Eucharist or Eucharistic?

A few weeks ago, with the start of a new semester (and academic year), I had the students in my Introduction to Christian Worship class fill out 3 x 5 cards with information about themselves so that my teaching assistant and I might know them better. The last question that I asked was, “Why are you in this class”? Besides the obvious, “It’s required for my degree program,” I had two students respond with “So I can learn more about dinner church.”

I must admit that I knew vaguely about “dinner church,” also known as “dinner party church.” To address the students’ interest in some fashion, it was clear that I needed to do some homework. Fortunately, the internet is abuzz with examples of Christian communities around the world engaging in this practice, from St. Lydia’s (affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) in Brooklyn, NY, the generally acknowledged founder of “dinner church” and the newer “waffle church” (http://stlydias.org/worship/), to more recent experiments. In most cases, these meal practices intentionally include the observance of the eucharist.

St. Lydia’s leadership designed the worship-centered meal to imitate what they believed to be early Christian practice. “We bless our meal with the earliest known Eucharistic Prayer called the Didache, drawn from the second century. Our pastor . . . chants the prayer. The congregation sings a response during the blessing, then shares the bread saying, ‘This is my body’” (http://stlydias.org/worship/dinner-church/).

Other dinner churches are more casual. Paul Nixon of The Epicenter Group and author of Weird Church (Pilgrim Press, 2016) notes that in some cases there is only the “subtlety of symbolic act.” He contends that “[i]f there are no words spoken, it isn’t technically Communion for the liturgy police at denominational headquarters—and so it’s legal in every tradition, with or without clergy. And yet the symbols are so powerful, that once we are in on the meanings, how necessary are words? Who is to keep Communion from happening?” (http://epicentergroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/WHAT-IS-DINNER-CHURCH-1.pdf).

Closer to home for me, a United Methodist church plant in Grafton, MA, called “Simple Church,” operates on a dinner church model, though it is looking to expand its offerings with “pancake church” to be intentionally invitation to children and “pizza church” for youth. The church’s leadership, which borrows or rents sites for its gatherings, currently seeks to establish affiliate “Simple” churches that utilize the conceptual and liturgical resources of the Grafton community.

Simple Church defines itself as a “eucharistic community” since its worship is built around the “eucharist ceremony,” which is “intended to be a radically participatory act of thanksgiving where we recognize our unity in Christ and the gift of creation through communal acts of worship, conversation, and eating good locally grown food.” The first part of the eucharistic ritual consists of a brief rehearsal of the “bread” portion of the institution narrative followed by the passing of bread to each person with the words, “This is my body, this is our body.” The action then shifts to the several tables where those in attendance sit to eat bread and hot soup. One of the leaders reads a passage from the Bible and encourages conversation on the scripture reading for the day at each table. Then, after singing together, a leader recounts the “cup” portion of the institution narrative. A cup is passed with the words, “the cup of forgiveness,” and individual glasses are filled. Glasses are raised together in a toast with the word, “Thanks.”

For those of us sympathetic to the “liturgy police,” this may seem less eucharist and more eucharistic, less sacramental meal and more fellowship meal. Undoubtedly, those who lead and participate in dinner church see this as the “real thing.” What do you think?

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12 comments

  1. It would be more instructive, perhaps, if the reconstruction avoided cherry picking from the imagined past, but also included other practices of the early church that would shock us today with their comparative anarchism, communitarianism, rigorism and exclusion.

    Oh, and the factionalism and fighting that came with that.

    Without that, how is this not an exercise in ahistorical sentimentality?

    1. Karl, I appreciate so many of your wise and perceptive comments at Pray Tell. But not this one!

      Cherry picking? I’m all in favor of it. Why would we critique something because it draws on what is perceived to be good, but leaves out the bad parts? Another name for ‘cherry-picking’ would be prudence. Or wise discrimination. Or knowing how to use past history well in being inspired to new forms of worship. Nobody said that because we’re using EP2 we ought to ban women from the sanctuary or make penitents fast for 5 years.

      If there were prideful claims that “we alone have rediscovered the pure, original Gospel, and we alone live like the first Christians,” then there’d be an issue. As it is, they’ve attempted, however haltingly with first steps, to recover what we think was a strong feature of eucharistic worship originally: people sharing a meal around a table.

      I’m not sure how I feel about this practice – I haven’t experienced it or read much about it. And it’s not a liturgical option for us Catholics, obviously. But to those Christians who are trying a new thing in our rapidly changing society, what with the dissolution of Christendom everywhere we look, my first thought is: hats off to you for your efforts.

