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Spring 2005 · Vol. 34 No. 1 · pp. 3–14 

Anabaptist Liturgical Spirituality and the Supper of Christ

Gay Lynn Voth

During a brainstorming session at a church council retreat, a new vision was conceived for worship at the Bakerview Mennonite Brethren Church in Abbotsford, British Columbia. This vision was inspired, in part, as a response to a growing concern. Since a number of the committed church members of this congregation had recently left to worship at other churches in the area, questions were being raised about why this was occurring.

According to Balthasar Hubmaier, a church congregation “is not a fellowship for the reason that bread is broken, but rather bread is broken because the fellowship has already taken place and has been concluded inward in the Spirit.”

A number of reasons were proposed: (1) the congregation was experiencing some of the usual stress created by a recent change in pastoral leadership; (2) the communal worship at Bakerview was dividing into two fairly distinct styles—traditional and contemporary—facilitated by a diversity in congregational preference and the numerical need for two Sunday morning services; and (3) some church members were finding neither of the two worship styles satisfying, and were therefore leaving to attend churches that offered what they were looking for.

The fact that some members were leaving the Mennonite Brethren denomination to join the Anglican tradition caused the council to look for the answer to an additional question: What did those leaving the Mennonite Brethren church find fulfilling when they participated in an Anglican worship service?

The answers to this question are multifaceted. However one fairly consistent reason seemed to emerge: the worship services of the Anglican church were attracting attention for practicing the liturgical spirituality of an historic Christian tradition. The council members of Bakerview Mennonite Brethren began to wonder if there was something to be learned from this form of corporate spirituality. A number of congregants were familiar with two significant sources of Anglican influence in the lower Fraser Valley: St. John’s Shaughnessy Church and Regent College, both located in Vancouver, British Columbia. Comparisons were made, and some time was spent contemplating what might be missing from the worship services taking place at Bakerview Mennonite Brethren.

LITURGICAL EMPHASES

It was quickly apparent that the worship services at Bakerview MB devoted less attention to two major elements that help define the corporate liturgical worship of the Anglican tradition: (1) a celebration of the entire church year, and (2) an intentional focus of all the elements in the worship service toward the communion meal. Since the worship pastor at Bakerview had recently left to serve another congregation, it seemed an appropriate time to think about worship practices at Bakerview for the future. It was shortly thereafter that Dianne Bowker came to serve as part-time worship leader at Bakerview. She brought with her a deep appreciation for the sacred drama of the Christian liturgy, as well as an educational background that allowed her to facilitate some of the first changes incorporated into the traditional worship service at Bakerview.

By 2003, the traditional service was crowded to capacity and a third service was being planned for the Bakerview congregation. There was hope that this third service could be intentionally liturgical in its approach to worship. A planning committee was called together by the church council to facilitate the birth of a worship service that would reflect an Anabaptist liturgical spirituality. The first service was held in September 2003 with approximately one hundred members of the six hundred-member congregation at Bakerview joining together for a new Mennonite Brethren worship experience. This fledgling group continues to meet and has welcomed a number of new members who appreciate the rich blessings of the corporate liturgical experience.

The reflections included in this article are generated by the author’s active involvement in the creation of this third worship service at Bakerview Mennonite Brethren Church. The ideas shared here are part of an intentional effort to be theologically Anabaptist as congregants continue gathering to practice a corporate liturgical spirituality.

CORPORATE LITURGICAL SPIRITUALITY

What does it mean to practice a corporate liturgical spirituality? The concept reflects the combining of two frequently misunderstood terms: liturgy and spirituality. The English word liturgy comes from a Greek word meaning “the work of the people.” Originally this phrase did not mean “a work done by lots of people,” but rather work that served the good of the community. Therefore, building a bridge or putting on a public performance were each 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 were intently focused on expressing this meaning of liturgy in their public corporate worship. Christians gathered to fellowship with the profound conviction that one could participate in the life, death, resurrection, and ministry of Jesus through the initiation of water baptism, the sharing of the Eucharist, and the gift of Jesus’ Spirit. The calendar of the church year emphasized Christian participation in these memorable events—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost—and the Eucharist, or Supper of Christ, 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 was, and is, a reminder that although liturgical worship is the work or service of God’s people, it is first 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. It serves to reinforce the identity of the church as part of God’s plan to continue that work. Christian liturgy, as the work of the people, is not focused on individualism, but is communal in nature. Each one is, through the gift of baptism and the Holy Spirit, made one with the other as part of the body of Christ.

