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On homilies, hymn changes, and communion tables

Q I attended a Lutheran church, and there they call the sermon a "homily." How does a homily differ from a sermon?

A I tease my Episcopal friends that they spend so much time on their liturgy, that they don't have time for a good solid sermon and thus settle for a homily. (And then I throw in the old crack about ser-monettes for Christianettes.) This is really nonsense, of course. "Homily" originally meant any discourse and came to be used for "discourse based on the Bible"—which is exactly what a sermon is. It is true that "homily" is more commonly used in Roman Catholic and Anglican circles and "sermon" in Protestant churches. But if you ask a Protestant seminarian what courses (s)he is taking, the answer will be: "and I'm taking homiletics"—which is the art and discipline of making sermons (or homilies).

Q Is it true that the words of "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" were tampered with and do not represent the author's original words?

A Charles Wesley originally wrote "Hark, how all the welkin rings." The words were changed already in 1753 by the famous revival preacher, George Whitefield.

Such "tampering" has taken place in thousands of hymns—and for good reasons. Hymn committees and editors struggle between the claims of the author's original words and intentions, and the most significant use of a hymn by today's congregations. They often decide that change will make the hymn a more meaningful expression of contemporary worship. In recent times this issue of updating old language has focused especially on the "thee's" and "thou's" and the heavily masculine language of older hymns.

Q In planning our new church building we have had considerable disagreement about the size and shape of the communion table (even what to call it!). Is there a "liturgically correct" size, shape, and name for the table?

A We can start with a language lesson. In Latin the word for table was/is altare. The English word "altar," though derived from altare, has lost the notion of table and now means "a place of sacrifice."

More serious is the theological issue. In the Middle Ages the Roman church developed a theology of the Lord's Supper that stressed the resacrificing of Christ's body; the word "altar" began to mean a "structure for sacrifice," and the table began to look less and less like a table. The Reformers conected this theology of the Lord's Supper and also insisted that the sacrament be administered from a table.

Roman Catholic and other "high church" traditions (also most Methodists) usually still call the place of the sacrament the "altar," while Presbyterians and Reformed Christians call it the "table." Given our view of the Lord's Supper, "table" is certainly the correct designation.

And now to the rest of your question: A table ought to look like a table. Unfortunately, the pieces advertised and sold in church furniture catalogs often look like a cross between an altar and a table (manufacturers can thus sell the same model to high and low churches). For more detailed help on this matter, I am going to refer you to (surprise!) a Roman Catholic worship magazine, Modern Liturgy (September 1994, pp. 8-10)), which has an excellent article on the design of communion tables (Edward Sovik, "Making the Eucharistic Table.")