Open or Closed Table Eucharist – WWJD?

Vaux EucharistThe sacred meal that Jesus-followers celebrate, variously called ‘Eucharist’ or ‘Communion’ or ‘Lord’s Supper’ – is both the centerpiece of most Christian worship worldwide, and is also one of the most divisive rites we practice. My friend and Catholic Celtic contemplative (how much more alliteration can I pack into his descriptor – oh I know, his first name!) Carl McColman blogs about feeling this ambivalence firsthand in Communion and the Broken Body. What follows is a response to Carl, and the others who have interacted in the comments. I recommend you read Carl’s post before proceeding.

I’m grateful to Carl for sharing this – I recall he and I discussing restrictions that Roman Catholics (among others) place around the Eucharist the first time I came to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit with him and participated in the morning prayers and mass. It was beautiful, getting up way earlier than I normally do, chanting Psalms with the monks and Carl as the sun gradually illuminated the stained glass windows with an all-pervasive, translucent purple.

Because of both their hospitality and their declining numbers, Carl and I were able to sit in the monastic choir loft right there with the Cistercians; I felt very included. This made the next portion of the morning gathering all the more jarring, as I was technically not allowed to take the wafer and wine, as per Roman Catholic restrictions on non-Catholic participation. Instead I stood, arms crossed, receiving a “blessing” from the priest. the Christian community’s celebration of unity with God and each other is fragmented, broken much like Christ’s body on the altar, and this does indeed call for sadness. I agree with Carl in his post about both the lamentability of this reality, and working for change from within.

But I also agree with Darrell and some of the other (you could call us ‘green meme’) commentators on this thread – that unlike other things the Church might mourn, such as the energy crisis or genocide in Darfur, this is a matter wholly of our own making and within our purview to change. In stages of grief, if grieving doesn’t lead to fresh beginnings and new action, the griever is stunted in her growth. So let’s move on and become the change we wish to see.

Dines with SinnersHow might we do this? Well, if Catholics want to appeal to tradition and authority, and Protestants want to appeal to conscience and Scripture, maybe we can all agree to hold these in abeyance while taking a moment to appeal…to Jesus. (Ack – I realize upon typing this that it can sound awfully one-sidedly Protestant, even Pietist. Bear with me a moment…)

If I may be so presumptuous, I think Jesus agrees with Carl’s growing realization that there are legitimate boundaries to the community of faith – that there are mysteries to be stewarded, and hard roads to walk, and that while hospitality is a crucial part of our vocation as apprentices along the Christ-path, there are also places where the general public simply won’t go – and this is fine. Inclusive green meme progressives like me struggle with this a bit, but Jesus deliberately thinned out the crowds from time to time – speaking in enigmatic parables, ratcheting up Moses’ law a thousand-fold to show the uncompromising heart of God’s reign, and ultimately inviting followers to a challenging third way path between Roman hegemony and reactive Jewish intransigence. In this way Jesus brought a ‘sword,’ and families were divided over what to do about him and his message. So Jesus is exclusive, yes?

And I hardly need to argue in this esteemed audience that Jesus is inclusive, too. Maybe cranky and reluctant at times, but reaching out to Samaritan women and Roman centurions and – most significantly – to lowest-caste Jewish folks of his day that polite society and religious elites wouldn’t countenance. Jesus seems to genuinely enjoy the company of the outcast and ne’er-do-well.

And Jesus gave us a meal – sometimes somber, sometimes joyous, in re-membrance of him, embodying Christ for the sake of each other and the world. And the question we post-Christendom, postmodern friends of God in the way of Jesus are asking ourselves is,

How then shall we eat?

and with whom?

Recognizing that there are initiation rituals and boundary rituals in any religious group, we could then ask the question “What are our boundary rituals?” and “What are our initiation rituals?”

And is Eucharist the former or the latter? I know that official Roman Catholic polity – and that of many other communions – say that Eucharist is the former, it’s a boundary ritual reinforcing membership in Christ’s Body.

Images from

Images from

Byzantine/Anglo-Catholic liturgist Richard Fabian makes a brief-but-compelling case for reversing the well-tread order of Baptism and Eucharist in his essay First the Table, Then the Font. I’m not going to reiterate his arguments here, but it’s well worth the read. Summarizing him from my point of view, I have to ask the question “How did Jesus eat with others in his earthly life? Were they initiation meals, or boundary-maintenance?” I have to conclude that, overwhelmingly, in his eating Jesus is precisely at his most inclusive. This is when he dines with terrorists and sex workers and tax collectors, whilst the religious authorities of his day were disgusted.

