Does Your Unitarian-Universalist Church Perform Communion?

Last week the Universalist Church of West Hartford was used as an example of living Universalism, still vibrant and going strong within the denominational structure of Unitarian-Universalism.  The original song “Child of God,” debuted at the service highlighted in last week’s post, will be offered as today’s Universalist quote of the day–the first time a post-merger quote has been used; it is sometimes hard to discern precisely whether a contemporary UU is Universalist in the classical sense, but there’s no ambiguity with this particular text.  Besides the normal weekly service, which shows clearly the continuing influence of overt Universalist theology, there are many other places that we can observe classic Universalism on display.  One is the practice of Communion.

Now, this isn’t flower communion or water communion or any of the other variant communions that UUs have developed, though the West Hartford church performs these as well.  Rather, we’re talking here about the traditional Communion based on the New Testament, a rite that brings people and God together and binds the community in memory and appreciation of the values espoused by Jesus.  At the church in question, Communion is held annually on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday (which is two days before Easter, for readers unfamiliar with Christian traditions).  Maundy Thursday was the day that Jesus actually took bread and wine while gathered with his disciples and invited them to consume them in memory of him, indicating that they were symbolically his own flesh and blood.

Many other historically Universalist churches, and some Unitarian churches as well, also celebrate Communion.  What about your church?  Does it perform Communion?  How does it proceed, and how often is it performed?  What do you think of it?  And if your church doesn’t perform Communion, do you know why?  Perhaps it used to be performed there but was dropped for some reason, or, especially if your congregation is relatively new, it may never have had a Communion tradition.

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15 Comments

Filed under Unitarian-Universalism, Universalism

15 responses to “Does Your Unitarian-Universalist Church Perform Communion?

  1. davidium

    As an Army Chaplain Candidate who is a UU, I do perform a Universalist Communion service for soldiers. I find that it supports the religious needs of soldiers who are not UU, but is still rather radical by opening the communion to any and all who wish to participate.

    I have never done so in a UU church, even though I have gotten the occasional request. Whenever I have brought it up (twice) the negative reaction has been strong.

    Why? It is a powerful ceremony, with powerful associations. So powerful, it is hard to see the deeper Universalist message within the Universalist communion. If anything will bring up hurt filled christian memories, it is communion.

    The most controversial thing I did at the Chaplain School was perform a Universalist communion. My colleagues simply were flabbergasted at the idea of a communion where the table is open to anyone and everyone.

    “As the table set by Jesus was open to all, all are invited to participate in this service of communion.”

    Yours in Faith,

    David

  2. Jeff

    That’s a very interesting story, David. Perhaps the most fascinating thing is how Communion remains radical in both non-UU Christian and Unitarian-Universalist contexts. From you experiences it sounds like for the non-UUs Communion is understood as naturally dividing the community into the accepted and the excluded; in the UU context Communion is imagined as unacceptably Christian.

    The Universalist Communion written about in this post is open to all, explicitly, and always has been. This is a rite that dates to the early part of the 19th century, when the church was founded, and has been retained through changes in the Universalist denomination and the merger with the Unitarians. It is understood as a direct expression of that classical Universalist theological perspective highlighted in last week’s post on this congregation and still active on a weekly basis in this location (and others).

    I wonder, David–the two UU churches that you ultimately didn’t perform Communion in, were they historically Unitarian, rather than historically Universalist? And how old were they? I imagine Fellowship Movement congregations would be especially resistant to Communion, since even though it is a venerable Unitarian rite, they often didn’t have a long congregational history (that would’ve included Communion at one time) and appeared at a time when traditional Christian elements were under attack in the Unitarian denomination. Just a thought, I could be off-base here.

    Communion in the Universalist tradition has always been open and designed to demonstrate God’s universal love, rather than closed and designed to demonstrate the special nature of the elect. It is an understanding of Communion that is unique to our parent denomination and has a long history, yet seems perhaps to be poorly understood by contemporary UUs (most of whom, of course, did not grow up in historically Universalist churches).

    Good luck to you in your ministry to our soldiers, may you stay safe and continue to bring the gospel of radically-inclusive love to them all.

  3. At FUS of Madison, we have a bread communion every year at our 11 PM Christmas Eve service. It’s a wildly popular service, featuring two loves of homemade bread (often still warm) baked by one of our members.

    When we have a sunrise Easter Service, that includes a bread and wine communion and a robed minister.

    I’ve heard that Olympia Brown UU in Racine, WI has (or had) a monthly communion service during their regular service times.

