On Mennonites and the Eucharist

In anticipation of fall semester I have done some reflection on theological tendencies of students at the small liberal arts University I attend. This is what I have noticed:

Fatigue and Complaint:
I don’t exactly know when this shift began, but increasing amounts of students have expressed their fatigue with the lack of “high church” elements in much of Protestant or especially Anabaptist/Mennonite worship. This has resulted in two main courses of action: a) an increasing number of CMU (Canadian Mennonite University) students have begun to regularly attend urban churches (St. Benedict’s Table and St. Margaret’s are popular. And they are fine churches; I don’t want to categorize them as “post-modern” or “alternative” or “emerging church.” That wouldn’t be fair or accurate) with a more local, intimate, community atmosphere and congregation, as well as more authentic(I also have trouble with the authenticity argument here, but I wont go into that in this post) worship (the Eucharist, and Taize influenced music and singing, are among the highlights).  And b) an increase in intentionally ecumenical  theological reading (theologians such as William Cavanaugh, Rowan Williams, John Milbank & Co. are prominent). Or, perhaps it is this ecumenical reading which has spurred students to reflect and act on the apparent lack of the sacred, the authentic, the sacramental practices in their Anabaptist/Mennonite traditions.

Ecumenicism, Anabaptism, and False Conclusions:
I praise the educationally ecumenical pursuits of the Faculty at CMU, and the ab0ve expression of fatigue is real. However, I think that calling Anglican forms of worship, for example, more authentic than Mennonite ones is not actually true. The problem with the complaint is this: that high church denominations have rituals in which one’s whole body performs and participates in and receives the sacrament. While Mennonites take communion, the ritual is often criticized to be funeral-esque and theologically bland. It is not viewed as a performance or an act. While this might be a common reality, it is not necessarily the way it seems. That is, it does not represent the Anabaptist theology of communion. And that is what is really at stake here. (Not that Anglican worship is full of Eucharistic theology and Anabaptism is not. That is not the proper question. Rather, what is a Mennonite theology of communion?! And what is it’s modus operandi?!) On that note, I want to share a significant story that a professor of mine (Harry Huebner) shared with a class. He writes:

“We were sitting around the dunner table with the meal fully prepared and waiting for Father. But he did not come. I knew that he was sitting in the car talking to someone from church. 12 year olds are impatient especially at meal time and so I pushed Mother to let us eat. She said we should wait. Then I asked her what was so important to talk about that Father would make us wait for dinner. She said, “There’s communion on Sunday.” Full stop! And I knew immediately what that meant. For communion was a concrete right-making act. In other words, two grown men and God were at work in that car, healing what was broken. And impatient hungry boys better not mess with that! This had never been explained to me in any formal way, but I had learned from observation that communion was a three-week event when God was effectively at work at community-building through the liturgy of the church.”

A mere generation ago (and still in some congregations today this is still practiced) communion in the Mennonite church was a practice, a participation between people of making things right before God through. In receiving the reconciliatory power of Christ this was possible. Communion, being practiced 4 times annually (in the majority of Mennonite Church Manitoba churches today) was announced several weeks in advance and the congregation was thus sent on a journey of confession between brothers and sisters in Christ which during the actual communion service later on took them to the last supper table, and foot of the cross itself, where the body of Christ is remembered and received, binding the reconciliation done on earth in heaven also.

My problem, therefore, is certainly not with students attending myriad denominations but rather the basis on which they often do so. What the fatigue with Mennonite worship (at least in Manitoba) and the lament of the lack of the sacred call for is a remembering of various Anabaptist/Mennonite traditions. And considering that perhaps the way things are isn’t the way things have always been…
Winnipeg Mennonite Liturgical Church is an interesting response to this fatigue and they express the called for pursuit well, I think, when they write: “We are rooted in church history and liturgy and are open to learning from other Christian traditions while understanding ourselves as Anabaptist.”


8 comments on “On Mennonites and the Eucharist

  1. Michael says:

    This is very helpful, and hits close to home. Thanks!

  2. jonathan says:

    This brings to a head the various reasons why I began attending an Anglican church (St. Margaret’s, by the way). I did so before CMU, however, I felt that the sort of theology I studied at CMU was best expressed in a style of worship that was less focused on the congregants.

