Sunday, May 2, 2010

Table Etiquette

Not long ago I was filling in at a nearby Presbyterian church, and in addition to preaching I was to preside at the Lord’s Supper. That’s not always the case, of course, since most Presbyterian churches observe the Sacrament occasionally rather than as part-and-parcel of Sunday worship. So I was delighted to look forward to a complete Lord’s Day worship service.

As I discussed the logistics with the lay leader, I discovered that the sequence of serving was different from what I was used to. I was a guest, however, so I followed their plan which was according to the rubrics in the Book of Common Worship (1993): The minister and those assisting receive Communion, and then serve the bread and the cup to the people.

This was consistent with the directions in the Book of Common Worship (1946): Then the Minister, who is himself to communicate, is to give the Bread to the Elders to be distributed. For the first couple of decades of my ministry, this was the pattern I followed, clergy eating and drinking first, then serving elders, who in turn served the people.

Yet I began to have problems with this way of serving Communion. Coming right after the visual presentation of “Holy things for holy people” and “The gifts of God for the people of God,” it struck me as strange for ministers to eat and drink first. If it is for the people, why start with the clergy? This sequence, ranking the people last, leaves itself open to interpretation of clericalism and elitism.

At some point, without fanfare, I moved to what felt more natural to me: the reverse of the sequence suggested in the BCW-suggested sequence: People should be served first, then the ones doing the serving, and lastly, the clergy. It just seemed “right” to me, theologically and otherwise, and still does.*

Minister(s) served by an assistant at the last is an appropriate visual statement regarding the role of the presider as a servant of the servant Lord. It makes for good theology and good liturgy to stress this servant role, lest someone think the presider somehow personally embodies the presence of the risen Lord.

This sequence (people-assistants-minister) seems more consistent with the actions of Jesus himself as recorded in Scripture and preserved in the “four-fold action”: Jesus 1) took bread; 2) gave thanks; 3) broke it; and 4) distributed it, saying particular words. Jesus handled the cup in similar fashion, 1) taking it; 2) giving thanks; and 3) gaving it to his disciples. There is no hint that he ate or drank before those he served.

Finally, there is a connection between the Lord’s Supper and all the meals we have in that every meal becomes Eucharistic based on the model of the Lord’s Supper. Our kitchen table is linked to the Lord’s Table—in sharing food anywhere we give thanks to God for grace abundant in Jesus Christ. (We need to learn how to do that better in every location where we “break bread.”) It only seems logical, then, that table etiquette in one place should be consistent with that in the other--the minister-assistants-people sequence at the Lord’s Table would seem rude and boorish if practiced at any other table. I’m not suggesting that this is the only reason to reverse that order so that the “host” eats last. Nevertheless, the minister-assistants-people sequence represents a disconnect from common polite practice, and therefore serves confusion along with the Holy Meal.

How is Communion served in your church? Are the people served in the pews or do they come forward? Does that make any difference in the sequence of serving?


*After I retired, I took myself to worship most often with a neighbor Lutheran congregation who celebrates Communion every week—something I could not find in a nearby Presbyterian church. The time came that I was asked to fill in for the vacationing pastor, preaching and presiding at the table. There, people were served first, deacons and other assistants next, and clergy last. This they did in spite of the rubrics in the Lutheran Book of Worship which were much the same as ours. The new Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), however, allows either sequence.

1 comment:

  1. Charlotte KroekerMay 3, 2010 at 5:51 PM

    Our church uses the sequence people-assistants-minsters. The people are usually served in the pews though intinction is used for special services, especially during Holy Week. I think your reasoning makes such good sense, Don, and applaud your servant leadership!


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