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Preserving the Place and Practice of Eucharistic Prayer: An Ecumenical Survey of Christian Pastors

What values do pastors of differing Christian traditions share when celebrating Eucharist in sacred spaces?

Introduction: Current Challenges to Eucharistic Place and Piety

For some thirty-five years I have served Roman Catholic parish communities throughout the United States as a liturgical educator, designer and consultant, a tripartite lay ministry, as I see it, inseparable from the responsibilities I carried during most of those years as a professor of theology and fine arts at Gannon University, a diocesan institution located in Erie, Pennsylvania. Working with Catholic pastors and their congregations to improve conditions for the Eucharist in places as far flung as Bethany Beach, Delaware; San Diego, California; Naples, Florida; or Great Falls, Montana, has helped me appreciate how diversified the Church’s prayer is today, one parish to another. It has also made clear just how much remains to be done in the way of catechesis, more than a half-century after the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), to move lay Catholics beyond an elementary connection with eucharistic worship and the architectural settings that support it.

At the outset of my consulting career in the mid-1980s, after all, the aim of anyone in the business of implementing the council’s directives on sacred liturgy was to encourage the typical lay population to adopt a more participatory role in the rites of the Church, especially the Mass, whose spiritual value never lay in doubt. Today, however, amidst a culture increasingly estranged from table rituals of any kind — let alone from speculation on the requirements of the spirit — the challenge to the liturgist lies less in helping committed church-goers modify their accustomed ways of praying than in convincing the marginal or more thoroughly secularized believer of the Eucharist’s enduring significance in the Christian journey. Not only are fewer American Catholics than ever fulfilling their “Sunday obligation” of participation in the Liturgy of the Eucharist,1 but an informal survey of those who generally do reveals the extent to which the shape of their weekends is determined by the allure of activities having little to do with religion. As one pastor with whom I have worked puts it: “Most of my parishioners still do their best to make it to Sunday Mass — but they’re not hung up any longer on missing from time to time in order to make their kids’ soccer tournaments or to skip town entirely to fulfill other plans for the weekend.” The Eucharist, one might argue, no longer holds a place of unique importance in the minds of many American Catholics but stands alongside innumerable other options in a wide array of “Sabbath importances.”

Rev. Gregg D. Townsend says of his congregation, “…there is always an unmistakable connection between sermon and sacrament when we celebrate Communion, a point emphasized by the close proximity in our sanctuary of the pulpit and the Lord’s table.”

My experiences in the service of mainline Protestant congregations confirms that the same holds true for significant numbers of their members, drawn away from traditional, seat-in-the-pew participation in worship on Sunday mornings not only by the persistent distractions of the secular realm but by religious programming of one sort or another transmitted directly into the comfort of their homes by means of television and the internet. Those Protestant communities in which, under varying names and theologies, the Eucharist is held in high regard must likewise contend today with the outflux from their ranks of persons eager to escape denominational affiliation altogether and any form of public piety they deem too strictly “canonical.”2 In this rapidly-evolving scene, ironically enough, the liturgical practices of so-called “high church” Protestants — Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and many Methodists, for example — now bear greater similarity to what prevails on weekends in the average Roman Catholic parish than they do the casual, jeans-and-sneakers way with worship promoted by many independent and Evangelical congregations.

Official Teachings to Inspire and Guide

As a “professional guest” in churches throughout the country, I have been privileged to observe up-close the efforts of those Christian pastors committed to preserving some version of eucharistic worship within their churches, be it known as “the Lord’s Supper,” “the “Lord’s Table” or simply “(Holy) Communion.” The same has held true closer to home, where my long-standing relationships with the pastoral personnel of various faith communities have offered me a unique view on how the Christian minister today can function less as a custodian of some ancient, religious artifact, than as servant and server of a living sacrament established by Christ to render God’s transformative presence accessible to God’s people. As the 2004 General Conference of the United Methodist Church asserted in This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion, an official statement of that denomination’s theology and practice, “[i]n the midst of the personal and systemic brokenness in which we live, “[the Christian Community] yearn[s] for everlasting fellowship with Christ and ultimate fulfillment of the divine plan.” “Nourished by sacramental grace,” the statement continues, “we strive to be formed into the image of Christ and to be made instruments for transformation in the world.”3

