The Eucharist, usually called the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion in our tradition, is the center of Christian worship of God. Indeed, it is what makes the worship of the universal church distinctively Christian. Its origin comes directly and personally from Jesus Christ. Because of its significance, the way we celebrate it deserves the most careful attention.
I want to focus on only one basic point, and that is the necessity of using the prayer of the Church in offering thanks before participating in the holy meal. The prayer of the Church is the Great Thanksgiving in the Service of Word and Table. In The United Methodist Hymnal, there are 4 versions of this prayer. The most basic one is the one in A Service of Word and Table II.
In some congregations, it has become the custom of the pastor to offer his or her own prayer as a substitute for the Church's prayer. Sometimes the pastor includes the words of institution, and sometimes the pastor does not include these words. While it is essential to include the words of our Lord which were spoken at the Last Supper when he instituted the Lord's Supper, even this is not adequate.
The prayer of the Church should be used when celebrating the Eucharist because it is the prayer of the whole Church and not that of just the congregation or the pastor. It contains the whole drama of God's salvation from creation to the new creation. It is ordered around the Rule of Faith, namely the worship of one God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Great Thanksgiving in the rite of The United Methodist Church was approved for use by the Church after the most careful deliberation and years of experimentation, taking into account the practices of the early church, ecumenical consultation, and awareness of the theological debates about the meaning of the Eucharist over the centuries. To fail to use the Church's prayer is a most serious error because it results in setting aside what the Church has learned in developing this rite for the heart of Christian worship.
When we fail to use the prayer of the Church we distort the Gospel and fail to shape people for discipleship according to the fullness of the Gospel. As I said, this prayer follows the Rule of Faith. When it is not used then the people are not shaped according to Trinitarian worship of God. If the pastor omits the first part of the prayer praising the Father as the source of creation, or the second part remembering the voluntary offering of Jesus Christ for our redemption, or the third part calling on the power of the Holy Spirit for our sanctification, then there is a distortion of the whole economy of divine salvation accomplished by the Triune God. In effect, if we reduce the prayer to just one part of it, or epitomize one part of it in extemporaneous praying, we practice a form of Unitarianism, whether it is Unitarianism of the Father, or of the Son, or of the Holy Spirit. For example, a prayer which evokes only the words of institution implies a Unitarianism of the Son, omitting the work of the loving Triune God in creating the world out of nothing and bringing it to consummation by the transfiguring power of the Spirit.
Our theological assumptions have direct consequences for discipleship. For instance, the first part of the prayer is strongly cosmic in its content ("heaven and earth are full of your glory"). How can we take seriously our stewardship of the earth when we do not allow this prayer of the Church to permeate our consciousness? The second part remembers, in the sense of having re-presented to us now, Jesus Christ and what God has accomplished through him for our sakes. How can we be shaped to trust and follow Jesus Christ if we omit this second part of the Great Thanksgiving? The third part calls upon the Holy Spirit. How can we learn to live and grow in holiness without the dynamic energy of the Holy Spirit?
The wisdom of our Church is that it recognizes the value of adding to the prayer of the Church prayers which fit a congregation's needs or a pastor's emphasis on any given Sunday. In fact, when it is done right, this kind of extemporizing is encouraged. If a congregation is beginning a new ministry to the homeless, some words about this could be added to the third part calling on the Holy Spirit to make us "be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood" -- "Let us be Christ's hands and feet as we begin to provide hospitality to our sisters and brothers who have no homes of their own and no shelter for their families."
It is difficult to understand why some pastors, despite being trained otherwise, persist in the practice of not praying the Church's prayer in the Eucharist. A concern for brevity cannot be the reason since it takes only a few minutes to offer the Church's prayer. Being concerned about brevity here is not valid given what is at stake. Perhaps some just believe that expressing their own personal sincerity is more authentic, but this prayer is not supposed to be their prayer, but the prayer of the the whole Church. At any rate, if any think their prayer is better than the Church's, it isn't. Their prayer never encompasses the scope of the Church's sound faith or attends to the nuances of theological accents wrought by the whole Church.
The baptized have a right to worship God according to the fullness of the Church's experience. They deserve to approach the Lord's Table after praying the Church's prayer of thanksgiving to the Triune God.