“But oh,” contemporary religious authorities might object, “his final meal this side of the grave – the one where he told his followers to keep eating in remembrance of him – that was just with his inner circle.” Granted, but let me ask you this: If Jesus was asking his followers to eat in his manner, to celebrate his presence among them, would they be drawing solely on this one ‘final’ meal, or the collective memory of their years shared together? To put it another way: If the Church wants to insist on a closed, bounded-set meal based on one night of our Lord’s life, shouldn’t it work equally vigorously to celebrate the scandalously inclusive, no-strings-attached manner of eating our Redeemer practiced during the vast majority of his public ministry?

And – perhaps more provocatively – shouldn’t we consider that even in his “inner circle,” Jesus extended radical hospitality to a betrayer in their midst! Doesn’t sound like particularly good boundary-maintenance to me.

Religious thinking is so bass-ackward sometimes. We’re afraid of ourselves, and afraid of the ‘outside world.’ We think of boundaries as something that we need to institute and enforce, externally, while gratuitous inclusion is something that will result in our loss of distinction and identity. Jesus seemed to reverse this pattern, finding his identity in complete open-handed invitational inclusion at the site of the shared meal, with boundary naturally arising in his call to follow him. It’s good branding, really – being salt and light both attracts and repels different people, or even the same people at different times – even ourselves at different stages of life’s journey.

With this said, I realize that – both practically and intentionally speaking – Eucharistic celebration is primarily for the edification of committed apprentices of Jesus; it is not ‘evangelistic’ per se in its design. Even so, it is invitational when practiced in the way of Jesus. We needn’t be concerned that abject heathens are going to keep beating down our doors to participate in a ritual that they disrespect and that holds no meaning to them – it just ain’t happening, folks. On the other hand, atheists, agnostics, sinners and ne’er-do-wells might just be curious enough to participate alongside us – to see if they can belong before believing, to see if they can ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’ I long to see creative, prophetic acts of public worship, like my friend Lucas Land proposes in Eucharist as Eat-In. If we unshackle Jesus from our exclusionary practices, the transforming love of God can spill into the streets and the ‘profane’ lives or ordinary people – through our supposed ‘means of grace’ that we keep shut up.

That’s what happened to another friend, Sara Miles, who stumbled into Fabian’s congregation over a decade ago. I loathe to think of where Sara, her city, and even her congregation would be had she not been allowed to encounter Jesus at a no-strings-attached Communion table in her neighborhood. I shudder to think of how Jesus is being shuttered up in buildings across this world – what we’re missing out on by not making liturgy the work of the people, for the people.

I guess I should apologize to Carl – I got into the very argument that he didn’t want to have. And I’m going to ratchet it up slightly here – I don’t think that Darrell was being overly unkind or by describing the closed-handed exclusivity of certain Eucharist practices as ‘demonic.’ This needn’t be seen in an overly polemic way, but rather in the spirit of the apostle Paul, when he wrote a church to say he was giving one of its members “over to the devil.” This wasn’t a curse, but a naming of things as they really are in hopes of full repentance and restoration. I can’t – and won’t – stand in judgment of denominations that fence the table from all who don’t have confessional unity with them. But I do sniff the smell of fear and sulphur around such behavior at an institutional level, at what Walter Wink would call “the Powers” (demonic again. 🙂 ) And I do pray that such power will be broken – for Christ’s sake, and the sake of the world.

If anyone wants to do some theological heavy-lifting on the matter, I’d recommend (in addition to Fabian’s essay above) Come to the Table by Anglican priest Jamie Howison – the full book is available here. Also Making A Meal of It: Rethinking the Lord’s Supper by United Methodist minister and theologian Ben Witherington III. And to be fair to another perspective (thanks Carl for pointing these resources out), Episcopal priest and Thomas W. Phillips Chair in Religious Studies professor at Bethany College in West Virginia Jim Farwell has staked a lot on a generous-but-boundary-keeping stance on limiting Communion to the baptized. His essay Baptism, Eucharist, and the Hospitality of Jesus: On the Practice of  ‘Open Communion,’ as well as its rejoinder by Kathryn Tanner can be found on the Anglican Theological Review website here. (Interestingly, for me anyway, I took a class with Farwell over a decade ago on Eastern Religion with a focus on Zen and interreligious dialogue at Berry. It’s a small Body of Christ…)

It’s also worth noting that, in true house church fashion, I think that the Eucharist is best celebrated as a full meal – why redact God’s feast into a notional meal only? But that’s a subject for a whole ‘nother post…

An earlier version of this was originally posted September 21, 2009

34 Responses to Open or Closed Table Eucharist – WWJD?

  1. Travis Greene September 21, 2009 at 5:42 pm #

    Definitely open.

    Part of the problem (imho) is the way the RCC and others think about authority (not that they think about authority, contra our overly individualistic evangelical-Protestant friends).

