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The Open Table: Where Jesus’ Grace Happens

The Open Table: Where Jesus’ Grace Happens

by Stephen Edmondson

In their report to this summer’s General Convention, the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops committed themselves to formulating “a renewed and fundamental understanding of the Eucharistic assembly and of Eucharistic celebration as the quintessential gathering of the people of God.” (Blue Book, p. 52) This understanding, they surmise might reframe the controversy over the practice of inviting all of God’s children to Jesus’ table. I’ve spent the last several years crafting one such understanding, and I’m hoping for my work to be published soon. In anticipation of this, I want to share some reflections as they bear on this question of the Eucharistic assembly as the “quintessential gathering” of God’s people.

The Eucharistic assembly is quintessentially a place where grace happens—or more specifically, where Jesus happens. Open Table congregations are acutely aware of this happening. Their practice is shaped by it. That’s why I’m wary of the tendency of those struggling with the practice of the Open Table to file it under the category of “pastoral” practices, by which they mean a practice that is sensitive to hurt feelings and raw edges or is only necessary in occasional situations like weddings or funerals. (See the article by the Bishop’s Theology Committee in the Winter 2011 Anglican Theological Review for an example of this.)

The church’s pastoral call is a deep one, but too often those who invoke the “pastoral” in this context limit the scope of the practice and diminish its power. The grace of the Eucharistic assembly is not particularly sensitive, nor is it valid only in limited occasions. It’s the grace to which Augustine testified:

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.—Confessions

It is the grace that Sara Miles experienced,

And then we gathered around that table. And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying “the body of Christ,” and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying “the blood of Christ,” and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me. –Take this Bread

The Eucharistic Community is quintessentially a place where Jesus and his grace happens, and we learn something about the community if we pay attention to the character of that grace. We are essentially relational people, and in our encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist, we are touched by the power of grace to resurrect and reform within us our essential truth—that we are persons created for God. The grace we encounter at the table is the grace of embrace that awakens us to our desire for God and to the consummation of this desire in our fellowship with God through thanksgiving. In the context of the open table, grace is understood less as an infused quality of the soul and more as a renewal of relationship. Grace is relational, just as human persons are in their essence—just as God is in God’s eternal mystery.

This relational understanding of grace first became evident to me in the descriptions of the Eucharistic liturgy offered by several parishes that practice an open table. Members of these communities placed great emphasis on the practice of circling the altar to receive the bread and wine, and everyone remains in their place around the table until the entire group had received. This practice makes a statement about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Christ, in this practice, is experienced richly and deeply in the community gathered around the meal as an integral part of the partaking of the meal. Here, the invitation to communion becomes not simply an invitation to receive the bread and the wine, and Christ with and in them, but an invitation to stand in the circle and receive Christ with, in, and through them.

This relational understanding of grace is not a simplistic reduction of grace to feeling welcome. It’s a more complex reality. First, it is the grace of reconciliation. The inclusion in the circle of grace of those who experience themselves as outsiders breaks down the barriers of rejection, fear, failure, and unworthiness that we bear from our sojourn a world alienated from God. The invitation to the Eucharist instigates reconciliation between persons and God, while it also can reconcile persons to the Christian community. Often, those who are most profoundly affected by the invitation are not the unbaptized, but those who have become alienated from the Church after experiencing it as a destructively exclusionary and judgmental community.

Second, and perhaps more significantly, the grace of communion is experienced in the practice of the open table as the grace of sanctification. The fundamentally relational quality of our humanity is a theological reality. Modern individualism, which sacrifices the relationality of communion at the altar of unencumbered freedom, has deformed persons and mistaken true freedom. Invitation to the Eucharist and inclusion in communion, then, offers the opportunity for the remaking of the individual into the “ecclesial person” that lies at the truth of our being. This truth is not fully transacted until we take the steps—baptism and membership in a Christian community—through which this fundamental relationality is integrated more fully into us. Opening the table, nonetheless, allows participants a foretaste of this transformation, even as it invites them more deeply into it.

If the Eucharistic community is the place where Jesus and his grace happen, and if that grace is fundamentally relational, then that tells us something about the community. I’ll explore that in my next post.

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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Gary Paul Gilbert

Thank you, Donald, for pointing out many inconsistencies in Episcopal sacramental theology! It sounds as if the institution has inherited a lot of stuff it no longer knows what to do with.

Theology, as you describe it, seems to have contributed to the mess and is probably unlikely to resolve it.

Another option might be pluralism within Anglicanism, allowing people to emphasize the parts of the Prayer Book which speak to them.