The incarnational character of liturgical action is similarly affirmed in The Place Where We Worship, a publication of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America designed to help ordained ministers and their flocks “think more pastorally, theologically and aesthetically”4 about the nature of communal prayer. “We meet God in space and in time,” the publication notes, in a world that is “created good.” God yearns to communicate with God’s creatures, it continues, and does so through the “materials of creation: water, bread, wine, flesh, word.”5 Nearly identical language is employed in the Directory for Worship of the Revised Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which stresses the materiality of the sole sacraments — baptism and the Eucharist — upheld by the Reformed tradition from which it springs. “The Sacraments are both physical signs and spiritual gifts, including words and actions, surrounded by prayer, in the context of the Church’s common worship, the directory notes: They employ ordinary things — the basic elements of water, bread, and wine — in proclaiming the extraordinary love of God.”6

On the matter of whether the sights and sounds associated with the place of one’s communion with God is of any significance, the Very Rev. John P. Downey suggests that “[w]e can say that God is everywhere, but if we don’t encounter God somewhere, we may not find God anywhere.”

The Catechism of the Episcopal Church that complements the 1979 edition of the Book of Common Prayer likewise defines the Church’s sacraments in classical, Augustinian language. They are, the document affirms, “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”7 The Catechism places the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist squarely within the context of corporate worship, an aspect of believers’ lives in which they are encouraged to participate “week by week.”8 Noteworthy is the catechism’s treatment of the sacrificial dimension of eucharistic prayer, which it describes as the means by which the Church’s oblation of praise and thanksgiving to the Father is united with the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ.9 The Roman Catholic faithful, too, are more formally required to participate “on Sundays and holy days of obligation”10 in the celebration of the Eucharist, which they are instructed to regard “the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice.”11 By doing so, the catechism of their own church insists, they share in a communal celebration that is “a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his church.”12 In the decades since Vatican II, many Catholics have come to regard the Eucharist as the “source and summit”13 of the Christian life, an axiom authored by the council and appearing not only in their historic statement on the liturgy, Sacrosanctiam concilium, but in Lumen gentium, the council’s dogmatic constitution on the nature of the Church. Both documents affirm that the Catholics are a eucharistic people — a community unified, nourished and made holy by regular participation in the sacrifice of the Mass — and a dwelling place of God in their own right. It is within their own body assembled for worship that God is tented and entempled, a supernatural reality rightly mirrored by physical settings distinguishable from merely utilitarian structures by their dignity and beauty.14

A View from the Pastor’s Seat

Animated less by the office teachings of their respective churches perhaps, than by a personal love of worship that bears a eucharistic dimension, the pastors of local congregations with whom I have been blessed to maintain longstanding friendships have much to say about the theological and practical challenges facing them today. Rev. Gregg D. Townsend, for example, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in North East, Pennsylvania, the oldest religious congregation in Erie County, is quick to point out that, from a strictly financial perspective, a church building is “a giant albatross around the neck of any faith community.” “It can suck the life out of a community,” he argues, referring to the costly upkeep of an older building, especially. Townsend and his congregants nevertheless share great pride in the 1885 Gothic Revival church where they worship, a structure recognized locally as much for its beauty as for its historical importance. “We don’t do ugly here,” he adds. “Every aspect of a Sunday service is done with care — in particular preaching and music, and there is always an unmistakable connection between sermon and sacrament when we celebrate Communion, a point emphasized by the close proximity in our sanctuary of the pulpit and the Lord’s table.”