    If the locus for authority is in the believing, practicing, interpreting, and witnessing community rather than in some ontologically distinct class of religious specialists, then the question isn’t “Who do we serve Communion to?”, it is “Who will we take Communion with?” Or better, who will we eat with? I think Jesus would answer, “Anyone. Everyone.”

    Sacramental theology has little to do with it. The only shift is from “I’m bringing Jesus into this room” to “Jesus is with us in this room as we do this practice. Which, following his example, is open to all.”

    Not that I expect our Catholic friends to change on this point soon. And I certainly wouldn’t barge in, uninvited, to a Catholic mass to make some kind of theological point. But they’re welcome to celebrate Eucharist with me anytime.

  2. Nate September 21, 2009 at 8:47 pm #

    I think you’ve hit this on the head, Mike, though I don’t think that folks with identities invested in maintaining the divide are going to budge.

  3. tripp fuller September 22, 2009 at 2:52 am #

    awesome post. green meme references are always appreciated.

    so you just need to know that a blogging Morrell is an awesome Morrell!!!!!

  4. Jamie Howison September 22, 2009 at 3:24 am #

    Well, as someone who is mentioned in this post as being the author of a little book on our practice of an open table, I am bound to be in favour… but I really do think it important to not loose sight of the significance of baptism as part of Christian life and growth. Something that John Koenig from General Seminary in NYC pointed out to me is that often baptism more or less fades from view in communities which practice open table, and so in our context we’ve tried to really keep alive the creative and sacramental tension between the two. For us this often means that the point of entry to a deepening faith is through the table and toward the font, rather than from font to table.

    I actually think that a powerful case can be made that in the 1st Century at least (and in at least some contexts probably later) there was a more fluid relationship between the two than our various liturgy professors were prepared to recognize.

    I like how one person in our church community phrased it: “perhaps it is an immersion of experience that is needed in our time.” Taste and see…

    Jamie Howison

  5. Mark Baker-Wright September 22, 2009 at 3:33 pm #

    The one thing that comes to mind (which may sound like a push-back, but I don’t think it is, really) is Paul’s admonishment not to eat or drink “unworthily” (I Cor. 11).

    But even this would not be a command to set boundaries around the table so that “outsiders” cannot come in. Rather, it is simply an appeal to each individual that they should take the table seriously. There is no instruction that the church needs protection against “outsiders,” nor any instruction that the church needs to act to protect “outsiders” from “unworthy” participation. Instead, the matter is left up to individual conscience.

    In this vein, I think that it’s appropriate to have something in the invitation inviting those who believe (I won’t quibble over the exact language) to partake, but there should be no movement on the church to “police” whoever chooses to come forward.

  6. lucas September 22, 2009 at 5:34 pm #

    Paul’s admonishment in 1 Corinthians should also be kept in context, the community’s celebration of Eucharist involved a full meal and divisions were highlighted in their practice of that agape meal.

    I agree that our understanding and practice of Eucharist needs to be expanded from the tiny elements of wafer and grape juice to a connectedness to the Body of Christ and the body of the earth. If I were in charge I would have bread made by someone in the congregation (preferrably from local ingredients) and wine from a local vineyard. Perhaps it is the way we have defined Eucharist as a sacramental ritual divorced and isolated from the world that has to do primarily with a transaction of grace between the believer and God that limits us. I don’t think anyone here is being particularly narrow, but as we widen the Lord’s Supper to be more communal it naturally extends to an embrace of creation and the wider scope of missio Dei beyond the boundaries of church, however we define it.

    william cavanaugh explores the eucharist as an antidote to consumerism in his book Being Consumed. I think these ways of thinking about the role of eucharist in the christian community begin to undermine some of the problematic ways that it has created division and continues to be contentious. the conversation about whether the eucharist is a boundary or invitational ritual is central. i would obviously see it as an invitational, but with some boundary-setting characteristics as mike has said.

  7. Wes Ellis September 22, 2009 at 10:56 pm #

    Great stuff! I have gone back and forth with this one in some ways. I thought I believed unconditionally in an open table but then I read some of William Cavanaugh’s thoughts on excommunication as it pertains practically to the reality of torture and oppression done by the “powers” (as Wink would call them) in his book “Torture and Eucharist”. It seems that the Eucharist may be precisely the place where we proclaim specifically and profoundly the identity of Christ in this world which means we cannot tolerate the reality of oppression and torture in whatever form.

    I don’t think this kind of exclusion comes out of fear but out of resistance. Thus the Eucharist meal can be a profound act of resistance against the powers and the curse of sin.

