Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Communion – Amish style

In the church I attend, we break bread every Sunday morning. The meeting is not widely advertised as it is a ‘members only’ service. We do not have a pastor/leader/minister, who leads from the front. What we have is any male member may take part audibly, announcing a suitable hymn for us to sing, or reading a portion of the Bible, or offering a prayer on behalf of the congregation. The ladies pray silently, with their heads covered, in accordance with the biblical injunctions to have our heads covered when praying or prophesying, and ‘let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak’ (1 Corinthians 14v34). At some point, one of our male members will give thanks for the bread and will pass a plate round with a small loaf of bread on it. Each person takes a piece and passes the plate to the next person. After the plate with the remaining bread has been returned to the table, someone will give thanks for the cup and a single cup then is passed from person to person. Following the communion, a collection is taken up for ‘the work of the Lord’. The service lasts about an hour.

As you might imagine, the Amish do things a little differently.

Amish services take place alternate Sundays. I understand the original reason for this was where a community became too large, they divided and this sometimes separated family members. So services were held on alternate weekends to the new community, so that people could meet together in the intervening weeks. It has become a tradition however that church meets alternate weeks.

Communion is held twice a year, once in the spring and again in the autumn. It was not always like that. The early Anabaptists in Europe, from whom the Amish are descended, held communion only once a year, at the time of the Passover. This was because Jesus had instigated the remembrance of His death at the Passover and, as our Passover Lamb, He died at that season. Jakob Ammann, the founder of the Amish, was unhappy with the practice of once a year only. He disputed with the church leaders at the time (notably, Menno Simons, from whom the Mennonites get their name) and because they would not allow for communion to be held more frequently (amongst other issues), he and several of his supporters left the Mennonites. They were eventually named after Ammann, becoming ‘Amish’.

Two weeks before the communion is ‘Preparation Sunday’ known as the Attnungsgemee. This is a day when people are required to examine themselves and declare whether or not they are at peace with God and their fellow church members before communion may proceed. If there is some serious dispute between members then the communion may be postponed until such matters are resolved. This happens only rarely and is reserved for severe differences. Their basis for holding such a service is 1 Corinthians 11v28: ‘But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup.’ Faults are to be confessed individually (to the person offended) and/or publicly (to the church) and matters made right, parties brought together in mutual forgiveness, following the biblical command ‘confess your faults to one another’ (James 5v16).  The intention is that there should be nothing hindering a clear conscience before God on the day of Holy Communion.

Some people think that ‘examine yourself’ simply means checking individually that you are not living in known sin. The Amish on the other hand believe that it is not an individual matter only, but is also a congregational matter. Their relationships are interdependent. In 1 Corinthians 5 a member of the church was committing incest. It seems the church thought there was nothing wrong with that, until Paul wrote to tell them that this behaviour was not acceptable. He instructed that the erring person be expelled from the church until such time as they repented. By this, Paul made it clear that church leaders have an obligation to correct church members when they are in sin or error. If a person thinks there is nothing wrong with what they are doing, it is for the church leaders to ensure that the sin is suitably dealt with in order to maintain the purity of the church. And this never more so than at the communion. Paul warns the Corinthian Christians that taking the bread and wine unworthily has resulted in sickness and death amongst the congregation (1 Corinthians 11v30). Merle Ruth, in his leaflet ‘Is Your Communion Holy?’ says, ‘Sharing in a Communion service is a serious and sacred experience. It is reserved for those who are separated unto God, for ‘ye cannot [with divine approval] be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils’ (1 Corinthians 10v21). Participation in Communion is a symbolic way of saying, ‘Christ lives in me; and I am one in faith with these my brothers and sisters in Christ; together, we have committed ourselves to the way of the cross’.’ It is for this reason that public confession of sin is required in the Amish church. Confession needs to be accompanied by humility and putting right the offence.

