‘Mission’ is everywhere in contemporary mainline churches, not least the Uniting Church and not least because changes in the fortunes of the church have seen us turn to the question of mission with renewed vigour. Projects such as our Synod’s Major Strategic Review spring directly out of such concerns.
As we watch the Synod respond to this renewed call in response to the findings of the MSR, I propose a complementary mission ‘strategy’.
Ministering in congregations which celebrate the Eucharist (Holy Communion) in their principal Sunday worship service has pushed me to consider more deeply what the sacrament is about and, then, to consider the question of the frequency of celebration in relation to our nature and efforts as church. My conclusion is that moving towards the weekly Eucharist as the typical rather than exceptional practice in the UCA would make us more faithful, bring individual worshippers and the whole church closer to God and, just so, strengthen our mission.
The frequency of celebration, in fact, is not quite the point. The pressing issue is the same whether we receive daily, monthly or quarterly. The issue is what it is the Eucharist brings and, if it brings anything which matters, why we are satisfied to receive that blessing only monthly or quarterly when in most faith communities weekly reception would be entirely feasible. Why do we typically separate Word and Sacrament in this way?
This separation is largely an historical accident but it has developed into a theological and ecclesiological model, and a distorting one at that. Asking about the nature of the Eucharist and its relationship to weekly proclamation of the Word is a very concrete way of pressing into heart-of-the-faith questions: creation, incarnation, reconciliation, church and mission. Do we not desperately need this?
The Uniting Church would only be stronger if it even seriously considered, let alone moved, to a weekly Eucharist and grew into a deeper understanding of the nature of the gift Christ has given the church in this sacrament.
We have had difficulty conducting theological conversations in the Uniting Church which do not quickly descend into religious truisms or slanging matches. We are starving for want of good theological reflection. The nature of the Eucharist is something we might be able to talk about because any change in frequency of celebration would push nearly all of us in the same direction and so be a journey of common discovery, which cannot be said of most other things we debate.
What has this to do with strategy and mission in the church’s troubled times?
The strategy here is asking whether there is more to know about who we are and what God has given us in Jesus, on the understanding that the better we know this the more useful we will be for God’s work in the world. More specifically, it is asking whether the Eucharist itself can teach us such things, as most of the church has believed since the institution of the sacrament, and how much of that teaching we need.
The obvious problems such a shift would create – the communion preparation roster, the problem of available celebrants, the length of services, and so forth – ought not to distract us at the outset; if it matters enough, these will be overcome.
This may seem to be an immensely impractical proposal in the face of shrinking membership, crumbling buildings, the need for risk mitigation and so on. But when these matters are separated from the faith and worship of the church, we are lost.
When gathered worship as the Body of Christ always means eating together (so to speak), we begin to realise that a body depends on being fed, and that we can trust Jesus that he will not fail to provide himself for us every time we eat this bread and drink this cup. Placing Communion at the heart of our weekly worship, by receiving it every week, is a sign that salvation is ultimately nothing more than opening one’s hands to the ‘grace upon grace’ that God offers to all out of his fullness.
This daily bread on which we depend is not for our own sake, but rather is a gift that turns each of us into a gift to the other and to the world God loves.
Here is worship, here is mission. If our worship and mission is about experiencing and presenting Jesus to the world as God’s love for all, ought we not assume that Jesus was serious when he instructed, “Do this for the realising of me”? The more Jesus is so realised within the life of the church, the clearer and more convincing our evangelism and service will be.
Rev Dr Craig Thompson
[Postscript] A small group of congregations have already undertaken to experiment with a weekly Eucharist in their regular Sunday services in 2018. For more information go to www.dothis.unitingchurch.org.au.