    But, as you point out, Jesus’ meals were indeed scandalous–often with folks who were indeed perpetuating violence and oppression. Yet it seems that Jesus, in his inclusion, still found a way to excommunicate the curse and the powers without excommunicating the people themselves. That’s the tricky balance I want to find–excluding and resisting “sin” and the curse from the Body of Christ while still openning the table to ALL people.

    Absolutely wonderful post!

  8. zoecarnate September 23, 2009 at 3:40 am #

    Travis, Nate, right on! Tripp, let’s get Integral baby. It’s time the Great Emergence goes Spiral.

    Jamie, I hear you: the aim is full inclusion in the covenant community, and that includes baptism. Makes sense to me, and I think the mainline has to have the confidence and moxie to name this as an outcome to apprenticeship to Jesus in one’s locality. And I’d say that one can take Farwell’s approach if done well & with pastoral sensitivity. (And I think Farwell himself probably does this) One of the most vivid and beautiful pictures of how this may have worked in a first-thousand-years cathecumen setting is outlined in what I think is one of the most significant church history books released in the past decade – Saving Paradise by Brock and Parker.

    Mark, right on…see what I’m about to say in the next comment.

    Lucas, as always, you’re like five steps ahead of me.

    Wes, I hear you (and thank you, along with Lucas, for bringing Cavanaugh into this!) – but when have you seen a church bar someone from Eucharist for such scrupulous reasons? I’m not saying it shouldn’t happen, but that it mostly doesn’t, save media-hyped instances of certain Democrat lawmakers and politicians being barred from reception by conservative Bishops.

    I agree with you though: If you’re a member of a church & a known oppressor, this is an appropriate time for church discipline – including being barred from the table of fellowship – and ultimately excommunication if you keep the oppression up. This is in line with what Paul means by ‘rightly discerning the Body’ in 1 Corinthians I think…it’s about interpersonal righteousness and caring for the poor among you, not the privatized introspection thing it’s been made into in contemporary Western culture (but probably beginning in the Middle Ages, eh?)

  9. zoecarnate September 23, 2009 at 3:48 am #

    So I was pleasantly surprised to find this post being discussed over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, thanks to Travis. It’s in the context of Jim Belcher’s new book Deep Church. In commenting on bounded-set versus center-set communities (and you really should go and read these comments), the bounded or open nature of the Communion Table naturally came up. Belcher himself brought up an objection to the open table (echoing Mark’s possible concern above), pondering

    “A few years before we planted our church in the PCA denomination, my wife and I attended a wonderful episcopal church in San Gabriel, Ca. They had an open table. That was the first time I had to think about a different way of doing it. I liked parts of it but other things did not sit well for me, particularly Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor. 10:14-22.”

    Here’s what I said: “Hi all,

    I’m honored that my recent blog post has gotten tossed into the discussion about Jim’s excellent book, which I’ve just delved into this week.

    Jim, thanks so much for your openness. I was involved in a PCA church for several years, including in leadership, but was put in a very uncomfortable position when raising certain questions that you do, and advocating certain changes that you have – I ultimately left that church to be part of an intentional house church community. I have no regrets about that decision, but who knows? Perhaps if you were my pastor, I would’ve still been a Reformed guy today. 🙂

    I appreciate your candor in raising the question(s) you’re raising about an open table Eucharist in light of Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor. 10:14-22. I think, though, that this point of uncomfortably is both enforced and addressed in keeping with an open table easily enough if we consider Corinth’s narrative context.

    As I mention in the last sentence of my blog post, I think that Eucharist/Lord’s Supper/Agape Feast was originally celebrated in the context of (or even as) a full meal – eating and drinking together was an integral part of worship for congregations in the first century. These meals were eaten both in accordance to and in defiance of local customs of their day – there were continuities & discontinuities between the Eucharist meals and the neighboring Jewish and Greco-Roman meals. The discontinuities primarily lie in the radical openness of the table to Jew & Gentile as well as people of different social classes, rich and poor, free and slave alike eating. This eating was a central part of early Christian worship because it depicted – in flesh and living color – the community of reconciliation in Christ that was one of the earmarks of the new creation that was dawning.

    At least this was the ideal. But in reality the rich folks were showing up earlier with the best food and eating it to engorgement, leaving only scraps for their brothers and sisters who had little to eat at home, mirroring the cultural and class stratification that existed in society at large.

    So Paul, in addressing those “not discerning the Body,” is introducing a kind of literary double entendre about their not getting the flesh & blood of Jesus as well as not discerning the local body of believers meeting there to feast on the living Christ’s presence among them. This callous regard was dangerous indeed for the social and spiritual cohesion of the church gathered, and Paul spares no effort in warning against such blatant disregard for the Body – echoes of his own Damascus road double-meaning warning by Jesus: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” (in pitch-perfect King James Victorian)

    So what do we do with this today? We make it about meticulous introspection before we sip a cup (or down a shot glass of grape juice) and eat a crumb. How atomized, individualized, and modern! I don’t mean to diss personal introspection for personal sin, but I feel like it’s become – literally and morally – “Honey, I shrunk the Eucharist.” It’s become a notional meal, a gesture of a meal, and our interpretation of Paul’s warnings in 1 Corinthians have likewise become individualized and not communal.