Rev. Britney L.V. Knight, Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, which is located in downtown Erie, echoes Townsend’s sentiments concerning the liability that an old and physically imposing building can pose to a congregation, not merely financially but by effectively silencing their voices during worship. “Some of my own congregants allow the church to speak for them,” she notes, referring to the impressive, Neo-Gothic landmark dedicated in 1930 they call home. “Most, though,” she notes, “know that the building is here to serve us and support what we do during our services.” With undergraduate training in both dance and psychology, Knight is keenly aware of the church’s spatial attributes and their emotional effect on visitors of all kinds. “Beautiful spaces change people,” she argues, “which is why we’re committed as an urban church to opening our doors to everyone.” “Presbyterians define worship as the ‘Word preached well and heard, plus the sacraments [of baptism and Communion]’,” she says: “Our bell tower can be seen and heard all over the downtown area, “and it calls people who need to be transformed by grace and beauty to join us for services that are designed with great care.”

Pastor Bill Coleman of Luther Memorial Church in Erie likewise recognizes the sacramental value of the urban place of worship in the Neo-Gothic style that has served his congregation since 1926. “I’m not at all apologetic about our church when people talk about the popularity of the facilities being built [by independent congregations] outside of town,” Coleman insists. “The beauty found in a building like ours is a ‘subconscious trigger’ of an experience of the holy,” he insists. “I think people are longing today for something transcendent,” he adds, “and in worship like ours, where Christ’s presence resides in the ‘Gathered Saints’ as we break open the word, share in the meal and are sent forth, that transcendence comes through as much in our surroundings as in our actions.”

 

 

The Very Rev. John P. Downey, too, who served as dean of Erie’s Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul from 1987 to 2019, embraces both the downtown location and history of his congregation’s building, which, as a “people’s church,”15 he sought to make into a venue for a wide range of cultural and artistic activities. During a series of noontime musical performances open to the public he arranged one recent summer, in fact, Downey himself could be found in the cathedral’s narthex dispensing hotdogs and drinks to guests as they proceeded into the nave. “There are the old concepts of ‘high’ or ‘low’ church,” Downey notes, “but we try to be a ‘broad church’ where sacred and ‘secular’ activities mingle in ways that make the beauty of God’s presence very real to people.” With the help of his wife, Sharon, an accomplished organist and the cathedral’s canon musician, Downey has done much to celebrate the work of African-American composer Harry T. Burliegh (1866-1949), a native son of the cathedral parish well-known for his many spirituals,16 while maintaining through its adult and children’s choir programs the tradition of English choral music. On the matter of whether the sights and sounds associated with the place of one’s communion with God is of any significance, Downey suggests that “[w]e can say that God is everywhere, but if we don’t encounter God somewhere, we may not find God anywhere.”

The “somewhere” of preference for members of Erie’s United Methodist Church is a mid-19th century hall-church that provides an acoustical environment supportive of music and the spoken word. Mr. Bruce Gingrich, pastoral musician and organist for the church, expresses little tolerance for what passes as preaching in many Christian circles today and laments the growing popularity of what has been called “7-eleven” music. “That’s a church song built of seven words that are repeated eleven times,” he explains, “which is nothing like the ‘mini sermons’ that composers like John and Charles Wesley once delivered in their hymns.” Any description by Gingrich of the sanctuary in which he has ministered for twenty years quickly turns to the million-dollar pipe organ manufactured locally17 that fills the room’s forward section and forms a dramatic backdrop for its font, pulpit and table. The immense instrument anchors the presence of Christ residing in the space during a Sunday communion service, which Gingrich describes as a “spiritual, symbolic reality” that transforms the congregation.

