Recovering the Eucharist: How the understanding of the Real Presence impacts perceived value of the Lord's Supper
Author(s)Powell, Wade Alan
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AbstractDoctor of Ministry
Abstract The Lord’s Supper has long held a position of high esteem in doctrinal statements of the United Methodist Church and the Methodist movement. John Wesley advocated for “constant communion,” and expected Band Society members to, “be at church, and at the Lord’s table, every week.” Yet, across the denomination today, despite the official position since 2004 encouraging the weekly celebration of Holy Communion, many do not partake of Holy Communion on a frequent basis. Congregational practices vary, with some celebrating Communion once per month, and others quarterly or even less frequently. While infrequent celebration does not necessarily imply a lower view of Holy Communion, I am interested in discovering the prevailing attitudes and views of today’s United Methodists regarding the Eucharist, with a focus on the Wesleyan understanding of the Christ’s Presence. After The United Methodist Church approved an official interpretive document on baptism, a survey conducted by the General Board of Discipleship concluded that a similar resource for Holy Communion was needed. The result was This Holy Mystery: a comprehensive document adopted in 2004 with the goal of enhancing the appreciation of Holy Communion among United Methodists. The document acknowledges that many United Methodist churches have, “strayed far away from the rich liturgical and sacramental heritage of Christian tradition.” The intention of my research is to identify current “on the ground” understandings and regard for Holy Communion in comparison to a Wesleyan understanding of the Eucharist. It is not enough for the General Conference to issue a document stating what the United Methodist Church believes about Holy Communion. This Holy Mystery is subtitled, “A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion.” And, indeed, this document articulates the doctrinal standards for Holy Communion through an exploration of principle, background, and recommended practice. However, it does not articulate the principles and practices of the people in the pews, which are not always congruent with official doctrinal standards. In order to draw United Methodists into a richer sacramental life in line with our rich Wesleyan heritage, we must understand how they view the sacraments. It is not enough to explore history and official documents; it is also necessary to include human research, interacting with today’s United Methodists. My research will be designed to answer three questions: How do United Methodists understand Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist? How did they come to their beliefs? And, what impact do these beliefs regarding his presence have on the way they value Holy Communion? I believe answering these three questions will be vital in moving toward a Eucharistic renewal in United Methodism. In United Methodism, there seems to be a wide disconnect between contemporary understandings and practices regarding Holy Communion. While I have seen speculative articles and anecdotal accounts of why Methodists may not view Holy Communion as an essential element of worship, I have not uncovered any documented qualitative or quantitative research. If the church is serious about enhancing “appreciation of the sacrament of Holy Communion,” then it is important to understand how Methodists understand the Christ’s Presence, and to develop a better understanding of how that collective understanding has been shaped. In order to determine what United Methodists believe about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, how they came to their beliefs, and how that affects their perception of value in Holy Communion, I conducted an ethnographic study based on qualitative interviewing techniques, and a quantitative survey that served as a comparative backdrop to those interviewed. I found United Methodist have an understanding of Christ’s presence that illuminates their perceived value of Holy Communion, and that their understanding has been shaped primarily by experience.