Suggestions for Presiding at the Eucharist

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Developing a style for presiding at the Table of the Lord involves being aware of both the holiness of the Sacrament and its central importance for the life, mission, and ministry of the Church. As the principle means of grace through which the Real Presence of Jesus is transmitted to the believer, the value of the Eucharist in the worship of the people of God cannot be exaggerated. Protestants often have a problem with the analogy, however if the Bible is the Word of God written in the words of human beings — and it is — then the Eucharist is the material manifestation of the Word of God "written" in the types of bread and wine. This means that the celebration of Holy Communion is as important as any other aspect of Christian worship, even preaching.

For nearly 30 years United Methodists have affirmed the importance of the Eucharist by pairing the Word and the Table together in their normative pattern for worship: The Word and Table services as found in the Hymnal and the Book of Worship. Hence, the blessed sacrament demands attention on the part of the presiding minister; it calls for careful preparation and a serious appreciation for its proper administration. This is true for all those who preside at the Table, not just those who minister in the United Methodist tradition. All clergy should take care to ensure that the sacrament is never cavalierly administered and that its meaning and place within the spiritual life of all believers is clearly proclaimed.
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Regardless of liturgical style, or lack thereof, how one presides at the sacrament should reflect the sacred character of the moment. Inattention at the Table, impatience and a lack of familiarity with the liturgy, rejection of the theology of the sacrament or its frequent practice in the life of the church, should have no place in its celebration. When Christians gather for Holy Communion, we are engaged in participating in a foretaste of "The Marriage Supper of the Lamb." It is the principle means of grace through which we are fed with the "bread of heaven" — the immediate real presence of Jesus Christ, our Lord. It is among the most significant moral acts of the church because it breaks down the sinful barriers which we have erected between ourselves and between us and God. When we approach the administration of this sacred meal without a sober and intentional attitude, we are guilty of the sin the Apostle Paul warns us of in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29:

"Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves."

Addressing these issues is the purpose for the suggestions and principles offered here. We'll begin with a list of the "Do's and Don'ts," followed by a few words of commentary. On other pages we'll examine my own celebration style, and we'll also look at alternatives and suggestions for presiding in non-traditional settings.

Keep in mind that these are general suggestions; they should be helpful in the development of any meaningful celebration style. Specifics will come later.
Some Do's
  • Be intentional in every written or spoken word.
  • Be consistent and deliberate in all actions (hand-motions, bows, nods, etc).
  • Be open to expanding your style of presiding beyond that to which you are accustomed.
  • Be familiar with the words of the liturgy being used.
  • Be open to adapting the liturgy to the themes of the liturgical season or of the day.
  • Be comfortable with your denomination's theology of the Eucharist.
  • Be comfortable with your own theology of the Eucharist.
  • Be comfortable with your role as the presiding minister.
  • Give consideration to adopting the sign of the cross for use in the liturgy.
  • Make your celebration authentically your own.

Some Don'ts
  • Don't be sloppy with any aspect of the celebration.
  • Don't be hasty in speech or action.
  • Don't depart from the liturgy being used.
  • Don't be overly complex or elaborate.
  • Don't ignore the past-experience of your congregation.
  • Don't be afraid of innovation within limits.
  • Don't be overly emotional when presiding.
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When developing a celebration style, always be true to your theological and spiritual self-understanding. This cannot be stressed enough: anything that seems or is fake or inauthentic to you will be perceived as-such by your congregation. For instance, if you're uncomfortable with making the sign of the cross, your discomfort will be communicated to those participating in the service. Conversely, if you are comfortable with crossing yourself, the elements, or the congregation, the people will sense the spiritual depth of your practice and will become more comfortable with it, themselves. Likewise, if you're comfortable with kneeling or bowing following the Words of Institution (during the said or sung "Christ has died ...") then feel free to do so. However, if it doesn't "feel like you" to reverence the elements in this way, then don't do it — the congregation will perceive it as being an empty ritual. Regardless of the hand motions and postures you may want to adopt, be intentional and purposeful when celebrating the Eucharist and your congregation will appreciate it.

And, finally, I want to say something more about making the sign of the cross. Many believe that this is exclusively a Roman Catholic practice, however making the sign of the cross has been common among Episcopalians for many years, and is becoming more and more common among many Methodists. If you're considering adopting the sign of the cross in your own eucharistic celebration, but are concerned about its appropriateness in a Methodist service, begin by making the sign only over the elements during the prayer of consecration. You may also want to sign the congregation immediately following the elements, thus symbolizing a connection between the two. The argument in favor of this practice is that we are "remembering his death" in this sacramental meal, and the sign of the cross is a visible and physical indicator of the means of his death. After you are comfortable making the sign of the cross in this context, you may find it more comfortable to make the sign at other points in the service — as in at any time one is offering a prayer of benediction or absolution and applying the Trinitarian formula: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

With these two points of advice, we will next turn to Tutorial for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist.