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For those of you who aren’t squirming uncomfortably in your seats, you probably don’t know that Quakers don’t “do” communion. Why don’t they? Well, to tell you the truth, a lot of folks probably don’t know. “It’s just something that isn’t done.” I recently heard a story about a woman who always cut off the end of a roast before putting it in the oven. Her daughter asked her why she did that, and the mother said because her mother before her had always done it, but the mother never asked why. So she did, to which she got the response, “Because my mother did!” They asked the great-grandmother who said, “Because our pan was too small to fit a whole roast.” The ladies had been engaging in a tradition that a) meant nothing to them because they didn’t know the reasoning behind it and 2) wasn’t necessary anymore – they had big enough pans now.
So, Quakes don’t “do” communion. Some would say it is a reaction against resting too heavily on the belief that taking communion ensures salvation: people abused the practice, so Friends’ reaction was to swing to the other side – abstinence (the best method of birth control, perhaps, but not necessarily the best spiritual-practice reaction). Others would say it’s because it pales in comparison to the true reality of living in daily, moment-to-moment communion with the Spirit (Elton Trueblood had some quote about that in one of his pamphlet-thingies I think). And others? “Well, we just don’t do communion” can be a very valid explanation to their way of thinking. Anybody got a knife to cut off the end of this here roast?
I’m auditing a class at the Seminary and this week we were looking at consumerism and the church. Oy, it makes my head hurt how much the commodification has happened in church culture. It’s like thinking about the best environmental action/reaction: either seems to do damage and there is no right answer!
One interesting observation brought up: since the “Fordism” of America (when people starting working in a factory to create goods for others rather than engaging in the art of craftsmanship to meet their personal needs), people have become more and more dissected – segmented – taken apart. Just as the work place was analyzed and changed into a manufacturing line, human beings have been analyzed and taken apart into having certain “needs” that must be met by products they can purchase. Which we all know doesn’t work: the fires of consumption only grow with each offering, and yet I know I keep piling it on.
As work and individuals have been taken apart, so have religious practices. Instead of knowing why we do something, engaging in the practices and symbols and liturgy because of a wholistic lifestyle of worship, we take things apart: a little Celtic labyrinth here, a little Taize chant there, throw in some Quaker silence and postmodern couches/coffee/candles, and call it good! The practices we choose are to try and meet our needs – but that fire keeps burning brightly.
God speaks symbolically: I learn so much through the Bible, through the way the world works, through interactions as a parent/friend/wife/person – it’s all through symbol. To abstain from symbol is to cut off a powerful means of communicating with and worshiping God.
But I understand how the lack of physical symbols is a symbol in itself. While it was seemingly so meaningful to first gen Quakes, I wonder if the power dissipates with each generation: as we follow them, we see more of their shoes than where they were headed.
Could a regular practice of discernment bring about that renewal? A posture of receiving from God the ways He desires to be worshiped, rather than picking and choosing until it “feels right” or “meaningful” to us? That would take a lot of work and time: is anyone willing to do that?
My dad’s worship gathering (a Quaker one at that) has bread and juice available for folks to take communion each Sunday. It’s not the high liturgy of the mainline churches (and I’m sure they’d shutter to know how their symbol has been “dumbed down”), but people have encountered God as they took part of the act.
Instead of asking the question “Why do/don’t we engage in the bread/wine practice of communion at our worship gatherings?” would it not be more productive to ask “What does this act mean, Lord? What does it mean that we’re so conflicted about it?” and ultimately “What are you calling us to do?” This wrestling hopefully brings us deeper into communion with God.
I pray that tomorrow my community will wrestle well.