I USED to officiate at a weekly communion in a geriatric hospital, many years ago. It was a depressing establishment, Victorian both in its architecture and in its approach to its patients. But one of the uplifting aspects of this ministry was seeing some patients, who could barely remember the faces of members of their family, recite perfectly every word of the Prayer Book service.
I found it achingly touching as the congregation joined me in repeating the prayer of consecration: Jesus’s words over the bread and wine.
What I did not realise then is that the communion service does not include all of the words that Jesus spoke as he shared bread and wine at the Last Supper. An important phrase has been edited out. It has been omitted not only from one version of the eucharistic liturgy, but from all of them.
If we look back at all three Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, and St Paul’s version in 1 Corinthians, we can see that Jesus speaks about the sharing of the bread and wine as a foretaste of the Kingdom. Luke’s Gospel is the most emphatic, but it is prominent in all the other accounts: Jesus says that he will not eat bread or drink wine again until the Kingdom of God is fulfilled.
At a communion service, however, you will not hear Jesus’s comment about not eating or drinking until the coming of the Kingdom. There is nothing accidental about this. Our liturgies have been revised over the centuries, but never more so than in the past 50 years. Modern liturgists have had ample opportunity to correct the errors of earlier generations. Theologians such as Geoffrey Wainwright have argued that the eucharist is an “eschatological event” (Eucharist and Eschatology, Epworth, 1971). Yet it is extraordinary that none of the eight prayers of consecration in Common Worship includes Jesus’s words about the Kingdom of God.
JUST as the words that are included in our liturgy have written themselves powerfully into our cultural memory, so the “missing words” from the liturgy have become part of our communal forgetfulness. We have forgotten that, at the Last Supper, Jesus was not thinking about the Church, but about the Kingdom. This is paradoxical, when we consider that the eucharist is supposed to be an act of anamnesis or remembrance.
If you sense a conspiracy here, you would be spot on. The Church has never been comfortable with Jesus’s teaching about the Kingdom of God, which is something of a problem, when you think that the Kingdom is the main topic of Jesus’s ministry.
THERE is another interesting omission: theological and ministerial-training colleges and courses hardly, if ever, offer courses about the Kingdom. This may not immediately seem strange, when you consider that the clergy do have to study the New Testament. But, when you think that the Kingdom of God was Jesus’s principal message, the absence of any specific courses on this subject seems not only odd, but suspicious.
Imagine a society devoted to Karl Marx that did not require the study of Communism, or a book on Jamie Oliver that never mentioned cooking. The lack of courses about the main subject of Jesus’s teaching is extraordinary — and worrying.
Let us imagine, however, that we were to devise a ground-breaking new course about the Kingdom. We would find ourselves facing another problem: what to call it. The Church has endless special names for its various fields of theology: from soteriology to patristics, apologetics to pneumatology, and so on. But it has yet to come up with a word for the study of the Kingdom. And this tells us something significant: the Church is simply not that interested in the Kingdom.
Of course, there is a word for the study of the Church — ecclesiology — and clergy must take courses in it. But the study of the Kingdom is not required.
THE reason for this avoidance is clear: the Church is threatened by the Kingdom, because it is not about religious practice and belief, but about the ethical and political transformation of human society. The Kingdom includes God’s relationship with all aspects of life, not just the Christian parts.
Jesus could not be more explicit that the practice of sharing bread and wine is directly connected with his programme of creating the Kingdom. But having claimed exclusive ownership of the eucharist, and having made it a members-only occasion for paid-up Christians, the Church is not comfortable with Jesus’s talking about this wider and more inclusive entity: the Kingdom.
The inclusion in the eucharistic liturgy of Jesus’s phrase about the Kingdom might encourage members of the congregation to ask difficult questions about what the Kingdom is, and how it is connected with the sharing of bread and wine. The answers to such questions would take us back to Jesus’s extensive teaching about the Kingdom of God; about economic and social justice; about the conditions facing the poor and outcast.
We might then start asking how the Kingdom can come about, and about the part we should play as citizens of this Kingdom. Thirsty to understand the central message of Jesus’s teaching, we might start demanding material about the Kingdom.
Instead of asking about “new ways of being Church”, we would be seeking how to be the Kingdom. In this context, and if Jesus’s words about the Kingdom resounded at every sharing of bread and wine, our services would feel more like “Kingdom meals”, connecting us with the heart of his teaching.
I am still moved by the recollection of the eucharists at the Bethnal Green geriatric hospital. They were a touching and real communion. But my feelings are mixed with anger that the words that the patients faithfully recited were not the full truth about the Last Supper, but the Church’s “economical” truth. It is time to give people all the words of Jesus — and then to see what happens.
The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is the author of 50 Key Concepts in Theology (DLT, 2007).