Theology/The Offertory-In Perspective term paper 2369

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The Offertory-In Perspective

The offertory procession, as described in the rubrics of the LBW, and in detail in the Manual on the Liturgy is criticized in Making Sense: An Exploration of Word and Sacrament. Our customary format of brief response papers does not allow sufficient space to enter dialogue regarding this practice. This paper is an exploration of the issues raised by this ritual practice and the criticism and suggestions noted in Making Sense, to the purpose of entering the dialog about this issue.

The position taken in Making Sense is:

- The offertory is primarily a practical action, preparing the bread and wine for the meal.

- The procession of the bread and wine to the altar was not a uniform practice of the ancient church.

- The procession detracts from the centrality of the Eucharistic Prayer and the Distribution.

- The procession shifts the focus "from God's gifts to our own."

The suggestion is to receive monetary gifts while the table is set; music may be used during the collection. The offertory prayer is omitted and the service proceeds with the Great Thanksgiving.

I suggest that this position results from a confusion of two distinct "offertories" which are ritually combined: the monetary collection, and the preparation of the table.

The reception of monetary gifts during the Eucharistic service is uncommon in the history of the church. Although some ancient authorities speak of collections in kind and of money for the purpose of the care of the poor (and possibly of the clergy as is implied in the pastorals), this collection does not seem to have been linked with the Eucharistic action. The synagogue service does not contain such a collection, nor, apparently, did the mystery religions. Regardless, by the Middle Ages there was no monetary collection during the Mass. Money for relief of the poor was collected in receptacles in the building and by mendicants. After the Reformation the situation is not materially altered (one of the Orthodox reforms included forbidding begging and enhancing the use of the poorbox). The primary support of the parishes was from the government-a situation still prevailing in the established churches in Europe.

The collection of money during worship is primarily an American phenomenon arising from the need to finance the congregation's activities. The need to collect money for this purpose was resisted by many Lutheran emigrants. In particular, some resisted collecting money during worship. This battle, however, is long over. It is highly unlikely that any move to an alternative means of collecting contributions would be successful. Collecting money is not one of the purposes of worship; it is not a necessary activity in the Eucharistic service; but no parish in the USA can survive long if it consistently omits this custom.

The practice of "passing the plate," then, would seem to be a "given" feature of worship, whether or not it makes any ritual sense. In terms of our categories, it is a practical action rather than a rhetorical one. Theologically (at least in stewardship sermons) and in terms of folk piety, however, the donation of money to the congregation and the church is seen as a response of the people to the Gospel. Commonly the money is thought of as given to God rather than to the church. It is not a trivial response in a society that values money as much as does ours. It is, for many, a challenge to "put your money where your mouth is."

There is no place in the ordo where the collection fits neatly. If it is placed prior to the readings or the sermon it lacks any response character and looks like a payment for worship. When placed immediately after the sermon, as in CW and SBH, it has a character of response, but with the prominence of the sermon as a climax to the liturgy of the word this position can make the offering appear to be an evaluation of the preacher or a payment for the preacher's work. The LBW placement, in which the creed and the prayers follow the sermon, followed by the collection underlines the response character and corporate nature of the offering. A final alternative, placing the collection after the communion, has not been common. Such a placement would seem to detract from the climax character of the distribution and, coming at the end of the service might seem, again, like a payment for services rendered.

In the non-Eucharistic service, the money collection is clearly positioned as a response to the proclamation. I submit that it is appropriate to recognize ritually the response of the people in their self-giving. This action precisely fits the proclamation-response form of the ordo. It provides a chance to theologically interpret the action of the people in giving. Given that members have often thought that only their monetary contribution was an offering, it is appropriate to include in this interpretation an expression of the other forms of giving and response which the members will make in living out their Christian vocations in the world.

The majority of congregations during the 1960's ritually expressed this response as a gift to God by either elevating the money before the altar or by placing the money on the altar. "Offertory" came to exclusively mean the collection and presentation to God of the money contributions of the congregation. For some members, these gifts were "sacrificial," an understanding reinforced by the use of the phrase "sacrificial giving" in some stewardship campaigns.

It is against this background that the two offertory prayers of the LBW must be viewed. The prayers comment and enlarge on the meaning of the monetary collection and tie it to the Eucharistic action. These prayers can, and often do, interpret the collection in non-Eucharistic services. In contrast, the RC mass ritually ignores the collection, concentrating only on the bread and wine in this portion of the rite.

This understanding suggests that in a non-Eucharistic service, the offertory procession and offertory prayer can be valid ritual actions that fit the proclamation/response pattern of the liturgy.

What then of the Eucharistic service? There seem to be four options:

1. Receive the contributions of the people prior to the Eucharistic liturgy and underline the reception with a liturgical action such as a prayer of offering, then begin the Great Thanksgiving and set the table for the Eucharist during the Sanctus.

2. Receive the contributions while the table is set and ignore the contributions, proceeding directly to the Great Thanksgiving.

3. Receive the contributions while the table is set, pray a prayer of offering, and proceed to the Great Thanksgiving.

4. Combine the reception of contributions with the Eucharist. The reception of the bread and wine simultaneous with the reception of money then ties the people's response to the Word by giving of money and other gifts with an act of the people offering themselves to God and being given back to each other (a la Kirkegard Fear and Trembling).

Method 1 clearly separates the collection of money from the Eucharistic action. There is no corporate giving to God connected ritually with God's gift in the Eucharist. This is similar to the position adopted in the BCP. One disadvantage is an emphasis on the monetary contribution. It may even communicate that the Eucharist has been paid for with the contributions.

Method 2 ritually devalues the gifts from the congregation. If one of the offertory songs is used during the collection then method 2 is essentially the same as method 3. If no offertory song is used, this would seem to communicate that the congregation's giving is so unimportant as not to deserve any ritual comment or interpretation. This is essentially the position in the Roman rite.

Method 3 confuses the situation still further as the contributions appear to be an "offertory" intimately connected with the Eucharist. Since the bread and wine are not being offered in the same way as the money (one is coming from the congregation while the other is from the church (at best) or from the minister (at worst)) the strong emphasis is that what is offered is money and is only money.

Method 4 has the advantage of underscoring the self-giving of the people in more than merely monetary terms and links the Eucharist with their self-giving in response to the Word. It is true that there is an emphasis on the action of the people in this ritual act, but is there not also an emphasis on the action of the people in the Great Thanksgiving? "Lift up your hearts." "We lift them to the Lord." "Let us give thanks…" These are all acts of the people. Moreover, if humans did not cooperate with God, there would be no Eucharist; it is unlikely to materialize on the table without human action. The RC prayers over the bread and the wine emphasize a partnership with God in the material substance of the Eucharist: "which earth has given and human hands have made," "fruit of the vine and the work of human hands." This position emphasizes the mission of the people in cooperation with God's transforming action.

A counter-position to Making Sense is:

- The offertory is both a pair of practical actions, collecting money and preparing the bread and wine for the meal, and a ritual action, interpreting the meaning of these acts. It is simultaneously a part of the synaxis and part of the Eucharist. It is a response in the proclamation-response paradigm.

- The procession of the bread and wine to the altar was not a uniform practice of the ancient church. The collection of money during worship was neither a uniform nor a common practice in the ancient, mediaeval, or modern church outside of the USA.

- The procession and offertory prayer are commentaries on the monetary collection, expanding its meaning and reducing the mercenary messages which that collection may convey. It no more detracts from the centrality of the Eucharistic Prayer and the Distribution than does the invitation to the congregation to lift up their hearts. It emphasizes the Eucharist as an act of the whole community rather than of a "Celebrant".


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