Report from the CPCE’s 2nd Liturgical Consultation: “Glass doors instead of wooden planks”

And: God does not require sacrifice

“Given for you – and what does this mean for us?” was the heading for the CPCE’s Second Liturgical Consultation, which took place in Vienna from 9 to 11 November. This addresses a fundamental tenet of the Leuenberg Agreement (1973) that church communion manifests itself in worship and table fellowship. Besides discussing the theology of the Eucharist, the fifty experts in liturgy and church music from 15 European countries and 28 churches also celebrated Holy Communion and worshipped together. This topic reflected the wish of those who attended the First Liturgy Consultation (Hildesheim, 2014) and discussions focused on both celebration and practical aspects.

The date of the Consultation coincided with Remembrance Day for the Reich’s Night of Pogroms (9th November) as well as the announcement of the U.S. Presidential election results and the first anniversary of the terror attacks in Paris, including the assault on the city’s Bataclan concert hall. It proved impossible to banish thoughts of difficult situations and developments whilst celebrating the Eucharist. But moreover, the participants found hope in this act. They felt the diversity of the different Holy Communion liturgies presented to the group provides great theological enrichment. At the same time, however, they also experienced that we are one body in Christ, as sustained by the Gospel. The confessional, regional and linguistic diversity of the Consultation participants turned out to be extremely fruitful in this respect.

Professor emeritus Wilfried Härle spoke about the relationship between Holy Communion and sacrifice (the death of Christ) and sought to build a bridge with the current-day (secular-influenced) interpretation, in particular. Are we all really such awful sinners? Does God want, even require, sacrifice? And who actually sacrifices what and to whom? Questions asked from outside about celebrating the Holy Communion and regarding the use of the “proper” chalices need clarifying on a case-by-case basis, and any concerns need taking seriously. God’s unconditional devotion to humankind expressed through Jesus Christ is supposed to lie at the heart of celebrating Holy Communion – the message being that God reconciles us, not we him. This grants us salvation.

Current practical issues were worked on in workshops: Why are children also automatically invited to the Holy Communion table, and how can we succeed in communicating the essence of Holy Communion to them? How do we make the words of celebration we use both understandable and poetic? Where do formats need rejuvenating and streamlining? It became very clear that, throughout all the diversity, the distinct and recognisable element of Holy Communion lies in the words of institution. They promise that God is unequivocally there for us.

Other questions included: Can we really reach all people in Holy Communion? How can we combine openness with theological responsibility? What do we mean with “God invites everyone”? Who is “everyone” – all those who have been confirmed, all who have been baptised, or simply everyone? Do people need to have been baptised or taught, or is the simple desire to take part “enough”? The question of closely linking the act of confession with Holy Communion was touched upon in the knowledge that many Protestant congregations highly value this concurrence. However, it was agreed that Holy Communion provides an immense wealth of theological facets and thus focusing on the issue of fault and the forgiveness of sins is not the only perspective.

The terms “celebration” and “feast” were also discussed, but it transpired that the atmosphere unique to Holy Communion, independent from the subject of worship, is often felt to be sombre. “The entire tone is that of Good Friday,” said one participant, although reference could be also be made to Emmaus and not just the last supper. This was just one of the points where music was also discussed. It was considered essential to broaden the stock of songs to include popular paschal renditions. The freshly published “Freitöne” (Ringtones) song book was used at the Consultation and in the services of worship. But participants also brought along songs from their home churches and countries (many already available in a number of languages).

New Testament scholar Luzia Sutter Rehmann from Switzerland took everyone on a Biblical journey and used tales of feasts to demonstrate that the time Jesus spent on Earth, in fact the entire first century, was an era of scarcity and famine, or, as Rehmann herself summed it up, “a permanent post-war era”. Uprisings and maladministration under the Herodians and Romans and the distinct ambivalence of rulers to the living conditions of the population meant that many people’s lives revolved around the basic search for food. Rehmann called for participants to “not ignore bodily needs!” with regard to Holy Communion. Physical hunger and sharing your provisions need to be seriously considered. To cut straight to spiritualisation and food for the soul would be mistaken. She pointed out that sharing food together is an intrinsic life experience and that, conversely, anyone unable to “earn a crust” had to leave the town and country in order to head off in search.

What did we get to take home from a Consultation on “Holy Communion”, other, of course, than intense personal experiences and many new contacts?

The burning question of opening Holy Communion is a major challenge for the churches to face.  In this respect, it can be useful to start with church interiors and architecture. The delegate from Scotland said, “Where I come from, one congregation after another is removing the centuries-old, heavy wooden church doors and installing glass doors that let people see inside the church.” All congregations that have taken this step report better attendance at worship. The Danish delegates would like to both continue work on a new agenda and translate as many new songs as possible into their language. The Waldensians in Italy desperately need a new stock of songs because, as their delegate said, “After all, we also preach in a different language from that used 100 or 200 years ago”. The wide range of plans for continuing work culminated in prayers at the end of the Consultation for the strength to carry out the work ahead, which were sealed with the valedictory blessing (delivered by the CPCE’s Liturgy Officer, Prof. Jochen Arnold).

The CPCE’s Third Liturgical Consultation (which will not be held before 2019 due to the anniversary of the Reformation and the General Assembly in 2018) could reflect current social developments. The group cited key topics such as liturgies in the publish arena and (pluralist) religious developments in Europe. “Paris” was the geographical focus that spontaneously emerged with regard to many current issues.

And so what does Holy Communion really mean for us? The provocative nature of this opening question certainly prompted reflection during the Consultation. One delegate responded that she still always heard the “you” in Holy Communion throughout all the diverse range of issues and the different practices in the individual churches. She observed that Christ transcends every one of us alone, and “the greater the diversity, the more this means for us.”

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