    What might this have to do with guests at the Table? Everything. If they’re guests, they indeed might not be ‘discerning the Body’ either – but it’s with a kind of curious ignorance, and not deliberate disregard as the Corinthian believers were doing. This kind of holy ignorance is how *all* sinners approach Jesus to dine with him – saints included. Plus you can’t tell me that if the Eucharist was a full meal, and ‘outsiders’ were present (and they seemed to be, considering other parts of the letter where Paul addressed the edification or lack thereof of certain practices for outside guests), you can’t tell me that they weren’t allowed to eat. Unless you posit there was a ‘common’ and then a ‘cultic’ aspect to this full table spread, but I don’t think there’s any evidence of that.

    (My scholarship on this is primarily informed by Australian scholar Robert Banks; his ‘Paul’s Idea of Community’ and ‘Going to Church in the First Century.’ Also BW3’s ‘Making a Meal of It,’ and for contemporary autobiography, Sara Miles’ ‘Take This Bread: The Story of a Radical Conversion.’)

    So for today: If we’re to have a redacted ritual (which I recognize is a practical necessity in many cases), it should be real bread (preferably baked by a congregant) and real wine, the Table should be open to all, but with increased responsibility placed on those who are known by the community, that the Body be properly discerned. This would doubtless extend to the Body partakers as they moved from curious to committed, and became better known themselves. But ideally – once a month maybe? – mission third way communities should host block parties, Love Feasts, that are healthy locally-produced potlucks where the neighborhood is invited. It’d be a come-as-you-are affair, but with Eucharist – thanksgiving for God’s bounty and gratuitous presence in our midst – as the center.

    That’s what I’m working with these days anyway…Lucas Land has many more developed thoughts on this all the time via his What Would Jesus Eat? blog.”

    As for Jim himself, he proposes an alternative scenario:

    “The question everyone is asking is what “set” is the Lord’s Supper? Is it part of belonging or belief? How has the Great Tradition with its years of wisdom (Tom Oden calls church history “the history of the Holy Spirit), thought about this topic. We want to take this seriously before we make any changes or reforms.

    Another question, “at what point in the life of the believing community do we want to see people move from simply belonging to belief?” That is the tough question. Besides the Lord’s Supper are there other areas that are “bounded”?

    Here is another question. Is it possible that we are called to restrict the Lord’s Supper to believers but learn how to practice radical table hospitality to the outsider throughout the week? What if we were having people outside the fellowship of believers over once or twice a week to our house for dinner? How would that revolutionize the evangelism of the church? Is that closer to Jesus’ model–eating with sinners and tax collectors but only serving the Lord’s Supper to his disciples? Just wondering. What to you all think?”

    What do YOU think, dear readers?

  10. John Sobert Sylvest September 23, 2009 at 5:45 am #

    If folks are properly disposed, as I see it, celebrations of sacraments really can effect precisely what they bring to mind. At the same time, only a rank clericalism would deny that, quite often, we are celebrating sacred realities that have already been effected outside of our sacerdotal systems. For example, we recognize that authentic marriages and reconciliations can be realized without being officially witnessed. The same could be argued for Eucharist, broadly conceived.

    The Eucharist celebrates covenant, memorial, thanksgiving, meal & presence. Presence is broadly conceived as Christ represented in the people gathered, the Word shared, the minister presiding and in the partaking of the sacred species.

    It seems to me that, if a closed table approach were a dogma or doctrine grounded in either Scripture or Tradition vis a vis Eucharist, that, in order to be wholly consistent, others would have to be denied not just the sacred species but would have to be denied the Presence of Christ by avoiding their own 1) presence at the meal 2) presence with the presider 3) presence during the breaking open of the Word 4) presence among the people gathered 5) presence at the memorial commemoration 6) presence during the covenant’s recalling and 7) presence sharing in thanksgiving. This isn’t grounded in dogma or doctrine but in a reformable discipline, just like women’s ordination and celibacy and the rationale is incoherent.

    There is a reason why, in interreligious dialogue, we begin at the level of practice and experiences before advancing to dogma. There is a reason why, more and more, we are turning to liturgical catechesis. The reason is that human beings learn more through storytelling and participation via our shared social imaginary than we do through rational cognition and propositions via shared formulations. Jesus didn’t say “Take, repeat after me,” but said, rather, “Take, eat.” The unity will then ensue.

