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The Open Table: the integrity of the eucharistic community

The Open Table: the integrity of the eucharistic community

by Stephen Edmondson

In my last two posts, I have pursued the question posed by the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops exploring the Eucharistic assembly as the “quintessential gathering” of God’s people. I’ve discussed the relational character of Jesus’ grace that happens around his table, and I offered one model for understanding the Eucharistic Assembly—that it is the Body of Christ.

Now, to be Christ’s body in the world is to be Christ’s broken body, whose boundaries stand open to the outsider. We must be wary of the attempt to define our communion through the clarity of our boundaries, for these inevitably tend to exclude and become, themselves, oppressive. But does this leave the Church without any sense of clear boundary and definition? How can a Church that will allow all to enter and participate provide itself a sense of integrity? Here we come across one of the most interesting insights born from the practice of the open table—that the community of Christ’s body has integrity in the midst of these open boundaries because it is defined not by its boundaries, but by its bonds. It is the commitment and connection of the members of the Church to the heart of the Church—Christ’s embracing love—and to each other that holds the Church together.

Members of open table congregations are clear about the identities of their communities, and they show no concern that their communities will disintegrate through their practices of inclusion. Their identities are bound to the love of God that is active and manifest in sundry ways among them; it is this love that brought them to these communities in the first place. The dynamism of this active love, moving from the center of the Church—Christ’s presence in the Eucharist—and enwrapping all of the Church’s members, holds these Christian communities together. From this perspective, the inclusionary embrace of the Open Table in no way threatens the Church’s identity; it supports it as a central practice of Christ’s embracing love.

Notice the important conceptual shift that we are making here. Within much of the sociological literature of the 20th century, “communities” were defined by “boundaries,” insofar as boundaries mark the beginning and end of the communities. (See Anthony Cohen, The Symbolic Construction of Community (New York: Routledge, 1985), p. 12.) This logic begins with an idea of community that involves a similarity among its members and a difference from everyone else. The boundary marks this similarity and difference. With this understanding when distinctions are lost, boundaries “become anomalous and the integrity of the ‘community’ that they enclose has been severely impugned.” (Cohen, p. 20)

Concerns about the effect of opening the table on Christian community often trade on the connection between community and boundary. If boundaries are essential for communal definition and identity, then without boundaries, it is difficult if not impossible for someone to gain a sense of belonging to a community. Indeed, this concern for boundaries isn’t a theological position, but simply a sociological one that much 20th century literature would bear out.

But is this right? Are boundaries essential, even primary for conceptualizing community, or is there another direction that we could take? If the concept of boundaries was closely tied to the idea of community in the 20th century, in the first decade of this 21st century more attention has been paid to the role of relationships in community (sometimes under the vocabulary of networks or social capital). This shift forms the substance of Robert Putnam’s epochal work, Bowling Alone, which traces to breakdown in contemporary community in tandem with the dissolution of those relationships that make community possible. Putnam and much contemporary literature cannot assume a world where the potency of community allows a sociologist to consider only the question of differentiating one community from another. Rather, as the reality of community has come under fire in our atomizing world, writers have turned to the relationships from which community is formed to conceptualize its essential qualities. Zygmunt Bauman, in fact, derides the connection between the idea of community and the fact of boundaries, arguing that “community” is invoked only to give symbolic substance to the boundaries we erect in our never-ending war to protect “us” from “them”. (See Zygmunt Bauman, Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001) esp. pp. 7-20.) Bauman suggests that the hope of a way forward out of our boundary-drawing quagmire is in authentic relationships that truly recognize the other—relationships from which real community and real security could be derived.

The practice of the open table relies on an idea of community defined by its bonds, its relationships, not its boundaries. In one sense, this is again to say that it’s a liturgical theology. As Gordon Lathrop has argued, good liturgy begins with strong symbols (of Jesus) in the center—symbols that bind us to God’s love in and through the Jesus they manifest. Relying on these symbols, good liturgy also necessitates open doors (a lowered sense of boundaries) since we betray the very symbols that center us if we fence them off in order to define and protect “us” from “them”.

