates back to the earliest centuries of the Christian church, there is considerable room for variety. Within that diversity though is the important sense that this is a practice shared by the whole Church, across the world and down the centuries. Stuart Lange notes that the movement, the drama, the unfolding of the story is enhanced by following the ordered progression that has been evolved by generations, one that prepares worshippers physically, emotionally and spiritually for what is to follow. It also enable visitors or newcomers from other traditions to recognise what is happening as something that occurred in their own context as well. We need to be sensitive to the deeply-held values of others withiut compromising our own theological and liturgical integrity. To go back to the Birthday Cake analogy - we can choose to sing before or after the candles, or not at all, but we should make that choice conscious of the various family traditions that have been passed down.

Is a liturgy really necessary? Free-thinking Baptists may feel uncomfortable with anything that smacks of ritual, stuffiness, or priestly traditions, and protest against having any framework. As a person coming from a mixed denominational tradition, I prefer to be able to see a pattern of some sort. A carefully-prepared communion service should incorporate some or all of the things that the church has included down the centuries. In one sense, all such patterns are simply expansions of Jesus' words and actions as recorded in the scriptures. The ancient liturgies of Greek-speaking Christians may have little relevance here in twenty-first century New Zealand, but a prepared liturgy of some sort is valuable, says Lange, if we are to avoid imbalances, clumsiness, and eccentricities. There is nothing intrinsically unspiritual about being prepared, and written liturgies tested and refined over the years may have a dignity and spiritual expressiveness that more easily leads the congregation into worship. The best liturgies are strongly laced with scripture, allow for extemporary prayer at appropriate points, and respect the informal style of worship that has been characteristic of the Baptist tradition. We should select the liturgy we use with care, adapt where necessary, and in all cases pray that the Holy Spirit breathes life into every celebration.

To Chew Over: What of these elements do you consider to be essential? Why? What other factors should be taken into account when designing a communion service?

Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face;Here would I touch and handle things unseen;

Here grasp with firmer hand eternal grace,And all my weariness upon Thee lean.

This is the hour of banquet and of song;This is the heavenly table spread for me;

Here let me feast, and feasting, still prolongThe hallowed hour of fellowship with Thee.

Here would I feed upon the bread of God,Here drink with Thee the royal wine of heaven;

Here would I lay aside each earthly load,Here taste afresh the calm of sin forgiven.

I have no help but thine; nor do I needAnother arm save thine to lean upon;

It is enough, my Lord, enough indeed;My strength is in thy might, thy might alone.

Mine is the sin, but thine the righteousness:Mine is the guilt, but thine the cleansing blood

Here is my robe, my refuge, and my peace;Thy Blood, thy righteousness, O Lord my God!

Too soon we rise; the symbols disappear;The feast, though not the love, is past and gone.

The bread and wine remove; but Thou art here,Nearer than ever, still my shield and sun.

Horatius Bonar