Sunday, October 3, 2010

Marburg Colloquy & World Communion Day

On October 1, 1529, Prince Philip brought Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli together in an attempt to reconcile their theological differences.   He was trying to unify all the Protestants in a political alliance against the Holy Roman Empire.

Out of 15 theological points, Zwingli and Luther were able to agree on 14.  But the last one was the sticking point.  They could not come to an agreement regarding the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  Both rejected the Roman Catholic understanding that the bread and wine actually changed substance.  But Luther insisted while it was still bread it was also in some way, Christ's body.  It was as Jesus said "Take and eat, this IS my body"  

Zwingli just could not 'see Jesus' body in that bread.  The bread "signified" Christ's body.   Philip's hope for a unification of the two parties were dashed.  And Luther behaved VERY badly, refusing even to shake Zwingli's hand.

Today is World Communion Day, which I've never bothered to investigate what that actually means.  Probably not a good day to talk about the differences in understandings of Holy Communion.  Supposedly we've worked that all out with the Reformed tradition and the Methodists now.  I confess I have not studied the agreements, but I'll take the word of those who worked on it that our agreement on the Sacrament is sufficient.

My argument has always been we should all be able to come to the table together, regardless of how we understand how it works.  After all, does anyone imagine the twelve disciples had a clue, much less a shared understanding of what was going on at the Last Supper?  I still pretty much believe that although I did have an experience several years ago that showed me why some agreement is helpful.

It was my first year at my new parish.  Come Palm Sunday I was told we always did a joint service with the Methodist church in town and this year arrangements had been made for a drama group to enact the Last Supper.  Well enough.  Then it was suggested we have communion and the the other pastor and I preside.  This was before we had an agreement with the Methodists for table fellowship.  

I said as much to the planning committee and was told "We ALWAYS have communion together-what is your problem?"  Oh dear --first year here and I'm refusing to commune with my neighbors.  That won't do.  I called up my bishop and asked what I should do.  His answer was no answer, I was on my own on this one.

Well since I had always thought it was stupid that we couldn't all commune together anyway, I agreed.  The experience was jarring.  The Words of Institution were not said.  And I was simply handed the bread without the words "the body of Christ, given for you"  And I wished I had not agreed to preside.  I felt I could have participated as a member of the assembly but I should not have been "presiding".  

I had much more respect for Communion agreements after that.  

Oh and after that my congregation told me they had "never" had communion together with the Methodists at that service before.  We never did again under my pastorate.

On that note - Happy World Communion Day!


  1. Heh. I was contacted by a Congregationalist minister in Massachusetts last week, who wanted a greeting to share with his congregation. I provided it happily, but had to confess that I had no idea what Word Communion Sunday is. Obviously, a little research explained it to me well enough -- an old Presbyterian custom that is shared more or less by other people. (Methodists seem to use it for a special offering of some kind.)

    The name, of course, has a lot more resonance among people who celebrate the Eucharist infrequently. As I was writing a letter for the nice Calvinists in Massachusetts, I kept thinking, "As long as you actually celebrate it, *every* Sunday is world communion Sunday."

  2. This, and FA's comment, provided a lovely giggle for me today! (I never thought of asking a colleague abroad to send greetings on behalf of an international congregation, but that's a lovely idea.)

    FWIW, I am a rather high-church UCC, and your experience would have been very jarring for me, too, Joelle. Either as a presider or a "recipient." Wow.

    We had a delightful service this morning, with the most wonderful naan for our Communion bread. It was especially sweet as it was the first time I'd shared the sacrament with the congregation since June.