    The thrust of my argument, then, is that the celebration of the whole Eucharist, as broadly conceived, will precisely effect the unity that it brings to mind. That participatory reality is its foremost purpose and utmost efficacy, far more important than symbolizing complete cognitive agreement or assent to doctrinal propositions by all who are assembled. More plainly put, the Eucharist should be our vehicle to unity, not our token of unity.

  11. Cody Stauffer September 23, 2009 at 6:44 am #

    I do agree that you should take into account all of the instances where Jesus was at the table with people, but I don’t think you have to even go that far to make the case that the table should be open. I think you can look at the Final Passover meal in the upper room and find plenty of evidence that Jesus would have an open table, and not restricted even to just “believers.” Who sat at the final table? Judas, the betrayer, was sitting at the hand of the Lord, dipping from the same bowl. Peter, who would deny any connection to our Lord, also sitting at the table. Some disciples who CLEARLY did not know who or what Jesus was, until AFTER the resurrection. So how can we restrict it in any way at all, when Jesus did not choose to do so in the original?

    As to Paul’s admonition in 1st Corinthians- who was he writing to? He was clearly writing to church members, who were taking it in an unworthy manner when they were getting drunk and feasting before the poor got any food. It wasn’t to non-believers he was writing to when he said, “Do not take it in an unworthy manner.” In fact, he placed no restrictions on guests who might be visiting, checking this whole movement out. He didn’t say NOT to extend the table to visitors or non-believers, merely that believers themselves take it a worthy manner.

  12. Irritable September 23, 2009 at 1:07 pm #

    “Honey, I shrunk the Eucharist.”

    Love it.

  13. Irritable September 23, 2009 at 1:13 pm #


    What I hear you saying is that table fellowship includes but is not limited to the Eucharist, and that, similarly, Eucharist in its broadest sense includes but is not limited to table fellowship.

    The Eucharist, then, is not the secret handshake by which we claim our place in an exclusive social order, but the warm embrace of community itself, throwing the doors open to the weary and heavy laden.

    Is that close?


    • John Sobert Sylvest September 23, 2009 at 1:40 pm #

      Ira, bullseye.

      There is an apparent overemphasis on Christ’s presence in the sacred species and an underemphasis on His presence in the people gathered/Word spoken, for example. It appears to say, implicitly, that the uninitiated can enjoy the latter but not the former because the former has some type of elevated status . Now, if that is the theological claim, which I do not think it is, then I do not buy it. But, for all practical purposes, that does seem to be the implicit claim, which I think is poppycock and smacks of sacerdotalism and clericalism. The reason tabernacles were moved to side altars after Vatican II was precisely to guard against these types of over-/under-emphases.


  14. John Sobert Sylvest September 23, 2009 at 5:27 pm #

    ”I am kept outside the Church … … not by the mysteries themselves but the specifications with which the Church has thought good to surround them in the course of centuries.”
    ~ Simone Weil

  15. Sara Miles September 23, 2009 at 5:54 pm #

    Glad to see this being talked about.

    To my mind, it’s a distraction to talk about “inclusivity” as if our Table practice were about being nice, or friendly. The fact is, we need strangers, because eating with the wrong people changes everything for the faithful– not just for the nominal outsiders and sinners whose presence is, at best, tolerated. We find salvation in eating with strangers: “Blessed be God the Word, who came to his own and his own received him not, for in this way God glorifies the stranger.”

    The single best way to know that it’s Jesus’ table–not ours— is the presence there of someone completely inappropriate.

    • Travis Greene September 23, 2009 at 6:11 pm #

      “The single best way to know that it’s Jesus’ table–not ours— is the presence there of someone completely inappropriate.”

      Dang. Brilliant.

    • John Sobert Sylvest September 23, 2009 at 9:56 pm #

      “The single best way to know that it’s Jesus’ table–not ours— is the presence there of someone completely inappropriate.”

      What a breath of fresh air, Sara!

      We do kinda sorta leave a question begging as to whether or not we really mean just “Lord, I am not worthy …” or whether or not we have been implicitly saying, instead, “Lord I am not worthy, but I’m certainly more worthy than You know who.” That does seem to be the whole point, everyone’s healing and transformation, in that we’re ALL so-called inappropriate and in a way that does not really admit of degrees vis a vis Whose Presence is in question here.

  16. zoecarnate September 23, 2009 at 5:59 pm #

    Wow, Sara – that completely turns this conversation upside-down and inside-out, now doesn’t it?

    For those of you who haven’t had the smack-you-upside-the-head pleasure of reading, Sara’s memoir Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion is a must-read; one of the most impactful tomes I’ve read in the past decade. (& I’m not just saying that because she deigns to comment on my blog!)

