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Walking up the stairs of Hagia Sophia was a holy moment for me.
I was part of a tour group in Turkey several years ago. There were many inspiring views and moments of grandeur, both from ancient history and the early church. Around and inside Hagia Sophia, that glorious church-turned-mosque-turned-museum in Istanbul, nearly every glance was more impressive than the stairs.
The stairs were worn down. They were literally concave. Stone steps ground down by the trudging feet of hundreds of thousands (millions, probably?) of worshippers across the centuries. And I was joining them. I was walking where they had trod. I was walking with them. It was sublime.
I love the notion of being part of something vast and historic. I have a fantasy of St. Paul, or maybe Priscilla and Aquila, walking into our sanctuary — totally unfamiliar with electric lights and not understanding a word of English — but seeing people pouring water into a baptismal font, eating bread and wine from a large table, reading from a big, open book in the center, and realizing they were among Christian kin. I like the idea of standing with the decisions that came out of Chalcedon. Part of me can find all kinds of irksome things in the Heidelberg Catechism or the Canons of Dort, but another part of me embraces the sense of tribe, continuity, and identity they give me.
So to break with church tradition and doctrine is not something I do lightly. “Orthodox” is an adjective I am glad to wear. Okay, I realize welcoming and affirming LGBTQ people cuts against centuries of church beliefs. And I have my reasons for it.
But there is another place where it feels like I’ve stepped off rock-solid tradition and onto a fresh, newly-appearing, small, sandy spit that barely rises above the waterline.
I’m talking about open communion. On the Sundays we celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we announce “All are welcome. Know that you — each of you, all of you — are invited to Christ’s Table today.”
I can hardly remember it, but once upon a time I suppose I said something like, “If you are a baptized Christian…” or “All who are members of a Christian church are welcome…” In more recent memory I would say “All those who seek to follow Jesus…”
Before I get into the “why” behind these changes, it’s interesting to note almost no one noticed or seemed to care about them. My classis (the supervising body to which I am accountable and to which my congregation belongs) wasn’t distressed in the least by the change.
A few years back, four different people from the Reformed Church (RCA) and Christian Reformed Church (CRCNA) shared their views on open communion in our pages. It didn’t generate any significant conversation, let alone blowback.
Much more than welcoming and affirming LGBTQ persons, a case can be made that changing the invitation to the Lord’s Supper is a profound change, one that truly goes against historical orthodoxy. This is about the Sacraments, doctrine after all. The other is “merely” ethics. That the debate about welcoming LGBTQ people gathers all the attention tells me how much today’s church controversies are really more extensions of the culture wars and partisan politics than biblical-theological debates.
But why change? Why reverse centuries of church consensus? I can’t unpack it all here. Again, I’d invite you to read those four brief essays.
Honestly, I wouldn’t underestimate the influence of Sara Miles’ 2008 book, Take This Bread. If you haven’t read it, do so. It tells of the author’s conversion when she stumbles into a church and partakes of the Sacrament. From there, amazing things happen.
Miles is part of a church that intentionally reverses the order of the sacraments. The Meal is the welcoming gesture — open, hospitable, and inclusive. Baptism is then the commitment — deeper, binding. This reversal is obviously an accommodation to our increasingly post-Christian culture, where fewer and fewer people are baptized, where hospitality to seekers is necessarily an essential trait of the church.
One book and a changing cultural context hardly seem enough to undo long held church practices. Admittedly, it feels pretty flimsy.
Of course, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11 have to be a part of this conversation. Still, no one has ever quite determined exactly what “discerning the body” means. It feels like a bit of a leap to say that Paul’s admonition about eating and drinking in an “unworthy manner” leads directly and obviously to the ways we’ve “guarded” the Sacrament. In other words, you can take Paul seriously and still not agree with church practices of the past.
Frankly, I wonder if too much hasn’t been made of Paul’s words here. They’ve probably been distorted a bit to become more about control, power, and exclusivity than an honest desire to honor the body of Christ. Renee House writes, “We are not concerned to protect Jesus from the world any more than he was concerned to protect himself. And we are not concerned to protect our neighbors from Jesus.”
As I think about it, I realize how much my thoughts are colored by conversations from 30 years ago about children at the Lord’s Table. Almost always then, notions like “understanding,” “appropriate,” “worthy” and “knowing” were unmasked as useless — no more describing adult believers who partook of the Supper than the youngest toddler who also partook.
Once we began to see how farcical, and possibly even dangerous, “qualifications” for the Sacrament actually are, it isn’t such a stretch to invite any and all. Even if that means countering tradition.
Hagia Sophia photo by Abdullah Öğük on Unsplash
I’m with you. I had a similar experience. When I moved my practice to open Communion, my conscience sounded all kinds of church-discipline alarms, but not one other person seemed to notice. Rarely do I agree with John Wesley, but he called Communion a “converting ordinance.” With Christendom over, there are so few cultural privileges left to communicant membership that I can’t think of any other real motivation for someone to come to Our Lord’s table than to try Jesus (i.e. feed on Christ).
Thank you, Steve. This resonated with me. I especially love your last lines.
Thank you for this Steve. I too have come to regard the supper as a welcoming meal. Here is a version of a communion invitation I have used:
“It has long been the tradition of the church to welcome to the table all who are baptized
in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
If you have not been baptized, but yet feel drawn to this table that may be a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work within you and we ought not quench the Spirit.
