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.