    Yes, bodily performance is a crucial feature of Anglican liturgy, but what I find especially enriching about it is that (1) liturgy is highly repetitive, and thus performative (indeed, from what I’ve heard this is the problem for most young people who’ve grown up in a high church setting); and (2) that it’s tied to a tradition that, no matter what my particular subjective bent, incorporates me (and not vice versa!). Basically, what I’m interested in is a style of corporate worship that doesn’t see itself beyond the ritual of reciting the creeds. Though I identify with the Mennonite church on a number of levels, I’ve yet to participate in a Mennonite worship service that actually utilizes the creeds on a regular basis.

    Furthermore, as significant as it is to recognize the reasons why communion is so seldom celebrated in the Mennonite church, I’m not sure such reasons hold anymore. Part of the reason Mennonites traditionally held the Eucharist so infrequently was that it took so long for them to visit one another, and that their community-centred ethos wouldn’t allow for anything less than total communion. I remember this point being made in a theology course with Harry Huebner.

    In the end, I suppose I am also excited by the possibility of a hybrid between sacramental/liturgical practices of the Anglican church and the community focus/social gospel of the Mennonite church. I have a feeling I’m not alone.

  3. Kampen says:

    Thanks for your engagement with this. I felt a little out of line with some of my comments considering I haven’t actually ever attended St.Margaret’s but I have a number of close friends who attend and we’ve had significant discussions.

    The point you make about total communion is an interesting one and one that I’ve been thinking about also. I know that communion at the congregation of which I am a member will take place sometime in early September. As an experiment I have been spending the past few weeks trying to identify people I know I am in conflict with and formally offering them a very intentional apology for the ways I can identify that I have contributed to the conflict and hurt them. I’ve chosen to limit myself to e-mail as the means of communication for various reasons. It’s been very interesting. Some have responded with confused, surprised, and grateful replies, and from others I haven’t heard. I don’t have any particular expectations for what this will accomplish other than that it’s an exercise of confession. Obviously I can’t guarantee a total transformation of conflict and reconciliation with the other. But that’s not the point. Which brings me back to this idea of total communion. This isn’t something a congregant can achieve by his/her own resources, and so, the question comes up “What happens during the communal receiving of the Eucharist when (not if, but when) I am not fully reconciled with a brother or sister? Do I receive the bread and the wine?” At first my answer was no, then I eat and drink judgment against myself. But after several weeks of this confession business my answer is mostly yes, but it’s a very intentionally ambiguous yes because it’s a decision I can’t make until the moment that I am offered the bread and the wine in remembrance of Christ. I cannot fathom how I should, in the moment of Christ’s sacrifice, reject Christ’s invitation, Christ’s offer, because I do proclaim Christ as Lord. And the bread and wine are offered to me in spite of the lack of reconcilatory work I could accomplish, at which moment, of receiving the Eucharist, (in good Cavanaugh theology) we are re-membered as the body of Christ, the church, we are reconciled with our Lord.
    So, total communion? I can only understand it as something we receive from God as the foretaste of the Kingdom already but not yet fully here, and not something that we somehow achieve prior to the communal Eucharist act/event.

    I’m also excited for the interesting conversations going on on much of the fringes of various denominations, with each other. Some people fear the growing trend of hybrid denominations but I have never seen any theological reason for denominational preservation. It would not be tragic if “the Mennonites” one day disappeared. *gasp* Harry said something along that line in a class at CMU’s new Canadian School of Peacebuilding and for several of the MCC/MCM/MCCan. administrators taking part in it this was hard to swallow, not to mention digest.

    • Andy J. Funk says:

      To share a powerful experience I had: I attended an MB church with my parents, and I was doing all sorts of partying and not really living the way a Christian ought to. My parents knew this. One Sunday I joined them at church and my parents and I had been experiences quite a bit of tension at home for a while before. Anyway, I didn’t realize we were having communion that day, so as the elements were being passed around, I waited with fear and trembling (literally), because I knew I was NOT right with my parents, and therefore with God. I had internally made up my mind that I would pass the plate to the next guy beside me after my father took it. As my dad took the plate, he turned to me, put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Andy, I bless you”. I took the bread, drank the wine, and sobbed like a little baby. That memory is seared into my brain. There is a power present in the ritual, to be sure. However, Christ expects the sick and broken to visit his hospital, and there we find nourishment and healing. This is just one more story to throw in the mix. Maybe we focus too much on the “one proper” mode of action, or form of worship. They are not so clearly defined as we might wish them to be.