      And my first word to Karen Westerfield Tucker, whom I’m delighted to have at Pray Tell as a contributor from the Methodist tradition, is: hats off to you for reporting on it and asking us such good questions about what to make of it. And welcome to Pray Tell!

      I think welcoming various voices at Pray Tell and reporting on various Christian practices is an ecumenical mandate.

      awr

      1. Thank you, Fr Ruff. But how does the community discern what the “bad parts” are if they are hidden from them in advance?

        The implications of my comment are more radical than they may appear at first blush. If people are exposed to a less cherry-picked version of history, they may be better to appreciate – for themselved – how and why liturgy developed over history. (This concern is somewhat related to the comments I made around Holy Week about reasons to be more cautious about prudential editing of Scriptural translations.)

      2. I think I am a bit more sympathetic to Liam’s worries. I mean, God bless these meal church folks and I sincerely hope that their worship leads to an increase of faith, hope, and love. But they are the ones making an appeal to antiquity, and I don’t think it is unfair to ask them, “why this (putatively) ancient practice and not others?” Is it really the antiquity of the practice that makes it appealing and gives it legitimacy? Clearly not that alone, since there are plenty of ancient practices that people do not want to revive (women covering their heads, anyone?). By all means, have meal church or pancake church or whatever, but don’t use antiquity to justify it. And I think Anthony’s mention of EPII supports my point. I actually think it is a pretty good Eucharistic Prayer, but not because it is the anaphora of Hippolytus (which, let’s be honest, it isn’t, even though some liturgists tried to sell it to people as such).

      3. Fair enough, Fritz and Liam. Thanks much for this back-and-forth.

        The issues of historical antecedents, historical authenticity, and claims made about such, are important.

        And I suspect for the promoters and participants, the overarching issue is much more immediate and existential: is this a positive, spiritually enriching experience of fellowship, community, union in Christ, awareness of his presence? Issues such as that will play a large role in whether this takes off or not.

        But the analytical questions helpfully posed by Karen still stand: What is this? What do we make of it

        awr

  2. This Lutheran is more than skeptical. In our Lutheran Cursillo weekends we have done an Agape Meal, which uses a liturgy that is clearly not a celebration of The Eucharist. It confuses some of the lay people who come from more “relaxed” parishes where there is much liturgical experimentation, as the Agape includes bread and wine but no Eucharistic Prayer of even the unfortunate Lutheran habit of the “bare Verba”.

    I prefer, obviously, to stay with the altar, the Presider, the Eucharistic Prayer and the community anticipating the joining of heaven and earth at the altar. Does my sentiment reach back to my Roman Catholic upbringing and early formation? Without a doubt. But in this “500th Anniversary of the Reformation”, it is important to recall that Luther was very conservative liturgically, which included retaining Latin for the Ordinary of the Mass. While he was less than specific regarding the Canon of the Mass, todays Eucharistic Prayers (except for the Roman #1, most likely) would have been retained in his German and Latin Masses.

    Yes, the Church has evolved liturgically since 1 Corinthians 11…I prefer the post Vatican II Mass, which is what I use on Sunday morning Eucharist…or pretty close, anyway.

  3. A number of Episcopal churches and campus ministries are doing this across the country. This diocese (Minnesota) is exploring it in a number of avenues. I’m tentatively supportive.

    While the intention is almost always good — full, active, and conscious participation, as well as a hat tip to antiquity — the execution is often lacking. I’ve seen it work well when the chosen eucharistic liturgy draws on some of the ancient eucharistic prayers — say the didache — and is adapted to include a substantial meal. I’ve seen it work poorly when the chosen eucharistic prayer is of some contemporary invention. In that case, I think that Liam’s concerns hold more weight.

    The most compelling argument that I’ve heard to “justify” dinner church (because not all judicatories are willing to stretch this far) is that it’s easier to invite people to a meal than to church. As a verifiable church wonk (and a Rite I person at that), this saddens me, but I think it rings true. Church, for a variety of reasons, has become irrelevant or unresponsive to contemporary society.

    We can argue and bicker (and, knowing PrayTell for several years, we will!) over the merits of the church being relevant or irrelevant, but the bottom line is that dinner church is ONE among — God willing! — MANY avenues for folks to invite their friends, colleagues, neighbors, etc. to an encounter with the living, loving Lord made present in a real and particular way in the Eucharist.