It entails a covenantal theology, recognizing that covenant is primarily about relationship—first our relationship with God and through that, our relationship with one another. The covenant enacted in Jesus, however, is fundamentally an open covenant—a covenant intended to break down boundaries, that compels us to reach out to the “them” outside of our communities, imploring them to recognize their status with us as God’s children. In this context, an idea of boundaries is not only inessential to the reality of Christ’s covenant—it in fact betrays it.

Clear boundaries can facilitate a clean entrance into a community, but this seems to be a lazy way to do community. A Church can be defined by the walls that surround it, or by the table that it houses. The nice thing about walls—once they are built, they need little attention as they divide the inside from the outside. With sturdy walls, we only need to make sure that we are inside the doors to “belong.” But if the church is defined by its table, then it requires constant attention for its reality to subsist. The table must be set, people seated and served, fellowship must be engaged in. Entrance into this community can be equally clear. It begins with an invitation to be seated at the table, and it culminates (in baptism) with an invitation into the kitchen to join those who serve.

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Edmondson is the Rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in McLean, VA. Before returning to parish ministry Edmondson was an associate professor of Church History at the Virginia Theological Seminary.


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Clint Davis

The whole idea, spoken by Jesus or not, that there was still much to teach that the disciples couldn’t bear right now, I think plays into this. This tells me that the early Christian community knew that the implications of what they were doing would take them much farther toward inclusion than they ever wanted to go, and that they would die a little on the inside because their very identities were rooted in boundaries and privileges. Folks, surely you all know that dying on the inside is a tough and cheerless process until it’s done. Sitting here, I am thankful for this insight: that all the rest of the virtues are practiced to make this interior dying easier to accomplish and less hellish. If you practice compassion and openness already, if you only adore God and not the writings about God and so on, it will be easier to move forward. If you practice patience, it will be easier to wait on those who haven’t caught up; if you practice humility, you won’t put yourself above all those who still haven’t budged, or haven’t moved far enough for you yet. If not for these and countless other virtues, it will hard or impossible. If you are rich with stuff, including those inner decorations that are trophies of your inclusion in the boundary, then it’s hard to carry all that through the eye of the needle. And so on and so on.

Persecution does strange things to communities, and in many ways some of us pine for a golden age of excitement that probably never existed. But I would say that the persecution of early Christians did damage to the Body of Christ that we’re still reeling from, and haven’t moved beyond. This probably includes a still secretive Eucharist, even when celebrated in the town square. The vocabulary of “holy mysteries” is excellent and evocative even today, but we are no longer a secretive sodality around a mystic table in some wealthy lady’s home.

All this being said, the Eucharist very early on got the title of Sacramentum, and so inherited a quality of being a sign of loyalty, affiliation and identification for and with Christians. If this is to be stripped away, then we have to be very deliberate about this and know that this is an innovation that overturns thousands of years of accumulated power. So far, Fr. Schell seems to be one of the few voices whose work in this area – and it looks to be a life’s work – seems to have the research, study and insight to be persuasive, not just a knee-jerk liberalism without caution and discernment. If more of y’all share Fr. Schell’s convictions, get to work because I for one would like to see the case built more persuasively and on firmer foundations than just trusting nice people that the Holy Spirit is moving them to do this.

Bill Dilworth

Donald, I’m flattered that you’re treating my comment so seriously.

A quibble. You wrote, “If you’re account is accurate, that the real scandal would be eating with Gentiles and that Jesus was in effect proclaiming the inherent purity of the circumcised male Jewish community (including the lapsed), I’d want to reassess.”

I wouldn’t necessarily say that Jesus’ observing the practice of the times as proclaiming anything, necessarily, much less a concern for purity (which seems to have been way down on his list of priorities). People do things for different reasons: an Orthodox Jew washes hands ritually before making a blessing in order to remove tumah (impurity); a Reform Jew might have different reasons for doing so, but probably isn’t concerned with categories of purity much, if at all; a Christian priest does so at the altar, but not because of distinctions between tumah/taharah.

And while Paul draws connections between circumcision and Baptism, I don’t think that Jesus’ behavior here would be privileging circumcised males. The concern for avoiding contact with Gentiles isn’t doesn’t seem to be based on concerns over circumcision, since Gentile women were also avoided. If he *were* being a Jewish chauvinist, his chauvinism would probably embrace the whole Jewish community over the whole Gentile one.

