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Anabaptist Liturgical Spirituality and the Supper of Christ

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During a church council retreat in the spring of 2002, a new vision was conceived for worship at Bakerview Mennonite Brethren Church in Abbotsford, B.C. This vision was inspired, in part, as a response to a growing concern. A number of committed church members had recently left the Mennonite Brethren denomination to join the Anglican church. What did those leaving the MB church find fulfilling when they participated in an Anglican worship service?

The answers to this question are multifaceted; however, one fairly consistent reason emerged: the worship services of the Anglican church were attracting attention for practicing the liturgical spirituality of a historic Christian tradition. In particular, the corporate liturgical worship of the Anglican tradition celebrated the entire church year, and focused all the elements in the worship service toward the communion meal.

By 2003, Bakerview’s traditional service was crowded to capacity. The planning committee for a third service intentionally facilitated the birth of a worship service that would reflect an Anabaptist liturgical spirituality. Among others concerns, the following issues were considered.

Corporate liturgical spirituality

What does it mean to practice a corporate liturgical spirituality? The English word  “liturgy” comes from a Greek word meaning “the work of the people.” Originally, this phrase meant work that served the good of the community. For example, building a bridge or putting on a public performance were considered “liturgy.”

In the Septuagint, translators used the term “liturgy” to describe temple worship. In the New Testament, “liturgy” continued to identify temple worship but also received a uniquely Christian meaning. The work of Jesus began a new era in God’s dealings with humanity, and this is reflected in the Christian liturgy. Here Jesus’ obedient life and death for us, his risen life for our redemption, and, consequently, the Christian life lived in the spirit of Jesus are liturgy.¹

Christian liturgy originated with the life of Christ, and the church now shares in this life as “living members” of the “body of Christ.” Historically, Christian communities express this meaning of liturgy in their public corporate worship. Christians gather to fellowship with the profound conviction that one can participate in the life, death, resurrection, and ministry of Jesus through baptism, the eucharist, and the gift of Jesus’ Spirit. The calendar of the church year emphasizes Christian participation in these memorable events – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost – and the communion meal became the central act of Christian worship on the Lord’s day.

The intentional focus on Jesus’ self-giving life throughout the year, and as part of every ordinary worship service, is a reminder that liturgical worship is first and foremost a work of God. The sacred drama of the liturgy expresses the work of God in Jesus Christ – the plan of salvation as one vast divine blessing. This reinforces the identity of the church as part of God’s plan to continue that work. Christian liturgy is communal in nature: through the gift of baptism and the Holy Spirit, each person is made one with the other as part of the body of Christ.

The apostle Paul encouraged Christian believers to share in the body of Christ as the corporate act of worship. Believers sharing in the eucharist are doing more than consuming bread and wine together, or spending time in contemplation of Jesus’ work for the individual believer (1 Corinthians 11:23–12:27). The liturgy reminds the Christian that the church is the “body of Christ,” receiving its nature from God, through the self-giving of Christ. The Lord’s Supper is shared as the central act of worship because the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus constitute the central event of God’s salvation – unlike any other historical event. This meal is not just a ritual obligation or an act of the imagination, thought, or emotion, but signifies participation in the divine act of redemption.

Liturgy, eucharist, and unity

A question Bakerview encountered in its attempt at an Anabaptist approach to liturgical worship was the matter of how often to serve the Lord’s Supper. The intentional movement toward the eucharist within a liturgical church tradition reenacts and reinforces the sacred drama of God’s salvation through Christ as the focus of every worship service. But traditionally, MBs do not celebrate the Table of Christ at each gathering. The practice of a weekly Lord’s Supper at Bakerview’s liturgical service might have raised additional concern for those who experienced the three distinct worship services as fragmentation of the church body.

Therefore, the planning committee included all the other intentional components of the liturgy – the gathering of the church, the corporate act of confession and the public proclamation of forgiveness, the passing of the peace of Christ to one another, the four readings of Scripture (Psalms, Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel) with sermon reflections related to the biblical texts, the songs and prayers of the people, and the sending out of the church into a needy world – except the weekly Lord’s Supper.