Gary Paul Gilbert

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Donald Schell

Adam,

I agree wholeheartedly that we've got significant theological questions here. And historically and (and Biblically) some very significant changes in practice have come not just from what we 'say and mean' but also from what we're doing and what questions of what's known and familiar come up in practice that might move us to consider change is a work of the Spirit. That's certainly part of Luke's argument in the Book of Acts in the circumcision controversy where (as he tells it) practice (incorporating uncircumcised Gentiles into the community) was not only ahead of any church consensus, but was in flat contradiction to scripture as the early community then had scripture (the Hebrew scriptures).

Some of us have come to the practice of inviting all to communion to our own surprise. My article in the current Anglican Theological Review describes how the prayer and practice of a missionary community lead us at St. Gregory's in 1982 to begin verbally inviting all to communion.

What Bishop Mary Gray Reeves (El Camino Real) and Bishop Michael Perham (Gloucester, UK) found in their U.S. and U.K. visits and interviews with missional and fresh expressions congregations (Seabury Press, The Hospitality of God, Emerging Worship for a Missional Church) is that all of the missional, started from scratch congregations they studied had come to making an invitation to all to communion, all were intentionally evangelistic. They did not find congregations or congregational leaders trying to suppress baptism.

To me that means that Sara Miles story is far from unique, conversion on receiving communion in church as an uncommitted visitor, moved and transformed by that experience to choose service, discipleship and baptism. If that's something the Spirit is prompting (or using widely) in our post-Christendom church where we commit to evangelism and mission, then we may find ourselves re-framing our theology of baptism so that it's not primarily understood as the 'before' to communion.

I and others who have baptized a number of people who were already receiving communion have been engaged in scriptural and theological reflection.

And again, for the record, Adam, though I know you've heard those shortcut words in this context, I don't think we'll get to a theologically rich understanding of Eucharist (and communion) or of Baptism if our arguments lean heavily of culturally popular vague words like 'fairness,' 'justice' (in this context) or even 'inclusion.'

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Adam Wood

While Derek, and others, may disagree with my (and others') opinion on the theology of the matter, I'm sure he would agree- and I wish all, especially Episcopal Church leadership, would as well - that the theology of the matter is, in fact, the important issue. And this was my main point.

Whether one is in favor of or opposed to any development or change, the decisions and opinions should be based on theology- on what the things we do say and mean in context to the doctrines and dogmas we claim to believe in.

Unfortunately, there are many in the Church whose primary doctrine is "fairness" and "justice" (in "scare quotes," mind you) instead of the Creed or the Gospels.

I and they may often arrive at similar conclusions (regarding, for example, Open Table, the role of women and homosexuals in the Church, or the relative value of projection screens for hymn singing), but the context is markedly different.

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Derek Olsen

Donald,

We do have a perfectly serviceable sacramental theology. Indeed, I think that the Brief Outline of a catechism in the prayer book does a decent job of sketching the boundaries of what this theology is (and I lay this out in a piece that waits in the queue for its time in this space...).

True, the Liturgical Renewal Movement did create some problems for us when they tried to turn the clock back to their version of the 4th century, but it'll all shake out in time. What you're pointing out are more molehills than mountains.

As I see it, the bottom line is this: the Church has always recognized a sacramental structure to the life of faith. Whether it was Baptism-Confirmation-Eucharist all piled together as Hippolytus reports or Baptism then Eucharist then Confirmation (eventually) as it was in some parts of the Medieval West or Baptism then Confirmation then Eucharist as it was in the English branch of the Western tradition from 1281 to the mid 20th century, the sacraments were never viewed in isolation. What connects them is discipleship. Instead of arguing about Communion Without Baptism and making moves to divorce the sacraments from one another and from an integrated life and practice of faith even more than we already have, I'd rather we talk more about the Sacramental Path to Discipleship.

Troy,

The Last Supper was certainly a Passover meal; calling it a Seder is a bit anachronistic.

Concerning man-created rules around man-created practices--perhaps, but only if you believe that the Holy Spirit went to sleep at the end of the New Testament and didn't wake up again until the Liturgical Renewal Movement. To me that seems a bit of a stretch...

My point on the Creed was a direct response to the person who asked if Baptism "did" anything. In the Nicene Creed we do state that we believe in "one Baptism for the remission of sins." I never claimed that it said anything about CWOB.

June,

If God wants to give the sacrament to anyone, God can certainly do so! After all, the Scriptures tell us that God created manna and quail for the Israelites to fill their hunger. The Eucharist, however, was given to a community--the Christian community--that we might be, in the words of Paul, "stewards of mysteries." Not owners, not masters, but stewards. Is it therefore ours to monkey without careful deliberation?

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GrandmèreMimi

Sara Miles' story set me on the way to thinking about communion for everyone. The sacrament is the Body and Blood of Our Lord, so what right does any human have to withhold the elements from another human being?

June Butler

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