Sunday, February 13, 2011


I remember more than one ecumenical adventure when I shared in worship with Roman Catholics, and was asked, invited, given the opportunity to bring forward the bread or the wine to be used in the Mass. This was considered to be an honor for anyone, and in the days following Vatican II, a gracious gesture to Protestants (even though we were not allowed to partake of the same elements in the Eucharist).

In the Roman way of doing things, the presentation of the bread and wine (Offertory) was made along with the presentation of the people’s offerings (Offering). It made an easy segue from the collection of the people’s gifts to the celebration of Thanksgiving in the Eucharist.

Protestants, however, were quick to recognize the problems with entwining the two very different ritual acts, even though some thought it was a nifty idea to bring the elements for Communion in the procession of gifts to the Table. The people’s gifts in the Offering, however, are in response to God’s Gift experienced in the sharing of bread and wine, and the overlapping or even juxtaposition of these two acts is theologically problematical at best.

The argument for both Offering and Offertory, of money and bread and wine, is apparently that both come out of God’s bounty to the people and are offered back to God. In terms of the bread and wine, it helps emphasize the fact that they are ordinary elements and not infused with any special power or significance in and of themselves.

The argument against, however, is that the bread and wine speak not of human offerings to God, but of God’s offering to us, and represent what we are to receive in thanksgiving at the Eucharistic Table. To presume the bread and wine to be our offering to God makes the Table into an Altar. It is clearly not our sacrifice, but Christ’s that is celebrated at the Table, from which we receive.

As far as I know, in Reformed and Lutheran churches the bread and wine are not brought in procession along with the presentation of the offerings. Such processional entrance of the Communion elements, however, is common in Roman and Anglican services.

I bring all this up because the rubrics in the Book of Common Worship (1993) leave the way open for a practice that may be theologically muddled. In the Service for the Lord’s Day we find the following:
As the offerings are gathered, there may be an anthem, or other appropriate music.
When the Lord's Supper is celebrated, the minister(s) and elders prepare the table with bread and wine during the gathering of the gifts. The bread and wine may be brought to the table, or uncovered if already in place.
The offerings may be brought forward. A psalm, hymn of praise, doxology, or spiritual may be sung, the people standing.

The statement that is most disconcerting is, “The bread and wine may be brought to the table….”
If the bread and wine are brought to the table during the time the Offering is collected from the people, then two very different things are taking place simultaneously: the people presenting their offerings, and the elements of bead and wine being brought forward to the Table to be used in the meal celebrating God’s offering of the Son to all humankind. It’s difficult to keep the two from becoming entangled.

The statement is also ambiguous enough to suggest that it would be acceptable if one wanted to have the bread and wine brought forward along with the offering of money, thoroughly confusing the people’s offering with God’s offering. It leaves the way open for thinking that we the people have something of value to give God.

So it’s far better to have the Table set with food from the beginning of the service, recognizable as God’s gifts to us. This would eliminate the entanglement of the Offering and Offertory, since the latter would simply be encapsulated in the Eucharistic prayer:
“Remembering your gracious acts in Jesus Christ,
we take from your creation this bread and this wine
and joyfully celebrate his dying and rising,
as we await the day of his coming.”
In this prayer, as in others, bread and wine has already been given to us by God, and they are “the gifts of God for the people of God.”

If the Offering itself were removed from its usual location in the order of worship—before the Eucharist—and placed before the Sending hymn, as I suggested in my previous post, that would also make it clear that the people’s offering of money is a commitment to continuing discipleship in the world as the follow where Jesus leads.

In any event, it’s clear that Offering and Offertory should be separated sufficiently to avoid treating them as one and the same.

How is the Table set when you celebrate the Lord’s Supper in your church? Are the elements covered? When is the covering removed? How is the Table set when you do not celebrate the Lord’s Supper?


  1. I disagree with virtually everything you have said in your two columns about the offering. First, Romans 12:1-2 is an important text as anchor to a theology of the offering. Second, the bread and wine serve as carrier of two actions: the people's gift of themselves and their lives given to God in thankful praise and second as God's renewing of the gift of new life in Jesus. Through this dual action the church becomes what it already is, the Body of Christ that gives itself, as Jesus did, for the life of the world. Third, if the offering of money is no more than you propose, we ought to do everything to take it out of worship, instead urging people to pay their church dues by mail, credit card, or electronic transfer.

  2. Thank you, Keith, for your candid response. At least we heartily agree on your third point. I did not communicate well, however, if you thought that I propose we treat our financial contributions as dues—instead of “propose” read “protest”. I think that when members come to think of their congregation as an aggregation of like-minded people, it takes on the aura of a country club or other similar organization, and the offerings become, lamentably, little more than dues.

    Yet the reverse can happen as well. If we contribute our money in such a liturgical fashion as to make it look like we’re paying dues, then we are in danger of making the church into a club. Liturgy has the power to shape theology, for good or for ill, and we should be careful.

    Regarding your first two points: I agree that Romans 12: 1-2 is in fact, as you put it, “an important text as anchor to a theology of the offering.” Which is exactly my point--that this offering of which Paul writes is not our offering as we approach the Table, but our offering to make sacrificially when we leave the Table and go into the world. The church, also, as you note, must give itself, “as Jesus did, for the life of the world,” not at the Table; that’s where the church is nourished to go out and be the Body of Christ in the world.

    Where we disagree completely is where you propose a dual action of Offering (gifts in the plate) and Offertory (“the gifts of God for the people of God”), which to me represents a liturgical conflict of interest and of meaning.

    Thanks again for the conversation.

  3. Very interesting dialog. I have been studying recently the placement of the offertory in our services. I have sought ways to bring more reflection to the end of the service, especially those where we do not celebrate Communion. There has been some kickback though from those who have so conditioned to just sing a song and get on with life. Most all worship theology books recommend the offertory toward the end. Any help with providing a framework for this discussion? ( Thanks! Steve


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