By Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Director of News Services, Church of the Brethren
“Living Love Feast” was the theme of the sixth Presidential Forum held at Bethany. A Pre-Forum Gathering April 3-4 was led by Bethany faculty and alumni/ae. The Forum on April 4-5 featured guest speakers and presenters, including activist and peacemaker Shane Claiborne, Ruth Anne Reese of Asbury Theological Seminary, Janet R. Walton of Union Theological Seminary, and actor and playwright Ted Swartz.
Previous Presidential Forums have addressed a wide variety of themes, from “Hearing Scriptures of Peace” in 2008 to “The Bible in Our Bones” in 2013. The intent of the Forum is to build community among those at the Seminary, the wider church, and the public, and to provide visionary leadership for reimagining the role of seminaries in public discourse by exploring topics that thoughtfully address issues of faith and ethics. A grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations endows the Forum.
Alumni/ae gather for Pre-Forum
An evening love feast service including feetwashing, the love feast meal, and communion opened the Pre-Forum Gathering, which was sponsored by the Bethany Seminary Alumni/ae Coordinating Council. After love feast, attendees also enjoyed dips of ice cream and fruit cobbler served up by President Jeff Carter along with others from the faculty, student body, and board.
Carter was one of those presenting the following day, on the topic “Just Like the First Disciples.” Carter’s reflections on the traditional forms of the elements of love feast as practiced by the Church of the Brethren invited response from attendees. As with all of the Forum presentations, Carter’s concluded with a time for questions from the audience and responses by the presenter. Carter focused on how changes in the elements of love feast may affect the meaning and value of the service for individuals and the church. The presentation encouraged consideration of the cultural constructs of the love feast, leaving the question open: if we change elements of love feast, will the meaning change?
Also presenting from the Bethany faculty were Denise Kettering-Lane, assistant professor of Brethren studies, whose address was titled “By Water and Oil: Baptism and Anointing in Brethren Tradition”; Russell Haitch, professor of Christian education, who spoke on the topic “‘Do This’: Living the Tradition with New People and Young People”; and Malinda Berry, assistant professor of theological studies, who spoke on “More than Lighting Candles: Theology, Worship, Ritual Action, and the Arts.”
Forum seeks new meaning for Brethren tradition
With an array of speakers and presenters from outside the denomination, including academics, activists, and artists, the Forum itself served to add meaning to the Brethren understanding of the love feast tradition.
Claiborne, who was a featured speaker at National Youth Conference 2010 and has served with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq, is a founder of the Simple Way faith community in Philadelphia. He traced the life experiences that led him to commit to follow Jesus, which he characterized as a commitment to actively look for “the patterns of the kingdom,” from his youth in Tennessee through a time of volunteering with Mother Theresa to involvement with a movement of homeless families in Philadelphia. The occupation by homeless families of an abandoned church in Philadelphia led to the Simple Way community in which Claiborne currently lives and works.
Shane Claiborne is a peacemaker and Christian activist, and a founder of the Simple Way intentional community in Philadelphia.
Speaking on the topic “Another Way of Doing Life,” Claiborne told many stories from his work and that of his community—ranging from pounding handguns into pieces of art to planting community gardens in vacant lots—that illustrate “what it means to be a contrast culture. . . . That is what God is doing in the world, creating a counterculture community.” He closed by praying, “Give us dreams and visions, O God, for what you want to do in this world. . . . Help us fall in love with you so deeply that we become more like you.”
The two academic presentations given the morning of April 5 started off with a detailed examination of John 13, a “hinge” chapter in the gospel of John describing the last supper Jesus ate with his disciples and a model for the Brethren practice of love feast. Ruth Anne Reese, Beeson Chair of Biblical Studies and professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmington, Kentucky, noted that “love is the first and foremost action of this whole chapter. It’s not enough to have knowledge without love.” In John’s telling of the events of the last supper, Jesus demonstrates love in the face of danger and treachery, and despite betrayal, even by his closest friends and followers. It foreshadows the kind of life Jesus’s followers will take up, she told the Forum.
Jesus’s persistence in serving and loving the disciples who will soon betray and deny him is a model for pastors today, she said, calling for recognition of the realities of working in the church as a human community. “Betrayal and denial are kneeling at the communion rail with us,” she said. “Even when love feast has been betrayed by the members of the community, they are encouraged to respond with prayer and mercy.” She urged attendees to look for inspiration not at the form and practice of the love feast, but at the Lord, to whom the love feast points. “We can only trust in the midst of betrayal when we are looking at Jesus. You have to look at Jesus for the ideal, and the community is the imperfect living out of that reality.”
Does the love feast matter?
“Do ritual meals really matter?” asked the second guest academic, Janet R. Walton, professor of worship at Union Theological Seminary in New York. “In the face of unceasing poverty, violence that just doesn’t stop, day-to-day choices that cost us, does anyone think that ritual meals matter? I guess I do!” She examined the nature of ritual meals such as the love feast and communion and the historical first-century Greco-Roman meal tradition with which the early church would have been familiar, using a variety of media images of meals and stories from a variety of communion services held at the chapel at Union Theological Seminary.
Walton assumes, she said, that “all rituals are in constant need of repair” and that “in all ritual something is at stake.” She urged the Forum to consider the “gaps” in our worship practices in order to better serve the community—who may be left out, how rituals reinforce or break boundaries, how in rituals communities and individuals are forced to make choices. Among others, she gave the example of a chapel service at Union held on an Iraq war anniversary, led by a peace and justice group. Inert bodies were lying on the floor, students playing the role of the war’s dead. “The gap on the floor changed everything,” Walton said. “To eat and drink, we had to walk around and over them.”
Such experiences will not be welcomed by all, she acknowledged, even as her presentation encouraged listeners to continually examine how their churches plan and carry out rituals. She emphasized that “rituals that are effective often draw us closer to the experiences of our lives. . . . When our rituals enact experience that can prick our skin and disturb our hearts, we are led to do something.” At Union, she said, “We are aiming at the table for elasticity and generosity . . . making space for what we don’t know, making space for one another’s needs.”
The Forum concluded with a number of breakout sessions led by Brethren pastors and church leaders, including “African Sahilian Love Feasts and Communion” with Roger Schrock, “Bringing Children to Christ’s Table” with Linda Waldron, a panel discussion of “Love Feast: Tradition and Innovation,” “A Poetic Love Feast” with Karen Garrett, and “Living Love Feast: From Reenactment to Formative Worship” with Paul Stutzman.
The closing worship service began with Ted Swartz giving a solo version of selections from “Fish Eyes,” acting the part of the disciple Peter in scenes drawn from the four gospels, followed by a time of worship in the order of the love feast: examination and confession, feetwashing, meal, and communion.
“We are gathered as guests at your table,” said the worship leader who gave a prayer of blessing for the bread and the cup. It was a fitting invitation for participants to look toward the celebration of love feast with their own congregations during Holy Week, with a heightened awareness of the deep meaning of the familiar tradition and eyes open for new understandings and new meaning to emerge.
Photo courtesy of Church of the Brethren/Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford. A photo album of pictures from the Forum is at www.bluemelon.com/churchofthebrethren/livinglovefeastbethanyseminaryForum2014 .
—This article appeared in the April 8, 2014, edition of Newsline, the online and e-mail news service of the Church of the Brethren.