Our Lord Jesus said ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty… and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.”
This table is not ours but Christ’s and the risen Christ invites all who love him and who want to love more to join him at this life-giving meal.”
On Pentecost Sunday 1991, the day of my first installation, my unbaptized and unchurched father and sister, and my baptized nonchurch member mother, all accepted the Lord’s invitation to Supper. From that day on, I knew I had no right, or responsibility, to “fence” the table. The Spirit was at work and who was I to try and stop that work.
This is an interesting article, and it points out my hypocrisy on many levels. I have always used the communion liturgy as a nod to my commitment to my vows, but I have never felt bad about adjusting the Lord’s Day liturgy to suit the culture of our people (after all the liturgy is the work of the people). I’ve always read the invitation from the liturgy, but have made a point to seek out any visitors during the passing of the peace to encourage them they are welcome at the table (A privilege of a small church, and I don’t ask for a certificate of their baptism or require a confession at the moment). I shared at GS from the floor that the liturgies of worship are quite clear that all are children of God, but I’m a bit wishy washy about the binding nature of other parts of the liturgy. Lastly, we have changed the nature of “fencing” the table in many ways throughout the years. In the early church (organized religion, not so much house churches) Lent would be a time of Catechesis followed by baptism on Easter and then the new “member” would be welcomed up to a “private” gathering of the “church” where they would partake in communion. We do nothing like this and for the better. I guess I’m challenged and maybe the best part of this article is forcing me to acknowledge my hypocrisy and name it, so I claim the places I have broken with tradition.
The tradition of fencing the table–though cloaked in the piety of doing what Paul says in 1 Cor 11–mostly has roots in other things. Mostly it was an attempt to keep people under discipline at one church from sneaking in the sacrament at another church (this is why we used to have to have people give us their names for approval before the worship service if they were visiting and wanting to partake of communion on any given Sunday). Tell me where this is an issue today. And of course our paranoia about this was a leading reason why the CRC was not sure around the time of WWI and WWII whether CRC pastors could be military chaplains because–GULP!–they might preside over tables that would include a mix of other traditions. Can a CRC chaplain serve communion to a Methodist? Many at the time said “No.” Ridiculous. Well intended, perhaps, but ridiculous on the face of it. And then there was the standard Preparatory Formula that had to be read the week before the Lord’s Supper so everyone could make sure their spiritual house got in order in the week leading up to the quarterly “celebration” of the sacrament. I stopped using that in my first congregation because it so clearly sent the message that WE can earn our own entry ticket to the table. So much for grace alone.
Having a cognitively challenged son, now 44, gave me a new understanding of profession of faith and the sacraments. A couple of decades ago, Rob enthusiastically nodded “yes” with his whole body (he is non-verbal) to the modified questions Ike Apol asked him. He is a confessing member of the Christian Reformed Church. He eagerly takes part in the Eucharist.
How much rational understanding does he have of the sacraments or doctrine of atonement? Pretty much nil. But he knows where he belongs, and it’s here.
Growing up Catholic and not being able to partake when with family because am no longer Catholic sometimes makes me sad and anxious. I am more than thrilled to be at 2nd Reformed where communion is open and welcoming.
Very lovely, Steve and others who have replied. I am very heartened when we evolve in ways like this.
So eating and drinking judgement on oneself. 1st Cor. 11. Is a warning that no longer applies?
I don’t think the question is whether it applies. The question is, “What does that mean?” The assumption has always been something like, “If you are naughty, you can’t eat, lest you be judged.” Or, “If you don’t understand (in some appropriate intellectual way) what you are doing, then you will be judged.” It is this sort of thinking that kept my dad from taking communion for some 40 years while a member of the RCA. He doesn’t attend church now. I can’t help but wonder if those two things are related.
I’m not sure exactly what “eating and drinking judgment on oneself” means in Paul’s context, as he describes it in 1st Cor. 11, but I think I’m confident that it doesn’t mean “being good enough,” i.e. works righteousness, or “sufficient intellectual competency,” again works righteousness. I would guess it has to do with how we treat each other when coming to the table (are we gracious and welcoming, making room for others, especially those we consider less than us or do rush ahead leaving no room for the “least of these?”) That’s one idea. I know there are others.
Celebrating the Supper every Sunday has a big impact on this. From our practice at
Church of the Servant I would suggest four points to consider:
First, To come to the Table is not only an act of fellowship, but out of a sort of need. We come in part, as we say in our liturgy, ‘not because we are strong, but because we are weak; not because we are whole, but because we are broken.’
Second, the Supper’s reality depends on proclamation. The Word provides a narrative outside my own inner sensibility. I experience the power of the Supper in the context of a gospel narrative.
Third, to come to the Table is to pick up the task of discipleship. When we come to the Table we are making a promise in our body to love and serve each other with “gladness and singleness of heart.”
And fourth, a caution. While the open Table presents an invitation to all, it comes in its own particular social context. There is an easy slip into a sort of “folks like us” mode where we erect unspoken social/cultural fences. Much as my local Episcopal church wants to be open, nevertheless it is wrapped with a social construction and the reality that the people who gather are already ‘inside’.
Look again at Miles’ book: she comes into a church that proclaims and practices discipleship; the open invitation is an entry into a life in God. it’s not the invitation or fence per se, but the accompanying practice that gives it its truth.