#WeAreMenno: A new Mennonite communion liturgy addresses concerns of sexual abuse survivors

By Janie Beck Kreider

Hilary Scarsella
Hilary Scarsella

(Mennonite Church USA)—For the past two years, a small group of Mennonite leaders has been gathering to reimagine the way Mennonite Church USA congregations practice communion based on the experiences and perspectives of victims of sexual abuse.

WAM_Icon_AThis group grew out of a final project that Hilary Scarsella completed in 2012 as part of her Master of Divinity degree at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), Elkhart, Indiana. Scarsella, who recently began a Ph.D. program in theology and trauma at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, and who co-directed Mennonite Church USA’s Women in Leadership Project for two years, wrote her thesis on how the Lord’s Supper liturgy exacerbates cycles of abuse and re-traumatizes people who have experienced sexualized violence.

As a survivor of sexual violation and trauma herself, Scarsella said her participation in the Lord’s Supper had often felt complicated. Through conversation with other survivors in the church, she realized that she was not alone in experiencing aspects of the ritual as problematic — most notably the language about bodily sacrifice and theology glorifying submission at the hands of violent persecutors.

Scarsella’s theological training helped her articulate a growing conviction that the Mennonite Church’s communion liturgy needed some adjustment in order to become a feast that could be nourishing for all participants.

“I wanted to envision what a liturgy might look like that would refrain from doing that kind of harm,” she explains. “Not only as an alternative liturgy for abuse survivors, but also a liturgical example that could be adapted for use in a variety of settings.”

“I believe that the whole body of believers will be better off with a communion liturgy that is informed by the wisdom of survivors,” she adds.

In her project, she began to map out an alternative version of the Mennonite Church’s communion liturgy that is mindful of the dynamics that abuse brings to light, placing it line by line alongside the existing outline in the Minister’s Manual, Mennonite Church USA’s official liturgical guide.

For example, Scarsella rewrote pieces of the Prayer of Confession in the Minister’s Manual to include the experience of sexual abuse survivors. In the following excerpt, which the group edited together later, the alternative prayer of preparation encourages self-love, empowers open sharing of the emotions experienced through trauma, defines the faith community as a place of safety and peace, and names sin not just as prideful self-assertion, but also as self-forgetting and silence.

Instead of focusing on the ways in which participants fail to live up to the standards of the community, the alternative liturgy also names the failure to recognize and give thanks for their belovedness as children of God.

We know love because you loved us first. We flourish in your love, as we express your love among ourselves and with our neighbors. We find safety and peace in the beloved community of faith. (pause)

Loving God,
We give you thanks. 

Too often we have concealed our sorrow, anger and pain. Too often we have neglected to offer prayers of kindness, and to give words of hope and signs of care. Too often we have spoken or kept silence in ways that hurt ourselves or another. (pause)

Loving God,
Forgive us.

When Scarsella presented her project, John Rempel, then AMBS professor of Anabaptist history and theology (who also happened to be one of the authors of the Minister’s Manual), was in the audience.

“I realized for the first time at close range how religion broadly and also very specifically is a part of how abusers wound the person they are abusing,” says Rempel. “Hilary wasn’t simply dispensing with our worship tradition, but asking if it could be rescued in a way that genuinely takes into account how our language and suppositions continue to hurt people.”

Rempel encouraged Scarsella to form a discernment group to continue her project.

“Ultimately, this was work that needed to be discerned in community; it’s not something one person can come up with on her own,” Scarsella reflects.

Scarsella gathered a group of Mennonite leaders who could contribute wisdom gained through walking with survivors as counselors, pastors and teachers, or from their own journeys as survivors. She included people with academic training in theology and church history as well as a pastoral perspective from working with congregations and the needs of worshiping communities.

Rempel, now senior associate at the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre; David Miller of Elkhart, a long-time pastor and professor of missional leadership at AMBS; Eleanor Kreider, also of Elkhart, who has written about worship, liturgy and specifically communion; and Carolyn Holderread Heggen of Corvallis, Oregon, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma recovery and author of Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches, came together to continue Scarsella’s project of envisioning what such a liturgy might look like.

A few months later, Rhoda Keener, Sister Care director for Mennonite Women USA, joined the group when Holderread Heggen needed to step back due to her growing involvement with the Discernment Group on sexual abuse and the church.

Opening up wounds

In a few early sessions of their process, members of the group alternated taking the lead, sharing from their own experiences. Because the group included some survivors of sexual abuse, this sharing was particularly revealing and difficult.

“Coming from an experience of survival, this process opened up wounds,” reflected one group member. “There were many layers of recognition I needed to work through about how this ritual had affected me as an abuse survivor.”

In particular, language about giving up the body as a sacrifice to the powerful was especially difficult. (See sidebar below for words of institution from the Minister’s Manual.)

When offering the bread and cup, the group settled on the alternative phrase, “The bread of life and the cup of salvation,” instead of the traditional imperatives “take, eat” or “take, drink.”

But changes to the Minister’s Manual did not always come easily for the group.

“The Lord’s Supper is central to my life,” explains Rempel. “My initial worry about developing alternative words of institution came from my experiences of participating in communion services that I felt could hardly be recognized as a Christian rite that has been practiced throughout the centuries; the words of institution provided a bare minimum of continuity with other Christians and the story of what Jesus passed on.