EARLY CHURCH PRACTICE

In the first century of the church, the apostle Paul was already encouraging Christian believers to recognize and share in the body of Christ as the corporate act of worship. Paul is quite clear that believers sharing in the eucharistic meal are doing more than consuming bread and wine together, or spending time in contemplation of Jesus’ work for the individual believer.

For example, in 1 Corinthians, Paul emphasizes that if believers fail to see that they, as a community, are the corporate body of Christ, their worship will become misguided. They will begin to allow the body of Christ to be broken, not as Christ’s body was broken for the salvation of the world, but because of divisions between the wealthy and the poor, the powerful and the weak, Jews and Gentiles. No matter how fervently they would partake of the food at the Supper of Christ, dishonor would be brought to the name of Christ—the one whose name they wore—when these divisions occurred. The church throughout history has needed the continual reminder that they are one body—the body of Christ—called together by the work of God in Christ, and held together through the work of God in the Spirit. 2

A CHALLENGE FOR TODAY’S CHURCH

Today, Christian communities continue to gather to reflect, pray, share with one another, and be changed in and through the Spirit of God. However, not all choose to emphasize the Christian liturgy. Those who do highlight worship as liturgy allow the church to actively demonstrate that she is the “body of Christ,” receiving her nature from God, through the self-giving of Christ, and in the “unity of the Spirit” who acts in all. In the liturgy, the profound identity of the Christian community, as God’s people, is expressed and maintained, bearing witness of God’s salvation to the world. The Supper of Christ 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 Supper is not just a meal of remembrance, but signifies the living participation in the divine act of redemption. This meal is not just a ritual obligation or an act of the imagination, thought, or emotion. This meal has historically been considered the source of the church’s power and the summit of her praise and worship. 3

A careful understanding of spirituality helps the church to move toward a deeper appreciation of liturgical worship. Philip H. Pfatteicher, a renowned liturgical scholar, argues that “liturgical spirituality” is a holistic concept that brings together both liturgy and spirituality. Pfatteicher provides a provisional definition of spirituality by drawing attention to Louis Bouyers’ work in his Introduction to Spirituality (1961). Bouyer makes a careful distinction between the religious life, the interior life, and the spiritual life.

RELIGIOUS, INTERIOR, AND SPIRITUAL LIVES

According to Bouyer, the religious life need not involve any interior life or spiritual life, since the religious life can merely consist of the correct performance of certain rites, fulfilling ritual obligations, receiving the sacraments, and reading the Bible. 4 The interior life can similarly be unrelated to religion and spirituality. Bouyer provides examples of poets, composers, and all types of artists who are religious unbelievers while exhibiting a rich interior life of the imagination, thought, and emotion that is deeply personal. The private, interior life can provide depth and substance to the religious life when they are joined.

The spiritual life, however, is more than the beneficial merging of the interior life and the religious life. The spiritual life, while requiring the development of the interior life and inspiring the religious life, draws its reality from beyond the human capability of the individual. The spiritual life is birthed through the Spirit given from outside of oneself. The dynamic spiritual life is made possible with the realization that the Spirit is not some thing, but some one—someone who chooses to commune with us by dwelling among and within us. 5

CHARACTERISTICS OF CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY

Biblically rooted spirituality, according to Pfatteicher, is a combination of Christian religious practices, a rich interior life, and the Spirit of God. As such, Christian spirituality has several defining characteristics. First, Christian spirituality is a response to God and God’s immense love for us. We are invited to reflect and to emulate God’s generosity. Our love of God is our spiritual life, but it is not of our own doing. It is the Holy Spirit who works within each of us, together with the whole church, to love as God loves. 6