  4. I know that Red Hill in NC does communion on a regular basis.
    My small UU congregation hasnt, but we will on palm sunday….

  5. Jeff

    In response to this post, on their own blog the Pullman Memorial Universalist Church reports that “yes, once a year, on Good Friday” they hold Communion.

    • Updating this information – Pullman Memorial Universalist Church, founded in Albion, New York in 1891, celebrated communion in a special Good Friday service every year since 1896 until 2009. In 2010 the Good Friday service was discontinued. In 2011, I initiated communion again, but now it is a part of the regular Easter Sunday program. Information about the church is available at pullmanmemorial.org. — Pastor Lee Richards

  6. Hank Peirce

    As someone who grew up in a very humanist UU church I never took communion until I was at my internship site in Quincy, MA some 12 years ago. And I can’t even remember when it was celebrated, I’ll guess Easter. It worked like this; the congregation would stand in a circle around the sanctuary and then the deacons, (yes deacons) in white gloves would come around and share the bread and the cup (intiction.)

    In my first ministry (as in interim in Maine) I celebrated communion on Maundy Thursday and really enjoyed doing it. Perhaps it was because the folks who showed up were practicing their religion, something so radical. They were also pleased that I wasn’t squeamish as the previous minister had been about it. It like most UU churches in Maine has a Universalist history. The church ladies would arrange tables in a large cross before the pulpit and then place the small glasses on paper doilies, it was both beautiful and cute.

    The 1st Parish in Malden, Ma (Universalist) celebrates a Maundy Thursday service which I have taken part in over the last 7 years.

    I reintroduced communion to the church I serve in Medford, Ma a couple of years ago when Christmas fell on a Sunday. I thought I don’t want to preach, but we have to have church then I said to my worship committee “hey how about communion?”They didn’t have a better idea so we did it. surprisingly 30 showed up on X-mas morning and at the end of the regular service I invited those who wanted communion to stay only 4 people left! At the following Easter I did the same, and again most people stayed, I’m talking 70 people! I had to send someone out to fill more glasses!

    I think a key round here where many folks grew up Catholic, is to use the small glasses. I also think people like the idea that they are taking part in this ancient ritual but on their own terms. I use a modified version of a Ken Patton ritual.

    When you look at what the Emergent Church folks are doing it all makes sense that folks are interested in UU communion.

  7. sophiaseeker

    The UU Congregation of Fairfax (VA) has had communion services at least the last two years on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Coming from a Catholic background, I think what I most appreciated about it (now five years after leaving Catholicism) is Hank’s sentiment about being able to participate again, but on my own terms.

    Not to mention, I liked that we used actual bread during the UU service!

  8. I should mention that the UU Congregation of Florence (SC) had communion on Palm Sunday, and the Clayton Memorial UU Church (Newberry SC) had communion on Easter. Florence used a modified version of the short service in the old red Hymnal, while Clayton used an even shorter version.

  9. Haruo

    I don’t actually have a UU church; I’m a Baptist (ABC), though I consider myself a universalist in the small-u sense. We celebrate communion monthly, and the table is open. But I actually came here to point you and your readers to a pertinent exchange today at Conjubilant With Song.

    Haruo

  10. Marti Martinson

    I attend Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington, DC. It is a member congregation of UUA, and, yes, we do perform an OPEN communion with bread and grape juice. By-laws mandate at least once a year on Maundy Thursday, but it seems like we are having it once per calendar quarter.

    Deacons distribute bread and it is eaten together; juice is distributed next and then drank together.

  11. Pingback: Does Your Unitarian-Universalist Church Have Deacons? « Transient and Permanent

  12. Transient and Permanent

    Rev. James Ford offers a look at one UU communion service here: http://monkeymindonline.blogspot.com/2009/03/divine-liturgy-of-jesus-child-of-mary.html

  13. Ron

    My Unitarian Christian church celebrates Holy Communion four times a year. Maundy Thursday, Pentecost Sunday, World Communion Sunday, and Christmas Eve. It is open to all baptized Christians of any denomination. We use bread and wine.

  14. I hadn’t taken communion since becoming a UU 30 years ago. But finding myself at First Unitarian Church in Szekelyudvarhely, Transylvania on Pentecost Sunday this year, I took my first Unitarian communion. I always considered communion totally creepy. Blood of Jesus–sorry, just drank some Buddha and I’m full now. But remove the far-out idea of transsubstantiation–remove the superstition–and, for me, the symbols of communion are about the beloved community, the open welcome table, and the universality of love. It made me miss the communion ritual. Who knew it would take a trip to Transylvania to rekindle the blood-drinking rituals of my youth?

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