Saturday, September 10, 2016

When In Rome: Or, How I Broke Taking Communion With Than 100 Other Scottish Churchgoers

One of the oddities of the sacrament of holy communion (or the Lord's Supper or Eucharist, if you prefer) is that even though it is a near-universal ritual in Christianity, it is done just a tad bit differently from congregation to congregation. Some churches, like mine, celebrate holy communion every single Sunday without fail. Others will only celebrate it monthly or quarterly. At some churches, you come forward to receive communion. In others, it is brought to you at your seat.

And in some congregations, you have the little individual thimble-like cups of wine or juice, and in others there is one common cup from which everybody shares. And then, you either dip your bread (or wafer--another difference!) into the cup, or you eat the bread and then drink directly from the cup.

I have always been a bit of a germophobe, so that last method of taking communion has never appealed to me, not even a little. I would almost rather forego taking communion altogether than have to slurp from the same small bit of rim that dozens of other mouths have drank from. We're trying to share faith together, not the flu, you know?

While in Scotland, C and I went to Sunday worship at St. Giles Cathedral in the heart of Edinburgh (that's one of the pictures I took of it on the left), the veritable birthplace of Scottish Presbyterianism (and, since my denomination, the Disciples of Christ, were founded by Scottish Presbyterians, it is my spiritual grandparent of a sort). There was a choir, a sermon, an offering, and then it came time for communion. Row by row, the entire congregation arose to make a circle around the central table. Bread was passed. We were to tear off a piece and eat it.

But then I saw how the wine was being passed. Everyone drank from it without even a token wipe of the rim with a cloth. Mononucleosis ahoy!

So rather than eating the bread, I slid it into my other hand and waited for the cup to eventually arrive to me, where, in full view of God, the pastor, and a particularly dour-looking deacon (whose first name C and I think may be, in fact, "Deacon") scowling, I dipped my piece of Wonderbread into the cup and chomped away.

As a general rule, far be it for me to want to change something about how a sacrament is partaken of. There is something holy and sacred not only in the sacrament itself but in upholding the "When in Rome" ethos of demonstrating humbleness for another congregation's own tradition--especially a tradition as rich as that of St. Giles.

But the other side of that avenue is explaining to visitors what your traditions are--how and why they are done. St. Giles does that in part with their bulletin--explaining in a line on the back that their communion table is open to all. An explanation of how communion is taken, though, is likewise appreciated by a first-time visitor.

That perspective of a first-time visitor, though, is one that is quickly lost within the church. We get so used to how everything is done at our home congregation that we take for granted how someone comes to us on a Sunday morning as a complete blank slate and needs to be told everything as basic as where the bathrooms are to whether you say "debts," "trespasses" or "sins" in the Lord's Prayer.

When in Rome, it's not enough to simply do what the Romans do. You need to know what the Romans do, and, more importantly, *why* they do it the way they do.

Don't take for granted that everyone will pick up exactly on the unwritten rules, expectations, and mores of your congregation--and don't think that your congregation doesn't have any. I'm using a relatively trivial story (C and I otherwise had a perfectly lovely time at St. Giles and felt utterly welcome there) to make a serious point--sometimes, these instances are not so trivial. Someone feels so confused or unwelcome that they fear they could not possibly fit into your church when, in fact, it would be a great spiritual home for them.

So they decide not to come back. And because first-time visitors are rarely the ones to give feedback from their perspective on why they didn't come back. So the regular churchgoers, the members and especially the people with decision-making power in the church, never hear what their visitors have to say.

But they need to. They absolutely need to.

Hopefully, our ability and our willingness to not only listen to, but value, those voices in our midst can grow in time, and bear fruit for the kingdom builders among us.

Vancouver, Washington
September 10, 2016

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