  4. Does dinner church replace the more traditional eucharistic celebrations in a given community, or is it intended to augment them? For instance, is it a situation of “We do dinner church once a month but our traditional Eucharist / communion service takes place on another Sunday”? Or if you are a “dinner church” congregation that’s all you do by way of Eucharist?

    My reaction would vary depending on which is the case. As I understand it, in a considerable number of Protestant churches that do not have weekly Eucharist, there has been a tendency to develop “themed” weekly worship. For example, a Methodist friend of mine makes reference to “messy church” which is a worship service themed around arts and crafts, and is apparently quite popular. The term “children’s church” refers to special children’s services. There is a Reformed Church in my neighborhood that hangs out a banner for “the Happening” (if I am remembering correctly), which is supposed to be a special “not your traditional church service” gathering for families. If “dinner church” is this sort of thing, that’s one thing. If it is intended as a replacement for Eucharist, or presented as simply equivalent to Eucharist, that’s something else.

  5. I would settle for more communal meals, period, without feeling the need to tack the word “church” into it or consciously seeking to wrap it in the trappings of the Eucharist. We manage to attend about four dinner parties a year. I really think they are going the way of the cocktail party or the dodo bird. The next to go: the family meal.

    1. Karen’s post on “dinner church” prompted a discussion between Patrick Prétot OSB, (monk of La-Pierre-qui-Vire and former director of the Institut supérieur de liturgie, Paris, where he continues to teach), Martin Klöckener (professor of Liturgy at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland) and Gilles Drouin (current director if the ISL) and me. With their permission, I have translated parts of our discussion into English as I thought this might be of interest to Pray Tell readers.

      Patrick Prétot:

      In accord with a certain Reformed understanding of the Eucharist as the actualisation of the Last Supper meal, this sort of eucharistic agape can be understood as satisfying a sensitivity and as seeming more “real” than a seemingly foreign rite, one wrapped in the bandages of ritual history. But this sort of practice seems to me to pose grave risks within a Catholic [a term not to be taken here in a narrowly confessional sense] understanding of the Eucharist within the paschal mystery. Despite the progress of ecumenical dialogue and the rediscovery of “memorial” as a theological category (cf. Max Thurian, “L’Eucharistie, Mémorial du Seigneur, sacrifice d’action de grâce et d’intercession”, Neuchâtel, Delachaux et Niestlé, 1959) we have yet to find a common theological language permitting sacrifice and meal to be understood as organically linked It seems me that it is important to understand the Eucharist as a memorial meal, paschal memorial (hence intrinsically linked to the sacrifice of the cross, understood in Pauline terms and not reduced to the historical moment of Calvary), and a sacrificial meal.

      1. Martin Klöckener:

        The Eucharist isn’t authentic when it is conceived as an imitation of the Last Supper (besides, does anyone really know exactly what happened at the Last Supper?); rather, it is authentic when it is an act of the Church within the Tradition of the Last Supper and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

        Gilles Drouin:

        For my part, I prefer to approach the question within a triple framework of “Supper, Cross, Mass” rather than within a double framework, whatever the two terms may be. In this I follow Cesare Giraudo (“In Unum Corpus”, Paris, Le Cerf, 2014), who sees a parallel between the trio “Supper, Cross, Eucharist”, and “Passover, crossing of the Red Sea (Ex 14)” while articulating the Church’s rite with the ritual anticipation of the saving event. I would also add, echoing Martin, within a Tradition borne by the Spirit. This triple structure seems to me to avoid the trap of a confrontation between Eucharist and Cross and between Eucharist and Supper.

  6. Patrick Prétot:

    Of course I agree with what Gilles said about the trio: Supper, Cross, Eucharist. Nonetheless, I am persuaded that the understanding of the category of Memorial (beyond Casel’s theology of the actualisation of the Mysteries) is somehow blocked by the way we tend to imagine time: the category of Memorial is often misunderstood, and perhaps almost impossible for us to understand, in today’s intellectual context.

    Martin Klöckener:

    I would also emphasize that in the trio: Supper, Cross, Eucharist, the term Cross no longer suffices, even though it comes to us via a long theological tradition. “Cross” needs to be replaced by “Paschal Mystery”, that is to say by Christ’s cross and resurrection along with an eschatoloigical dimension already present in the “Verba Christi” according to the Synoptics, and also at the heart of the Mass: “We proclaim your death… and profess your resurrection until you come again”. It is no accident that these words are now at the heart of the Eucharistic celebration.

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