    Oh – and you might as well pre-order her upcoming release, Jesus Freak: Feeding Healing Raising the Dead, so you can be among the first to get ahold of it this coming February. You’ve been forewarned.

    • Irritable September 23, 2009 at 9:56 pm #

      For what it’s worth, I concur about the book recommend. Excellent stuff.

  17. brotherjohnny September 23, 2009 at 8:02 pm #

    Seems to me that while the table should be open, the experience in itself should be prime time for conversions to take place (as in “I Corin. 14” open meetings)…

    …so long as the believing body maintains the spirit of the purpose of the meal, that is.

  18. lucas September 24, 2009 at 4:54 pm #

    Sara, you just blew my mind. again and again in our theology and practice we must be reminded who the central figure is. we so easily make the table and the doctrines ours and not God’s. I think once they are rightly given back to God the table, the Bible and theology become a playground… a most holy and sacred playground in which we are safe to run and explore. (HT: to my friend allyson for this analogy)

  19. Kirby L. Wallace September 25, 2009 at 6:09 am #

    There is a distinct difference between what Catholics put into the Eucharist, and what Protestants take from it.

    Protestestants “do this in rememberance of me”. Catholics think “This IS me…” – a completely differenet meaning.

    Furthermore, as you have actually alluded to in your own comments, some of us will in fact point out that in this rememberance, this is certainly not him “eating and drinking with sinners.” This actually IS an “inner circle” kind of thing.

    Else, what does it mean to be warned about partaking unworthily and gathering damnation upon your head by doing so? There is no way to partake of a meal with “sinners” in an unworthy manner.

    But there is a distinct warning about this particular instance – this particular meal; this particular exclusive gathering. And I do not think God was simply engaging in small talk when he said it.

  20. Bill Samuel September 25, 2009 at 12:36 pm #

    What is the purpose of worship? Well, there may well be more than one, but a central purpose is to allow Christ to transform us.

    The Eucharist should be part of that transformative process. It should be done in a way that fosters the opportunity for it to transform us. It is a mystery encapsulated in a physical act that may be able to reach us in a different way than other things we do in worship.

    All of us are continually in need of transformation. The point is not how much transformation we have already undergone; where we are in the process. The point is that we should all recognize our need in humility, not holding ourselves to be better than others.

    And maybe the question should be less whether there should be boundaries but who should determine who is within the boundaries. When I think about the way our church does communion, it includes something like, “If you want to express your love and commitment to Christ, you are welcome to . . .”

    That does, in a sense, set a boundary. But it is not one the church as an institution feels competent to enforce. It is one that is between the individual and God. If a visitor came up to whomever offered the invitation or someone else clearly connected with the church, and described where they were at and asked whether they should take communion, I feel pretty certain that the response wouldn’t be to classify them and tell them what their status was. It would be to ask them to search their own heart and see if communion was appropriate.

    As for the question of denying certain people because of what they’ve done, for which they might not see any need for confession and repentance, I think that invites self-righteousness on the part of those making such decisions. I think rather that we extend the invitation with the kind of “boundary” language our community uses, and pray that the act of the Eucharist will prove transformative for those we might question as well as ourselves. Christ wants to redeem each one of us, and we need to be reluctant to interfere in something that might have a redemptive effect.

  21. David Rudel October 29, 2009 at 7:57 pm #

    I think that standing in back the question of “open” versus “closed” (which are themselves over-simplifications, right? One can easily name several in-between stances) is another question:

    “Is the Eucharist a prescriptive or supportive rite?”

    In other words, before one can really debate how the Eucharist works, one first has to decide whether the rite is bound by theological, deductive reason or by empiric pragmaticism.

    Or, put another way, is the question “What is the right way to do communion?” or is it “What is the most effective way to implement communion?”

    Or, stretching it just a bit further: “Did Jesus create the Eucharist for man, or man for the Eucharist?”

    Is there a “correct” way of doing Eucharist based on abstract principles (principles which themselves need to be agreed on), or is the Eucharist a gift which, like any other gift, the church should use to the greatest glory of God?

    The difference between “Eucharist done correctly” and “Eucharist done best” is that the second is not based on absolute, abstract postulates but rather conforms to a given culture in a given time in a given place. Performing the Eucharist in a particular way may be best for a given time and place while performing it in a different way may be best for another.

    Now, one could easily draw from the above that I am arguing for the utilitarian/consequentialist/pragmatic side, but I’m not. I’m simply saying that it might make any discussions/debates about the Eucharist more orderly, constructive, and meaningful if one first decides whether the Eucharist’s application should be governed by the abstract ideals or the concrete ends.

    In the former case, where the parameters of the rite are based on theological postulates, the natural questions are “What are those postulates?” and “What are the conclusions drawn by deductive reasoning from those postulates?”

