Ecumenical Communion symbolizes Christian unity


Joan Brown Campbell serves communion during 2010’s Ecumenical Communion Service. Daily file photo.

Mary Lee Talbot | Staff Writer

It is all done with volunteers. From the Chautauqua Choir to the bread-makers to the servers, the Ecumenical Communion Service is done with volunteers. Oh yes, a few Chautauqua Institution staff members are involved, but without the love of the volunteers, Chautauqua’s yearly Ecumenical Communion would still be a dream.

One of those volunteers is Bob Boehm from Alliance, Ohio. He was a millwright in the auto industry. I asked what that meant, and he said they assembled the large machinery in the plant, “sometimes as big as a house. As I go through life, things change, and I started a new hobby. I winter in Florida, and two years ago, I started working with wood. I put the wood on a lathe, and as it rotates, I take tools and form bowls out of wood. Sometimes the wood tells me what it wants, and sometimes it just happens.”

The Department of Religion is nine short of the number of bowls wanted for the communion.

“I asked Ruth (Becker, coordinator of the Ecumenical Communion Service) if all the wood had to come from Chautauqua. She said no, just made by a Chautauquan.”

Boehm made three bowls last winter and will make others next winter. The ones he had with him are made of cherry and rosewood.

“I am looking to complete the set for next year,” he said. “I want to give back for what my wife, Sandy, and I have gleaned out of Chautauqua. I do this for my own enjoyment, and what my wife does not need, I give away.”

Thomas Obourn was the man who made the first bowls. He used wood from trees that had been taken down in Chautauqua to make the bowls. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, saw them at the old Art Association gallery, bought all he could and asked Obourn if he could make more. The next summer, Obourn had more bowls. One had a split in the wood.

“Tom said that he kept the split in the bowl because ‘If I understand you, you come (to the table) broken, and you leave healed,’” Jacobsen said.

Ruth said Chautauqua hands make all the bread.

“There are volunteers who make the bread. There will be one gluten-free station and one uncut loaf with a cross on the table. The grape juice comes from the local Growers’ Cooperative in Westfield. They process grapes that are grown locally and make a concentrate used for communion.”

The chalices are made in the art department. Jeff Greenham was the head of ceramics when they started making them. The denominational houses also contribute their chalices. The Methodist House allows the Religion Department to use Bishop Vincent’s chalice.

“For the logistics, we put arrows on the floor after the symphony on Saturday night,” Jacobsen said.  We use volunteers to do that.”
Becker added, “We have 32 stations, 64 people. The New Clergy group will be here and are excited to be part of it. Twice, we have had theological school presidents. And more clergy are coming back to do it again.”

The denominational houses provide banners for the procession. It is joyfully chaotic, Jacobsen said.

“We don’t insist you walk behind your own denominational banner; find any banner,” he said. “Like the denominational house cookies — one week, try Methodist; another, Baptist. Go for Presbyterian coffee.”

The Pittsburgh Concert Chorale will be joining the Chautauqua Choir Sunday. Rehearsing two choirs will be interesting, Jacobsen said.

“The Pittsburgh Chorale has a new director,” he said. “They are learning Christmas music for the Sacred Song Service, but for Communion, I picked something no one knew.”

He said he had not known that “Break Thou the Bread of Life” was a Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle study song.

“It moves us from the liturgy of the word to liturgy of the table,” he said.

Lots of volunteers are also needed to set up and break down.

“There are no catering facilities in the back of the Amphitheater,” Becker said. “The Athenaeum gives us linens for the 18 feet of table space. Jared brings table runners to dress the tables. Usually, members of the Motet Choir volunteer to wash the bowls and cups. Nothing is out of a catalogue — everything has a real Chautauqua connection.”

The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, head of the Department of Religion and Chautauqua’s pastor, will preside at the table. The Rev. Paul Kett, a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada, will represent the Anglican Communion. The Rev. Barbara Lundblad, chaplain of the week, will represent the Lutheran Communion.

Some people still question the validity or need for communion at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday service.

Campbell said, “Any sign of Christian unity, done with the grace of God in a broken world, is a sign for Christians, for Jews, for Muslims. Any sign that is meant to include people means that the broken can be healed. I have had communion all over the world, and rarely in grand cathedrals. Most of the time, it was in houses and in places where people’s lives were in danger, but the spirit was very much there. Even in China, we were able to share the bread and wine.

“Some people ask if this is a congregation. It is one, but not one defined by denominational identity. This year, we have double the number of volunteers who want to serve than we need. We met with Churches of Christ Uniting after the Lutherans and Episcopalians agreed that they could share communion as long as both traditions were represented at the table.  This is not a casual service. It is a service built on the Churches of Christ Uniting (the new configuration of the Council on Church Union). Every year, the reader is a Roman Catholic who reads the gospel. That is what they are able to do in ecumenical settings.”

Jacobsen shared some of his part in the evolution of the Ecumenical Communion Service in the Amphitheater.

“I had done communion for 70,000 people in Candlestick Park in San Francisco with Pope John Paul II, so I knew we could do it here.,” he said. “The first one was an ad hoc service at a denominational house after a Friday morning service. We moved in baby steps. We had gotten wine, because I have worked in a liturgical churches, and that was a faux pas. Here, the fruit of the grape of the vine is grape juice.

“The next year, we did it on a Friday in the Amphitheater after the worship service. The third year, the whole community participated. After that, we received position papers about how to do it better, as well as protesting doing it at all. Many people didn’t know how others took communion. Do we dip? Do we drink? We opted to be pastoral. We also ask ourselves who might be perfect person to preach on this Sunday. This is the seventh year in the Amphitheater.“

Jacobsen described the liturgy that will be used.

“We have massaged the COCU service to include the Lutherans and Episcopalians at the table,” he said. “Any clergy can help to service, and they pick their assistants or get one from a pool of volunteers.  We invite a Roman Catholic to read the gospel as he or she would as deacon of the Mass.

“We have massaged COCU for our Sacred Grove. We acknowledge sacred spaces and we make the Amphitheater a sacred space in very different ways. I have heard a lot of sounds while sitting at the organ over the years. When I hear the shuffle of feet, I have a feeling that that something really profound is happening here. I can hear it and be part of it, even if I don’t actually get the bread and cup.

“We have had some surprises. We try to include those who are called. A Jesuit felt called to help serve communion. It was OK with the local bishop, because he was in Jesuit teaching situation. A priest in San Diego called me, a chaplain in a hospital, and asked who was preaching. I told him Barbara Lundblad. He asked, ‘Do you let Catholics serve? I really want to do this.’ So he will be here.”

Jacobsen noted, “People are starting to say, ‘On the Sunday we always do communion …’ But we do it on a different Sunday every year. To me, that means it has become part of the fabric of Chautauqua. The complaints have diminished. It does work and works well.”