United Methodists are hungry for a better understanding and a richer experience of Holy Communion than what is practiced in their churches.
That's the finding of a study committee that, for the past four years, has been working to clarify United Methodist Holy Communion tradition, theology and practice to give the denomination a positive vision of what the sacrament can be in local churches.
The result of the committee's work is a document called "This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion," which was discussed during the Jan. 29-31 Pre-General Conference News Briefing in Pittsburgh, sponsored by United Methodist Communications.
Delegates attending the 2004 General Conference - the denomination's top legislative body which meets April 27-May 7 - will be asked to approve the "Holy Mystery" document as the official interpretive statement of the theology and practice of Holy Communion in the denomination. The document is also intended to help the church be in accord with ecumenical movements in sacramental theology and practice.
In addition, the delegates will be asked to approve a resolution requesting that teaching resources be developed to give individuals clear guidance in relationship to the Lord's Supper and that churchwide agencies provide print and electronic resources for United Methodists learning their way into vital Eucharistic celebration.
The resolution encourages the 2004 General Conference to commend to the United Methodist Church the principles, background and practices in "The Holy Mystery" for interpretation and use of the services of Word and Table found in the United Methodist Hymnal and the United Methodist Book of Worship.
One of the most important components in the interpretive report is the section on grace and the means of grace, according to the Rev. Gayle C. Felton, the author of the Holy Communion document.
United Methodists have always talked a great deal about grace, but its meaning may not be clear, especially to those who are most active in the church, she pointed out.
Felton said the document's portion on grace clarifies the church's Wesleyan tradition and specifies how the sacraments can be best understood as a special but not exclusive means of grace.
One of the difficulties, according to Felton, is that the sacrament has been emphasized less by the church, even though it is part of the Wesleyan heritage. She noted that John Wesley was both an Anglican priest and a street corner evangelist, adding that "these two aspects of Wesley are the two authentic aspects of United Methodism."
What do United Methodists want from Holy Communion? According to information from lay people across the church, they want more than they are receiving. Pastors need to be better educated in sacramental theology and practice, and church leaders must hold pastors accountable for their sacramental theology, practice and teaching, according to Felton.
Frequency of communion also is considered. "United Methodist congregations are encouraged to move toward a richer sacramental life, including weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper at the services on the Lord's Day," states the "Holy Mystery" report. It also notes that Holy Communion can be appropriately celebrated on other occasions in the life of the church, from the congregation to the denominational.
The document addresses a controversy across the denomination about who is welcome at the table or to whom is the invitation given: Is Holy Communion only for the baptized or is it open to everyone? Who is worthy to receive it?
"Any person who answers in faith the invitation, 'Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another,' is worthy through Christ to partake of Holy Communion," the study says.
Concerns about unworthiness are based largely on misinterpretation and false fears. "Within the United Methodist tradition, people who participate in the sacrament are assured of the forgiveness of their sins and of pardon through their participation in the Invitation and the Confession and Pardon," the document states.
The document asserts that the table is open to all who would partake of the sacrament and calls on pastors and other church leaders to alleviate the fears and worthiness concerns through counseling, teaching and prayers for healing.
"This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion" is available for study and download at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship's Web site at www.gbod.org/legislation/hcfinal2.pdf.
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn. UMNS is a unit of United Methodist Communications. News media can contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].