“And yet I realized with shock how it [the Lord’s Supper] can be abused, and how certain theories of the atonement — which seem to valorize suffering for its own sake — can cause terrible consequences.”

“The communion words were something I never took in really deeply at all, maybe because I was a survivor,” adds Keener. “I thought, ‘I’ve never really had an issue with communion,’ but I was really surprised by the feelings that emerged for me when studying the words of institution and how deeply I was affected. I think there are others who might share this experience.”

“In the words of institution, a lot of theological messages culminate,” explains Scarsella. “Sacrificing the body to unjust trauma is an important part of Jesus’ message that needs to be carefully framed so that it is not misunderstood.”

One version of the liturgy that the group is testing (see sidebar below) incorporates “framing words” before the alternative words of institution to help with interpretation of these complicated dynamics. But even the most carefully crafted words must be read and interpreted in the appropriate context.

“Even when you get the language right, if you still practice these rituals within a patriarchal context, the change in language is not going to be enough, “ explains Miller. “This project is a deep reminder of the need for a kind of patient work that requires listening, and the need to be attentive to the ways our practices affect the very thing they are meant to be accomplishing.

“In other words, does our worship release captives? Or recover sight for the blind? This process felt like participating in what Jesus announced his whole mission to be about.”

“Walking with survivors has been, if not the most, certainly one of the more important sources of learning throughout this process,” he reflects. “There were things right in front of me that I needed to learn how to see. The ways in which survivors have been my teachers in this process have shaped hermeneutics for me beyond any theory.”

The full text of the group’s work to create options for liturgically addressing the words of institution and retelling Jesus’ bodily self-sacrifice will be published in Leader magazine in the summer of 2016. (See sidebar below for excerpts.) Group members say they hope people across the church will test the options and provide feedback.

“Given our ex tempore tradition, we cannot expect people to adhere to an authoritative written text,” reflects Kreider. “That is why the underlying concerns of our group need to infuse the whole service and become second nature to leaders in our more free-prayer practices at the Lord’s table.”

Why sexualized violence?

Along the way, the group has received questions about why sexualized violence is the focus of this project. Why choose one perspective when there are traumas and abuses of all kinds that deserve attention?

“By trying to speak to all situations, sometimes you end up not speaking well to any,” explains Miller. “Certainly this project does not address all that needs to be said, and yet these are things that must be said and taken seriously.”

“It might take a while for people to see that this is an attempt to make the love of Jesus more accessible to us, not an attempt to discount it,” adds Rempel. “This project has a great respect for biblical passages and ­­­­­­our traditional ways of participating in the communion ritual; it is not a lighthearted putting aside of what we believe. But we can’t leave it alone in the wake of all the pain that has become evident, especially when our language is part of the culprit.”

“Through this project we wanted to explain what is at stake in the particular context of sexualized violence,” says Scarsella. “Mennonites tend to adapt resources for themselves and don’t do things exactly as written. We like that about our tradition and offer this liturgy as an example for worship leaders to incorporate into their own practice in ways that work for them.”


Image available:
Hilary Scarsella


Minister’s Manual Words of Institution

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way he took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.”

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Alternative Liturgy 1 (removing the words “body” and “blood”)

Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it (break the bread) and said, “When you share bread together, remember me.”

Jesus took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant. When you drink it together, remember me.”

Alternative Liturgy 2 (with framing words) 

Anticipating that he would be killed for offering life and liberation; anticipating that his crucifixion would be an attempt to silence and discourage his followers, to erase his name from their lips; anticipating that those who had him crucified expected to demonstrate their strength by taking control of his body and the divine energy pulsing in the blood of his veins;

… anticipating this, on the night when he was betrayed Jesus took a loaf of bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it (break the bread in two parts) and said, “This is my body for you. When you share bread together, remember me.” (bring the two parts of the bread back together)

In the same way, he took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; when you drink it together, remember me.”

In choosing to entrust his body to those who loved him, Jesus denied crucifixion the ability to destroy him fully. In giving the energy of his veins to many Jesus denied crucifixion the ability to drain that energy from the world. The presence of his body and the energy in his veins lives on in the relationships of those who share bread and cup together. The one who was crucified lives, and the life he offers abounds. The powers of destruction failed to erase Christ’s message of love, for as often as you share this bread and cup you proclaim that message until he comes.


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5 thoughts on “#WeAreMenno: A new Mennonite communion liturgy addresses concerns of sexual abuse survivors

  1. This is wonderful work, Hilary and team; it addresses issues similar to the service we at Peace Mennonite in Claremont, use at Easter which is in the language of Rene Girard and renounces all violence in the act of taking the cup and loaf. If you want to see it request from daugsburger@msn.com

  2. Thanks for sharing this work with the broader community. My concern is that the alternatives offered above neglect to mention or condition our acceptance of the very means by which Christians have believed that those humans who have suffered or perpetrated violence can be healed and redeemed. I fear that Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the clearest symbolic opportunity for Christ’s living body to participate in that magnificent act of love (a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks), may become an offense to us.

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