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.