Breathing New Life into an “Old” Eucharistic Prayer

In the current United Methodist Hymnal, there is a seldom-used (at least in my experience) rite for the celebration of Holy Communion. “A Service of Word and Table IV” is a service that draws heavily on the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren liturgical traditions which in turn share common DNA—through Wesley’s Sunday Service—with the English prayer book tradition going all the way back to 1552.

The Great Thanksgivings provided for the modern United Methodist services of word and table are by and large based on the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus both in structure and language. These are excellent prayers, but they do represent a shift in our Eucharistic praying away from the Anglican roots of our tradition and some of the English distinctives that Wesley and the earliest Methodists maintained. I imagine that is why there is a “Rite IV” included in our current hymnal. It offers some continuity with the United Methodist Church’s foundational liturgical tradition.

The thing is, Word and Table IV is not widely utilized. So, while the rite exists as a document that provides some historical continuity, it’s essentially a museum piece—a relic of a bygone era that serves mostly for the sake of curiosity.

One of the great strengths of the liturgical forms given in the current hymnal is the highly flexible struture of the Eucharistic prayer. It’s exceedingly easy to write custom propers within the framework offered by the rites in the United Methodist Hymnal. This incredible flexibility is displayed in a couple of ways. “A Service of Word and Table II” (page 13 in the Hymnal) provides an essentially complete Eucharistic prayer with two places where a pastor or liturgical writer may insert seasonal or occasional propers. (For the liturgy geeks who may read this, those places are the preface and the post-Sanctus.) In other words, this prayer may be used as is—as a somewhat briefer form of the Great Thanksgiving compared to Word and Table I—or may be modified in the appropriate places to “customize” it to the occasion at hand. An even more flexible, customizable format for the Great Thanksgiving is found in “A Service of Word and Table III” (page 15 in the Hymnal). Word and Table III provides only the congregational responses for the Eucharistic prayer along side a few “cue words” that should appear in the prayer offered by the presider, along with some rubrics. In essence, one can write an entire Eucharistic prayer within this framework. So long as the basic structure is left intact and the “cue words” are included in the appropriate places, it should be possible to write an entirely original Great Thanksgiving that is still recognizable and usable by United Methodist congregations.

One of the reasons I think Word and Table IV is underused today is simply that it does seem so anachronistic, particularly in its use of archaic language. But there is a lot of rich theology in this Eucharistic prayer, and Word and Table IV offers a visceral sense of connection to the deep Anglican roots of our church that should not be easily overlooked or discarded. In case it isn’t clear, I love this Eucharistic prayer, and I wish it could be used more frequently.

Then one day, it occurred to me that an answer was right in front of me. (I really wanted to type “‘rite’ in front of me” but I restrained myself.)

Why not use Word and Table III as an opportunity to reintroduce this old Eucharistic prayer to a new generation? So that’s exactly what I did. What follows is my “update” of the Great Thanksgiving from Word and Table IV. I have updated the language to remove archaisms and ordered the prayer such that it fits into the structure of Word and Table III. In my adaptation, I have tried to retain the character and thought patterns of the older prayer while modernizing and “tightening” the language. I have also taken the opportunity to strengthen the epliclesis (in line with the epicletical langauge of our more modern prayers). Regarding the epiclesis, there is an interesting problem to be tackled. The older prayer positions the epliclesis right before the Words of Institution. However, the rubrics for Word and Table III state that “The pastor invokes the present work of the Holy Spirit …” after the Verba. In the prayer as I present it below, I’ve kept the epiclesis before the Verba as it is in the older Eucharistic prayer. I hope that I may find forgiveness in the rubrics for this minor deviation.

I think the prayer is fairly cohesive with the epiclesis either before or after the Words of Institution, but it seems to have more internal sense when the epiclesis remains in the older position. Depending on how you choose to position the epiclesis, the resulting prayer will resemble either the Book of Common prayer 1552–1662, or the Book of Common Prayer 1928. Either way, the prayer looks an awfully lot like the Book of Common Prayer, and therefore shows how thoroughly Anglican our worship tradition is.

Oh, one more thing. I haven’t adapted any proper prefaces for this prayer yet. I think it would be very easy to adapt the language of the seasonal prefaces provided in the Book of Worship if you wanted to use any of those.

The prayer is provided for your use below. I think it would work well as an option for any United Methodist Eucharistic Celebration. What do you think?

The Lord be with you. And also with you.

Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right to give our thanks and praise.

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, O Lord, Holy Father, almighty, everlasting God.

Here the pastor may add a preface proper to the season.

And so, with your people on earth and all the company of heaven we praise your name and join their unending hymn:

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, because of your tender mercy, you gave your only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by the one offering of himself, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world; and instituted, and in his Holy Gospel commanded us to continue, a perpetual memory of his precious death until his coming again:

Hear us, O merciful Father, we humbly pray; and bless and sanctify with your Word and Holy Spirit these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, that we, receiving them according to his holy institution, in remembrance of his passion, death, and resurrection, may be partakers of the divine nature through him:

Who, in the same night that he was betrayed, took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying, “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

Likewise after supper he took the cup; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them saying, “Drink all of this; for this is my blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins; do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

And so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith:

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Accept, O Lord, this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; and grant that, by the merits and death of your Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we and your whole Church may obtain forgiveness of our sins and all other benefits of his passion. And here we offer and present ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice, humbly praying that all who share in this Holy Communion may be filled with your grace and heavenly benediction.

And although we are not worthy, because of our many sins, to offer you any sacrifice, we ask you now to accept this our true and proper worship, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses; Through Jesus Christ our Lord, by whom, and with whom, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory is yours, Father Almighty, now and for ever. Amen.