Knowing that the Spirit of God dwells within us is a second significant characteristic of Christian spirituality. This knowledge causes us to redirect our lives away from a selfish preoccupation with our own needs and desires toward the work of faith. Our faith and trust are placed in God, as Savior, and not in our human ability to have faith or trust. Salvation is recognized to be the mutual indwelling of God and believer. Therefore, communion with God acknowledges the presence of the Spirit of God within each believer, and the life of the believer within the love of God. This intimate, personal communion with God is part of Christian spirituality but not the whole. 7

While spirituality within Christianity is deeply personal, it is not individualistic. The awareness of the communal nature of salvation is a third defining characteristic of Christian spirituality. Salvation is not a solitary event. God saves us along with many other people, gathered into the diversity of the body of Christ through the Spirit’s work throughout the ages and into the future. This awareness helps us recognize that our love for God cannot be separated from our love for our neighbor. As God chose to love the world, giving his life for us in the person of Jesus, we are called to identify with, and continue, God’s agape love for the world. 8

Liturgical spirituality is necessarily corporate rather than private. The origin of liturgical spirituality is the public expression of God in Christ within the world. The church, corporately, continues to manifest this gift in her public acts of worship. Functionally, then, corporate liturgical spirituality focuses on enlivening, nourishing, sustaining, and enriching the communion with God and between fellow Christian believers. Corporate liturgical spirituality expresses this fellowship as the church is gathered together by the Spirit into the living body of Christ throughout time. 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.

ANABAPTISTS AND THE SUPPER OF CHRIST

One of the first problems the Bakerview congregation encountered in attempting an Anabaptist approach to liturgical worship was the matter of how often to serve the Lord’s Supper. Traditionally, the Mennonite Brethren do not focus each worship service toward the Table of Christ. Since the structure of the ordinary worship of a liturgical service is directed toward the shared communion meal, it seemed likely some changes would be necessary. Initially, the planning committee considered adopting the weekly incorporation of both the Word and the Table. This raised some concerns within the corporate congregation at Bakerview, however. There were those within the three congregational groups who were experiencing the reality of three distinct worship services as fragmentation of the Bakerview church body. It was feared that since the practice of a monthly communion meal was the norm, more frequent participation in this meal, as part of the liturgical worship service, could foster division into “us” and “them” within the Bakerview congregation as a whole.

The planning committee was intentional in its attempt to maintain as much unity between the three congregations as possible. Aware that liturgical spirituality required genuine communion with God and each other, and not divisiveness, it was decided that the practice of a weekly communion meal would not be possible at the time. All the other intentional components of the liturgy, however, were put in place: 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, OT, 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. 9

Effort was made to create the awareness of God’s gift of the Spirit to and through the church as the communal body of Christ, even though the shared meal would be missing. Corporate readings and responses, intentional use of more scripture—involving numerous readers from the congregation rather than just a delivered message—and a team of worship designers working together, drew attention to the fact that worship in the liturgical service was indeed a corporate spiritual experience. This was not a matter of worship being done for the congregation; this was the gathered congregation responding to God’s gift of salvation, in unison, because of Christ and through the Spirit.

HISTORIC ANABAPTIST UNDERSTANDINGS

The lack of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as the summit of the liturgical worship service led me, however, to a renewed interest in the purpose and practice of the Supper of Christ within the historic Anabaptist community. Having taught Anabaptist theology at Columbia Bible College for a number of years, I was well aware of the fact that though Anabaptism was not a unified movement, there were several common ideas held by many sixteenth-century Anabaptist groups. Anabaptists generally supported more separation of church and state, stressed discipleship as a matter of choosing to follow Jesus, rejected infant baptism, transubstantiation, and some forms of clericalism, and placed an emphasis on being willing to die for Christ rather than doing violence in the name of Christ. The implications of these ideas are evident in the early Anabaptist practice of both the rituals of water baptism and the Supper of Christ.