 

The transformative power of the Eucharist is something to which Rev. Michael Ferrick, rector of St. Peter Cathedral, the mother church of the Catholic Diocese of Erie, attests. “I’ve seen in my seven years as rector here how our parishioners’ outreach to the poor and hungry throughout the city is directly related to what we do at our altar.” “Every part of our ministry flows from the Eucharist,” Ferrick explains, which is why he, too, makes much of the care and preparation that go into each celebration. Part of this care-taking certainly applies to the 1885, Gothic Revival cathedral building for which he is responsible, one of several hundred Catholic churches throughout the country designed by Brooklyn-based architect Patrick Charles Keeley (1816-96), which is currently in the midst of a multi-million dollar restoration. “The Eucharist must be done beautifully and intentionally — but it’s not a magic show,” Ferrick insists: “We’re not like the people of Jesus’ time who were seeking to be magically saved by eating. In scripture, Jesus talks about the act of believing before he does that of eating — and it’s the decision to believe that is the real key to transformation by means of the Eucharist.”

Conclusions

If this admittedly limited survey of Christian pastors across denominational boundaries suggests anything, it may simply be that commitment to eucharistic worship in its various forms and interpretations persists today, despite the significant challenges posed to it both from within and without the larger Body of Christ. The pastors cited here may well comprise a generation of ministers to whom time and circumstance have handed a “preservationist” role. More than their predecessors, perhaps, their energies must be spent “holding things together” in their respective churches, “patching things up,” and otherwise preserving eucharistic piety and its related artforms, even as changes in both Christian and popular cultures in this country, at least, threaten to diminish them. None seems to underestimate the seriousness of the present dilemma nor to assume that its solution lies in retreating to the past. As a group, instead, they seem to share the attitude articulated by pastor Gregg Townsend, which is that Christians bodies still wed to table rituals they deem salvific must be “invitational.” They must embrace the objective value of word and sacrament, sacred space and sound, “focus on what the Lord is up to [through them],” and invite those hungry for Christ to eat and drink with them in a way that will never disappoint (John 6:35).

Notes

1 Gallup poling from 2014 to 2017 determined that only 39% of Catholics in the United States reported attending church on a weekly basis. This is down from an average of 45% from roughly a decade earlier and some 36% from 1955, when three-quarters of Catholics identified as regular church-goers. (See,https://news.gallup.com/poll/232226/church-attendance-among-catholics-resumes-downward-slide.aspx)

2 2015 Data from the Pew Research Center reveal that “Mainline Protestants have declined at a faster rate than any other major Christian group, including Catholics and evangelical Protestants, and as a result also are shrinking as a share of all Protestants and Christians.” (See, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/18/mainline-protestants-make-up-shrinking-number-of-u-s-adults/)

3 General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church, This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion (2004) 9.

4 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Place Where We Worship (rev.ed., 2010) 6.

5 Op. cit., 8.

6 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Presbyterian Mission, Directory for Worship (2016) W-3.0401

7 The Episcopal Church, 1979 Book of Common Prayer (Church Publishing, Inc., 2007) 857.

8 Op. cit., 856.

9 Op. cit., 859.

10 Code of Canon Law, 1247 (https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_INDEX.HTM)

11 Op. cit., 2181.

12 Op. cit., 2182.

13 See, Sacrosanctum concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) 10 (http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html); Lumen gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) 11 (http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html).

14 Sacrosanctum concilium, 122.

15 See the dean’s development of the Episcopal cathedral-building tradition in the United States in Downey, J. P., “The Smaller Cathedral in the Episcopal Church: A Place of Loss and Hope” (Anglican Theological Review, 100.4), 785-901

16 Among Burleigh’s better-known works for ecclesiastical use is the hymn, “In Christ There Is No East Or West” (1939), the melody of which is derived from a Negro spiritual.

17 The instrument was built by Phelps and Associates in 1975, one of several dozen pipe organ manufacturers in Erie that gained the city an international reputation within the industry that persists today. See Fischer, P. E. (2015). Making Music: The History of the Organ and Piano Industries in Erie, Pennsylvania, 1871-2013. Erie, PA: Paul E. Fischer.

 


About Michael E. DeSanctis

Michael E. DeSanctis is Professor of Fine Arts and Theology at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, as well as the director of its honors program. He serves as a design consultant to Catholic parishes involved in the construction or renovation of places of worship and has written for a number of publications, including Emmanuel.