The normal alternate weekly service for the Amish lasts around three hours. It is followed by a shared meal. The communion service is much longer, perhaps five or six hours. The meal is not taken together, but people slip out during one or other of the sermons (there are often two or three) to have a bite to eat, then they return to their seats. When it is clear that everyone has eaten, the Amish then proceed to communion, which includes a foot washing ceremony, as well as the breaking of bread and partaking of the wine. Saloma Miller Furlong is a woman who left the Amish and has been blogging about her experiences. She has given an excellent description over three blog posts on Amish communion. The sense of being part of a whole is described by Saloma in the words of the Bishop of her congregation: “Then Bishop Dan asked us all to rise. He talked about the bread in a solemn tone: First, in the spring, the ground is prepared. Then the seed is sown. The weeds are plucked from the fields as the wheat grows. When the grain ripens, it is cut. When the right time comes, the wheat is harvested and the grain separated from the straw and ground into meal. Then it goes through the wives’ hands and is kneaded into bread. As the grains joined to make this bread, they gave up their individuality. In the same way that each grain gave up its individuality to become part of the bread, so must we give up our individuality to become part of the community.” Though Saloma intends us to understand this quote in a negative sense, for me it gives a rare glimpse into the sense of community held by the Amish and is a good example of what it means to be part of the body of Christ. Words similar to these are spoken at every Amish commiunion service in every locality.

Lovina Eicher, whose bread recipe I used a couple of days ago, also gives a brief description of an Amish communion service in her first paragraph here.
John Hostetler, in his book ‘Amish Society’ explains it like this: ‘Communion binds the Amish members within a district together with sacred ties. Communion symbolises the unity of the church, and for a district not to have communion means that there has been serious difficulty in getting unanimous opinion on important issues. Communion means entering into the experience of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, and to emerge with gratitude and remembrance for his death.’ I thoroughly recommend this book; the pages relating to the communion service are 224-227.

After everyone has eaten the noon meal, the deacons will bring in the bread and wine. The bread has been home baked by the wife of the family hosting the church service that week. The wine has usually been made by the Bishop’s wife. Some congregations use grape juice instead of fermented wine. The congregation stands while the bread is broken by the Bishop; and they remain standing while it is distributed to each person. On receiving the piece of bread, the communicant will kneel, eat the bread, then sit down again. The same ritual is followed for the distributing of the wine.

After prayer is offered, following everyone receiving the bread and wine, one of the ministers will read the passage from the Bible where Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. Socks and shoes are removed and the members wash each others’ feet in pairs; the women also participate, but in a separate room, so as not to defy modesty. Finally, all return to the same room, a hymn is sung and the congregation is dismissed. As they leave the room, a collection is handed to the deacon at the door, for the ‘poor fund’, or Armengelt. This money will be looked after by the deacon until such time as a need arises within or sometimes outside the community.

A Personal View

I have to confess that I like the Amish form of service, though it is a little long, especially if there are children present. The solemnity that is observed is different from most other churches today, but that is no bad thing. It is a serious matter taking communion. Having a preparation meeting, where everyone has to testify to being in good standing with God and their fellow members, putting right anything that is wrong, seems to follow ‘leave your gift at the altar and first be reconciled to your brother’ (Matthew 5v24). It keeps short accounts so no-one can hold grudges for long.

Once a year? Yes, I can see an argument for that. But that is not to say I think those that hold communion more frequently are wrong. The Bible leaves it open to the individual churches to decide how often they will hold the service of remembrance. I accept it can become too commonplace if done too frequently. But equally, it can be forgotten about if done too infrequently. The churches must decide for themselves.

The Bread
Back to the subject of bread, the Amish use unleavened bread for their communion. Is there anything special about using unleavened bread? Well, the Passover meal also uses unleavened bread. The reason was, when the Israelites were leaving Egypt, there wasn’t time for yeast to rise properly, so they had to make their bread in haste. Thereafter, yeast or ‘leaven’ became synonymous with sin. They left the yeast behind symbolised leaving sin (and Egypt) behind. It seems to fit with the overall symbolism of the Passover therefore that we should use unleavened bread in our communion services.

Anyone got a recipe?

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