A number of the early Anabaptist leaders supported the liturgical centrality of the Supper. Conrad Grebel, for example, believed that Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper. It was to be practiced, in simplicity, as a meal of fellowship, reflecting the brotherly love he believed should characterize all Christians and Christian communities. 10 Michael Sattler also believed in the importance of the Lord’s Supper for shaping the identity of the church. He wrote that “the Lord’s Supper proclaims how Christ gave his life for us—that we might also be willing to give our body and life for Christ’s sake, which means for the sake of the brothers.” 11

Dirk Philips and Menno Simons use the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 10:16 offered by Cyprian, an early church father, to describe the relationship of the Supper to the fellowship of believers in the church. 12 Philips writes:

For as the bread is made of many grains broken and ground together, and out of many grains has come one loaf of bread in which every little kernel has lost its individual body and form; and likewise as the grapes, by changing their form become the body of common wine and drink, so also must all Christians be united with Christ and with one another. First, they must be united with Christ, whom they receive by faith and who becomes their nourishment. For there is no closer intimacy nor anything more inseparable than the union of the food with those who are fed. 13

For Menno Simons, it is not the meal itself, the “mere bread, wine, and eating,” that is of consequence, but the “matter represented by it”—the sacramental significance of Christ’s love for us—that is of importance. Christ’s love for us unifies the church and calls us likewise to a life of love, unity, and peace.

THE THEOLOGY OF HUBMAIER

Likewise, Balthasar Hubmaier, one of the more highly trained Anabaptist theologians, discussed the significance of the communion meal in his works, “A Christian Catechism” (1526) and “A Form of Christ’s Supper” (1527). Here he demonstrates how intimately connected the Anabaptist views of baptism are to their views of the Lord’s Supper and to the true nature of the church.

The early Anabaptists were concerned about the true nature of the Christian church. They had become deeply critical of some of the practices within the sixteenth-century Roman Catholic Church to which they had belonged. The collapse of Christian morality within the church leadership, as well as the economic and political abuses conducted in the name of the Church, were widely evident. The ties between the church and political leadership were seen to be corrupting the identity of the true church. This alliance, the Anabaptists believed, was fueled by the practice of infant baptism, making each child a citizen of a nation and member of the church simultaneously.

Hubmaier, for example, rejected the religious ritual of infant baptism because he believed that it was not the form of baptism instituted by Christ for the incorporation of the church. He believed that baptism should be the voluntary act of the believer following careful teaching by the church. In his “Christian Catechism,” Hubmaier argues for three forms of baptism as validated by Christ: (1) baptism of the Spirit (John 3:5), which is “an inner illumination of our hearts that takes place by the Holy Spirit, through the living Word of God,” 14 (2) baptism of water (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16), whereby a person makes an “outward and public testimony of the inner baptism of the Spirit” and is voluntarily “incorporated into the fellowship of the church according to the institution of Christ” and agrees that should anyone sin, they would accept admonition from others within the church, 15 and (3) a baptism of blood (Luke 12:50), which requires the courage to face a martyr’s death as Christ did.

Hubmaier links these views of baptism to his views of the church and the practice of the Lord’s Supper. All three—baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the church—are instituted by Christ, and provide the basis for a holistic liturgical spirituality. For Hubmaier, no church ceremonies other than water baptism and the Lord’s Supper were considered necessary since he believed Christ’s commandments to love God and one’s neighbor were fulfilled when the meaning of these two rituals were correctly taught. In part two of “A Christian Catechism,” Hubmaier makes the following argument:

Indeed, to state it bluntly, the Lord’s Supper is a sign of obligation to brotherly love just as water baptism is a symbol of our vow of faith. The water concerns God, the Supper our neighbor; therein lie all the Law and the Prophets. 16

According to Hubmaier, these two rituals formed the “true fellowship of the saints,” the church.