Donald Schell


Your comments about meals and Gentiles are significant and point to some important questions.

Yes, to understand Jesus’ meal practice and how it was deliberately scandalous or taken as provocative and by whom, we’ve got to look at how purity and fellowship were understood and practice in the several strands of first century Judaism in Galilee and in Jerusalem. Everything I’ve read to date presents a very, very complex, fragmented picture in Roman Israel and an extreme version of it in “Galilee of the Gentiles.” As I have read Biblical accounts and scholarship the rabbis question (and who else’s question?) wasn’t who one ate with but whether one intending to keep the law observed the rabbinic distillation of how food was slaughtered, prepared, and served and how diners observed cleansing/washing rituals.

Norman Perrin’s *Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus* argues (compelling I think) that Jesus scandalized religious leaders by enacting their rabbinic teaching banquet with a ragged, implicit, “unclean” gathering of disciples, in other words that he dared imagine that God made the gathering holy by its welcome of all (and I hear in this a deliberate choosing and prioritizing of Isaiah 25, the mountain feast of all over John’s sign of baptism).

If you’re account is accurate, that the real scandal would be eating with Gentiles and that Jesus was in effect proclaiming the inherent purity of the circumcised male Jewish community (including the lapsed), I’d want to reassess.

I’m going back to sources, re-reading scholarship I knew and will check on any shift on what I learned when I was doing most of this reading 20-30 years ago.

I hope it’s clear that this response comes from taking your picture seriously. I’ll be back in a couple of months with some kind of piece for the Cafe, and if you contact me through All Saints Company, I’d be glad to get what I write to you ahead of posting it. I do think the distinction you’ve raised is important, and I hadn’t heard it exactly that way in previous posts from other responders to open table who were arguing that everyone Jesus associated with were Jews (so more or less ‘the baptized’ in the context of his community).


What a wonderful set of responses. Thank you! I want to reply to Marshall because his thoughts go to the heart of what I’m getting at.

The whole key to this is establishing relationship. I think that Donald is right—that most non-baptized folks who approach the communion rail don’t do so casually. There is something serious to their intent, whether they understand that intent or not. I believe that Jesus offers himself to them—he meets them face to face, soul to soul—at the table as a way of drawing them more deeply into that relationship. That relationship only comes to full fruition through baptism—I regret that we haven’t had a chance to explore that more—so this emphasis on bonds not bounds doesn’t marginalize baptism—it rather emphasizes it not as a the crossing of a boundary but as the consummation of a relationship.

Marshall, you make the statement that Baptism, traditionally establishes our relationship with Jesus and that the Eucharist sustains it—and that is consistent with the tradition of the church. For me, what I see in the gospels is a picture of table fellowship with Jesus initiating a relationship, and baptism consummating it.

It comes back to that passage from Augustine that I mentioned in my first post, a couple of months ago:

“You have called, You have cried out, and have pierced my deafness. You have enlightened, You have shone forth, and my blindness has vanished. I have tasted You, and am hungry for You. You have touched me, and I am on fire with the desire of Your embraces.” This is the incarnate relationship that Jesus establishes in the Eucharist—We move to baptism in response when we are “on fire with the desire of [Jesus’) embraces.”


Stephen Edmondson

Bill Dilworth

‘ I assume your evidence for who was not present at Jesus’ table is words like “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”‘

I hadn’t thought of that, but now that you mention it…

No, my reasoning is based first on the fact that the Pharisees accuse him of eating with sinners. Eating with prostitutes and tax collectors would be bad enough, but had he been eating with Gentiles it would have been a much bigger scandal, with a perhaps an immediately violent reaction, rather than mere catty comments about his choice of dinner companions. And the gossip wouldn’t have been that ate with sinners, but that he ate with Gentiles. As far as I know, “sinner” isn’t a synonym in the Bible or rabbinic literature for “Gentile.”

Further, the whole business of Peter’s vision, Paul’s withstanding him to his face, and all the rest of the drama surrounding opening up the Church to non-Jews would not have been necessary had they had a precedent of inter-ethnic fraternization set by Jesus during his lifetime. It was big, big news and an unprecedented move on the part of the Apostles to associate with Gentiles – it’s not likely something that the Evangelists would have forgotten to mention if Jesus himself had done it.

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