  4. jonathan says:

    Obviously, I shouldn’t have called it “total communion.” What I meant was that all members of a particular church body were involved in tangible reconciliation as necessary part of the eucharistic ritual, which is not finally reducible to individuals or to mere social/cultural practice. In the case of my post, my choice of words was little more than a rhetorical flourish. Although in the eyes of some, there certainly is a caricature of Mennonites as a people for whom this kind of piety (keeping the church “without spot or wrinkle”) is one of our major flaws.

    I appreciate the closing comment re: denominationalism and ecumenism. I too have little anxiety over the future of the Mennonite denomination (or any denomination for that matter). I only really have a problem with NEW denominations.

  5. Tony Hunt says:

    What a very interesting and worthwhile conversation to have. As the son of an Assemblies of God pastor, and as one what has been confirmed into the Episcopal Church, I can resonate with these concerns on many different levels.

    Pertaining specifically to the discussion on the Eucharist, I would point out that Anglicanism has in its tradition the tools necessary to live out something like the Mennonite emphasis on congregational reconciliation. For instance the 1662 BCP has exhortations written into the Eucharistic liturgy meant to be used when Communion was to be held on the coming Sunday. It was intended to encourage reconciliation and discourage Eucharistic sharing when not reconciled.

    Unfortunately, in North America anyway, we Anglicans, being as we are in the last grips of liberal protestantism, are not very good at practicing “Eucharistic discipline.” I know many parishes and even cathedrals that will let anyone, regardless of religion or baptism, to the holy table. We need greatly to re-appropriate the practice of eucharistic discipline and Mennonites are right to emphasize this aspect of “Communion.”

    My question is this – and it is a genuine question because I know next to nothing about the Mennonite tradition: Does the Mennonite tradition contain the resources to practice a more (for lack of a better word) ‘liturgical’ or ‘sacramental’ Eucharistic act? Could one, like you Kampen, compose something like a Mennonite Eucharistic rite for use in churches where there is an increasing desire for liturgical ceremony?

  6. Kampen says:

    To answer your first question, an Anabaptist Prayer Book for ordinary time was published in 2007 by Institute for Mennonite Studies and Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN. That is the most formal liturgical resource currently circulating in the Mennonite Church USA/Can. (in theory at least…I have yet to see it used during a worship service. Word has it they’re also working on a seasonal one). But specifically for a more sacramental Eucharist act, there isn’t really anything, although Winnipeg Mennonite Liturgical Church is doing all kinds of interesting things in the development of rituals, sacraments, and liturgies. But I don’t think they’re writing anything.
    That brings me to your second question, to which my response is: Yikes. I suspected this blog would one day bring me trouble! Um, that’s a fairly heavy task you’re challenging me with but definitely one that I think I’ve already committed myself to in some ways. So, my short and ambiguous answer is yes. There definitely are resources in the Mennonite tradition. Myself, along with some friends of mine, have been working out particulars for our vision of a Winnipeg Mennonite Monastery (which I think you’ll be particularly interested in). We have a rough draft of a sacraments document which we’ll hopefully articulate more so I can put something comprehensible up here on the blog. I’ll be paying particular attention to the Eucharist section and see if we can’t come up with a Mennonite Eucharistic rite (though I suspect few in the churches would understand that language, but that’s flexible). Thanks for pushing me on this!

  7. I find one of the possible connective threads in this high/low conversation could be Cavanaugh -(Tripp) Tork – Yoder. This is something that continues to simmer (and at times boils) on my back burner. As a Mennonite pastor my experience has been that most people are not quite sure what the hell we are doing in communion only that it should be important and that it ‘connects’ us. I have no idea what my new church’s tradition on this will be but hopefully I will post on my ongoing experience and engagement.
    Thanks for bringing this back on the radar for me. Now that I am in Winnipeg it would be great to find a larger forum for these issues . . . I am looking forward to it.
    I have used the Anabaptist Prayer Book in worship settings and I have found it quite meaningful. The Lent/Advent edition was available free online for awhile but I am not sure about the link.

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