Hubmaier argues that communion with God, and with each other as individual parts of the whole body of Christ, are essential within the genuine Christian church. The Supper of Christ is shared because of the fellowship that exists through the bond of the Holy Spirit. Hubmaier writes:

It is not a fellowship for the reason that bread is broken, but rather bread is broken because the fellowship has already taken place and has been concluded inward in the Spirit. 17

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 has 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, placed an emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in shaping the church and her worship practices. The sixteenth century practice of infant baptism and the mass were seen as empty religious rituals if they did not conform to the teachings set out by Christ for the church. When abuse of power and position became part of a religious practice, the ritual needed to be restored according to the original intention of Christ. They believed Christ intended the church to be moved and motivated by God’s love within a communal fellowship. As many arguments demonstrate, the early Anabaptists were particularly concerned about restoring the genuine meaning of the rituals of water baptism and the Lord’s Supper. 18

CONCLUSION

Early Anabaptists did not reject the liturgical spirituality explicitly expressed through the sacred drama of the Lord’s Supper. 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—a communion that is only possible because of the presence of the Spirit within the corporate universal church and the individual believer.

While it was stressed that each individual was a vital part of the body of Christ, it is important to note that participation in the Lord’s Supper did not function as an iconic symbol for imaginative and emotional contemplation by the individual. 19 This would become more common with the increased emphasis on individualism in the church during the centuries following the Reformation. During the sixteenth century, however, Anabaptists were trying to restore the true meaning of liturgical spirituality as they participated in the Supper of Christ—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.

The liturgical service at Bakerview Mennonite Brethren is moved by these same convictions. While participating in the Lord’s Supper is a worthy focus for every worship service, genuine communion must necessarily be maintained relationally for this meal to have full significance. The valuable insights of an early Anabaptist theologian, Balthasar Hubmaier, 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 true communion as we go out to share this eternal life with a needy world.

NOTES

  1. Patricia Wilson-Kastner, Sacred Drama: A Spirituality of Christian Liturgy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1999), 7.
  2. Historically, there has been concern about maintaining the purity and unity of the eucharistic fellowship. Many liturgical scholars draw attention to this aspect of the communal meal. For examples, see Susan J. White, The Spirit of Worship: The Liturgical Tradition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), and Frank C. Senn, Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1997), 53-108.
  3. This is an ecumenical interpretation of the Eucharist, variously expressed throughout the history of the church. See James F. White, Documents of Christian Worship: Descriptive and Interpretive Sources (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 180-213.
  4. Philip H. Pfatteicher, Liturgical Spirituality (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997), referring to the work of Louis Bouyer, Introduction to Spirituality (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1961), 2.
  5. Pfatteicher, 3.
  6. Ibid., 3-4.
  7. Ibid., 4.
  8. Ibid, 5-6.
  9. The numerous elements of the worship service outlined here are part of the larger units of a liturgical pattern: gathering, hearing the Word, sharing at the table, sending out. See Rebecca Slough, “Acting the Word: Preaching in the Context of Worship,” in Anabaptist Preaching: A Conversation Between Pulpit, Pew, and Bible, ed. David B. Greiser and Michael A. King (Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2003), 178-79.
  10. Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources (Waterloo, ON: Herald, 1981), 191.
  11. Senn, 360.
  12. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 (New York: Christian Literature, 1890), 5:362.
  13. Klaassen, 208.
  14. H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder, trans. and eds., Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1989), 348.
  15. Ibid., 348.
  16. Ibid., 355.
  17. Ibid., 398.
  18. See Klaassen, 190-210. There is some variation in terminology when the Anabaptists discuss the Lord’s Supper as a “sacrament.” For more on “Sacraments in General,” see White, Documents of Christian Worship, 119-44. This point requires more discussion by contemporary Anabaptist theologians.
  19. For a discussion of the role of the Eucharist as iconic, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, V.2 The Spirit of Eastern Christendom 600-1700 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 133-45. The key difference being highlighted here, as appearing in modern theology, is the individualistic emphasis since the Supper of Christ was historically considered a communal fellowship.
Gay Lynn Voth received her Master of Arts degree in Religious Studies (1999) from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Her assignments at Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, British Columbia, include teaching Introduction to Theology and Anabaptist Theology. She participates in the liturgical service at Bakerview Mennonite Brethren Church, Abbotsford, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in minority theology at the University of Wales.

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