    But if the Eucharist is a gift we should aim at the greater glory of God, then the natural question is “What specific goal(s) has the Eucharist in mind?” “If there are multiple goals, which takes priority and how can we judge between methods promoting all priorities middling well versus those promoting only one (but to a higher level)?” and “What does the evidence suggest as the most efficacious implementation based on those goals and priorities?”

  22. Donnie Ray March 9, 2013 at 4:30 am #

    Haven’t read all the comments so please pardon me if this doesn’t fit in with the current discussion, but here are a few of my thoughts. The position from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops that Carl quotes takes a harder line on reception by non-Catholics than was previous the case before 1996 when it was approved, shifting the reasoning from a basis in Eucharistic theology to one based on ecclesiology. As a non-Catholic who believes firmly in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist I would have had a much stronger case based on the Catholic Church’s own teaching for receiving common prior to 1996 than after.

    It is precisely because I believe that Jesus is really present in the Sacrament that I find closed communion so objectionable, which in part relates to your question of who would Jesus share table with. Well just to name one, he shared His last supper with Judas. Yes, the forgiving victim includes His own betrayer in the most significant meal of His whole life and it is the very reality where that is possible that the Eucharist re-presents to us and enables us to be brought into. So for the bishops to say that it is inappropriate to share the sign of unity until we are all unified is quite frankly, in my opinion, to put the cart before the horse. It may not be “demonic” but it certainly doesn’t seem to be consistent with the image and likeness of the One Who’s Body the Church is suppose to be and at the least it makes a occasion of opportunity for the Adversary out of the very moment that should be the undoing of adversarial impulse itself.

    Maggie Ross is another author who has touched on this subject in her book “Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood, and Spiritual Maturity.” Her treatment also hits on the question the Episcopal Church has been wrestling with of communion before baptism or not since she has a completely different perspective on what that sacrament and its commitments would be an initiation into as well as a radical view of what being a part of the Body of Christ could mean and how it does and does not relate to baptism.

  23. Carl Gregg March 9, 2013 at 8:29 am #

    Thanks, Mike. I appreciate your post. So much conflict around Communion is all mixed up with various people’s views on Christian exclusivism and patriarchy — including my own (which includes a strong rejection of both exclusivism and patriarchy).

    I wrote a post for Patheos about a year ago on “The Pragmatism of the Didache: Eucharist Like You’ve Never Heard It Before” (/2012/02/the-pragmatism-of-the-didache-eucharist-like-you’ve-never-heard-it-before/). A few highlights:
    –The different order of the element in the Didache can help us notice that Luke also contains an alternative order. That’s one brief glimpse (there are others) of the immense diversity of early Christian communion liturgies.
    –Didache 10:7 takes this diverse picture ever further: “But permit the prophets to make thanksgiving as much as they desire.” Prophets could craft their own unique words of prayerful thanksgiving over the cup and bread as the Spirit led them. We should do likewise, claiming not only the priesthood of all believers, but the prophethood of all believers — in general and at table.
    –We should all definitely be eating full-meals for Communion/Eucharist if we’re talking about learning from the early history. Just like we missed the different order in Luke, too many have missed the words *after supper* in Corinthians.

    And Sara Miles’ work is indeed incredible!

  24. johnboy March 9, 2013 at 10:22 pm #


  25. Marshall March 10, 2013 at 12:57 pm #

    it would be a conspiracy of death! Those who want the table open know full well how people have died (will die, or become ill) from “eating and drinking unworthily”. Those who want to sequester His table cannot bear for God to be unleash death among them. Both these are “playing God” or presuming Him in a kind of conspiracy to communion.
    We’re reminded to “let a man examine himself”. This is the wisdom of God in Christ.

  26. George Fuller March 11, 2013 at 9:00 am #

    Well done Mike! I center my views on two pieces. The first is that the invitation be given clearly. This is an encounter with some content that is open to all and yet must (for me) include movement to Jesus Christ, Who offers the invitation we merely translate (often very poorly). The second is that boundaries are based on my (our) ability to experience Oneness with all, while remaining myself (ourselves) in the communion. Jesus Christ, who offers the invitation did just that. The Lord of All is with each and every one of us at Table of the Present, while calling us into all He Is. Communion for me is an invitation to have a specific event that calls us to the Reality of every Particular Present moment of our lives. When we have that, we are in a Love that will not exclude, will not stop inviting and will not shrink to justify our egos. “Come to Me” is the invitation of “I Am” and that is for each of us and all of us. If we are “fill in you religious identity”, then go ahead and invite people to that Jesus. I think that is a transitional window to the “I Am” that will not become ours. We are His (used as a personal word, not as gendered.) Just my thoughts today.


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