Even though the weekly shared meal is missing, corporate readings and responses, and the intentional involvement of numerous Scripture readers for every service, draw attention to the fact that worship in the liturgical service is indeed a corporate spiritual experience. This is not worship being done for the congregation; it is the gathered congregation responding to God’s gift of salvation, in unison, because of Christ and through the Spirit.

Anabaptists and the Supper of Christ

Creating a liturgical worship service at a Mennonite Brethren church raised a third question: what was the purpose and practice of the Lord’s Supper among early Anabaptists? A number of the early Anabaptist leaders supported the liturgical centrality of the eucharist. Many, like Conrad Grebel, Michael Sattler, Dirk Philips, and Menno Simons believed in the importance of the Lord’s Supper for shaping the identity of the church.² The meal was a sacramental representation of Christ’s love for us. Sharing the Lord’s Supper was a physical reminder that Christ’s love unifies the church and calls the church to a life of love and peace.
Early Anabaptist theologian Balthasar Hubmaier believed the only necessary church ceremonies were water baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He argued that Christ’s commandments to love God and one’s neighbour were fulfilled when these two rituals were correctly taught. According to Hubmaier, these two rituals formed the church – the “true fellowship of the saints.”³

For the Anabaptists, the fellowship of believers was not dependent upon sharing the Supper of Christ – rather the important meal was being shared because a spiritual fellowship had already taken place. This spiritual fellowship was inwardly made real by the gift of the Spirit to the believer and outwardly proclaimed at the time of water baptism.

Hubmaier, like other early Anabaptist leaders, emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit in shaping the church and her worship practices. They believed Christ intended the church to be moved and motivated by God’s love within a communal fellowship. The church was a community of people who had received the inward gift of the Spirit; sharing the Lord’s Supper was an outward expression of that inward reality.

In other words, early Anabaptists did not reject the liturgical spirituality explicitly expressed through the sacred drama of the eucharist. Rather, they challenged the idea that the Supper could be a meaningful Christian ritual when it was practiced in a church devoid of genuine spiritual communion between fellow believers. They rejected the political, economic, and spiritual abuses that had become part of church ceremonies. Anabaptists were attempting to restore the true liturgical meaning of the Supper of Christ. They directed the emphasis of the meal toward a loving communion with Christ and each other.

The meaning of liturgical spirituality, as they participated in the Supper of Christ, was a genuine focus on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the gift of the Spirit, to and for the Church, in communion with God and one another.

Liturgical Spirituality at Bakerview

The liturgical service at Bakerview MB Church is moved by these same convictions. While participating in the Lord’s Supper is a worthy focus for every worship service, genuine congregational communion is necessarily relational for this meal to have full significance.

Bakerview held its first liturgical service September 2003 with some 100 members of the 600-member congregation joining together for a new MB worship experience. This congregation has since grown to more than 200 participants and has welcomed a good number of new members who appreciate the rich blessings of corporate liturgical worship.

The service runs concurrent with the contemporary service. Contrary to conventional thought, the liturgical service meets in the gymnasium while the contemporary service gathers in the sanctuary. The open space of the gym allows for flexibility. For example, the weekly congregational choir and all instrumentalists are seated behind the other worshippers. All the chairs are arranged in a semicircle so worshippers can see each other. However, the primary focus for the congregation is a large wooden cross hung at the front between drapes that are changed to reflect the seasons of the church calendar year.

Hubmaier’s insights continue to ring true. We do not have fellowship because we meet together to remember the source of our salvation with a corporate meal; we have fellowship because we share in the abundant life of Christ given through the inner presence of the Spirit. May God’s Spirit continue to hold us in genuine communion as we are sent out to share this eternal life with a needy world.

–Gay Lynn Voth and her husband Rick are members of Bakerview MB Church, where she serves as assistant moderator. She recently retired from teaching at Columbia Bible College (1995–2009). 

1. Patricia Wilson-Kastner, Sacred Drama: A Spirituality of Christian Liturgy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1999), 7.
2. Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources (Waterloo, ON: Herald, 1981), 191.
3. H. Wayne Pipkin and John Howard Yoder, trans. and eds., Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1989), 348, 355, 398.
*This article is adapted from a longer version published in Direction Journal, Spring 2005. Reprinted with permission.

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