IBTS travels,  Theological musings/personal reflections

First Baptist Church, Washington D.C.

Established in 1802, this Baptist Church now worshiping in a sanctuary built in 1955, has a historic past and is at the heart of Embassy and Government offices on 16th Street, NW.

In the spectrum of Baptist worship it might be regarded as “High” Baptist with robed clergy and choir, and a high altar (yes, the information leaflet uses the word altar). On the Second Sunday of Advent the procession of choir and clergy also had one of the church families involved to light two of the purple advent candles. The selection of chorale music included “And the Glory” from Handel’s Messiah and we stood for the reading of the Gospel.

Sadly, though the liturgy was careful crafted and set out with congregational responses and choir verses after the readings, the “Communion” had only one line in the extensive liturgical leaflet and we descended from a rich bouquet of liturgical praise to “mere memorialism” in a hyper Zwinglian form that Zwingli, with his views of transsignification and his high place for the congregational participation around the table, would have hardly recognized.

Though the church claims this liturgical tradition and an ecumenical perspective the communion and great prayer of thanksgiving were perfunctory in the extreme. Sadly, the sense of eucharista was totally absent in an otherwise splendid service and the “dollies tea cup” of grape juice leaving a deep sense of disappointment.

How is it possible to construct good liturgical worship with a reading of the lectionary passages for the day and appear to care so little about the Eucharist which is set alongside the Word as revealing Christ to us as we praise God together? This is one of the deep conundrums of Baptist life today.

– Keith


  • Curtis Freeman

    Keith and IBTS Friends:

    Glad to know you’re visiting on this side of the water. Wish I knew you were over here so as to arrange a visit. Perhaps another time.

    You post is revealing. Have you broached this conversation with anyone at FBC DC? They are currently without a pastor. Their former pastor, Jim Summerville, recently was called to FBC Richmond, VA.

    I don’t know if what you encountered at FBC DC would have been the case had they had a pastor, however. As you know, I’ve also been calling attention to this sub-Zwinglian theology for some time. It is, unfortunately, more common than anyone really imagines or will admit.

    In my visits to Baptist churches in the American South, it is quite common to attend a service of the Lord’s Table in which no words of institution (anamnesis) are recited and no prayer calling for the presence of the Holy Spirit is offered (epiclesis or paraclesis). In neither my seminary training nor in my ordination, was I ever asked or instructed about the proper celebration of eucharist/Lord’s supper. I try not to make that mistake with my students.

    Our practice has atrophied in part due to a reaction against various forms of sacramentalism (Catholics and Churches of Christ/Campbellites) and the influence of Emersonian romanticism/experientialism and hyper-individualism. The end result is an established practice of “mere memorial/mere symbol.”

    Rather than just pronouncing our fellow Baptist brothers and sisters as on the edge of Baptist and Christian faith and practice, I would love to find ways to help them find their way closer to the center of the rich storehouse of liturgical worship. The goal: to recover a sense of Christ’s presence at the Table so the church may be nourished and strengthened in faith.

    It might be helpful if we could find ways to invite conversations about the theology and practice of the Lord’s Table. Perhaps we could jointly host something. Maybe you could raise this in a letter to US Baptists. These are just rambling thoughts but about a deeply troubling condition.

    Advent Blessings and Safe Journeys!
    Curtis Freeman

  • Barry Harvey

    I too would welcome ways to help our fellow Baptists learn about the sacramental tradition beyond the caricatures that I and many others received in our theological training.

    Denys Turner captures the essence of these caricatures when, referring to the meal-ticket one typically receives at academic conferences, he states that, “The Protestant thinks that the meal-ticket represents the meal you can purchase by means of it; the Catholic eats the meal-ticket, thinking that that is what you are getting for lunch.”

    At the same time I am at a loss as to how to do this, and am most eager to hear from others.

    Barry Harvey

  • rkennedy

    I am currently producing a Baptist book of worship for Judson Press (Spring, 2009). During our many discussions and working sessions, there have been numerous complaints about what is perceived as my sacramental approach to liturgy, in particular, the Sacrament of Holy Communion. What a delight to read the posts in this strain. We celebrate communion every Sunday at FBC Dayton in our chapel service and once a month in our regular 10:30 worship. We use a full liturgy for Holy Communion and our congregation has responded in positive ways. I am encouraged to know that other Baptist voices are being raised about our following of the wrong reformer. May God advent in all of you the living presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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