The Open Table: Where Jesus’ Grace Happens

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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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12 Responses to "The Open Table: Where Jesus’ Grace Happens"
  1. "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."

    This post is more of a fresh look on Open Table, and while I support baptism before Eucharist, I wish the resolution going before General Convention was drafted with as much forethought as found in this post.

    However, with only a fleeting mention of baptism, it's still difficult to consider this post (I assume the upcoming book does speak to baptism?) as seriously as it must considered. Just as the actual resolution going before General Convention has zero mention of the importance of baptism, many arguments for Open Table have little or no regard for what truly occurs in the Sacrament of baptism and, frankly, choose to ignore even an acknowledgment of baptismal theology. Hence the quote from the author above - it's a summation of what happens in the Sacrament when God reaches out to us through His embracing grace. We are radically welcomed by God, being adopted by him, and by His people into the fellowship of the one, holy, catholic Church - and, of course, the consummation - being marked as Christ's own forever. Thankfully, the Church has a Sacrament during which all of these things occur - baptism.

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  2. Thank you for this.

    For some reason, liberals generally- and Episcopalians in particular- frame their "progressive" notions in terms of fairness, or pastoral care, or something along those lines. Thus, we should have open communion because the current practice isn't fair, or excludes people, or makes people feel bad. And we should have female priests because that's more fair and equitable and we don't want to hurt women's feelings.

    That leaves the conservatives as the defenders of "Orthodox" theology, and the (rightly?) accuse the progressives of abandoning the "faith once received."

    The truth of the matter (At least, as I have come to understand it) is that Open Communion, along with Female Ordination (and other divisive issues), is THEOLOGICALLY CORRECT, and is not a deviation from the Orthodox understanding of our faith, but rather a fulfillment of its promises and a "correction" (if you will) of its accumulated inconsistencies.

    We talk about inclusion (of women, of non-baptized, of homosexuals...) using unfortunately modernist language- "In today's society..." and "We now have a better understanding of ..." or "People today will no longer tolerate..."

    But that suggests that truth is somehow malleable to the time, that the Church should bend to society. Conservatives rightly reject this. We should all reject the idea that truth - Divine Truth- is changeable.

    But excluding women, excluding homosexuals, excluding the non-Baptized- these things have always been wrong, it's just taken a while to figure out. Just as slavery didn't suddenly become immoral in the mid-1800s.

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  3. Adam,

    "Open Communion" is indeed theologically correct--since Open Communion is the practice of receiving all baptized Christians to the altar regardless of demoninational affiliation.

    This is what Open Communion has always meant in ecumenical discussions and agreements and the attempt to co-opt it to mean something entirely different is ignorant at best and deceitful at worst.

    Communion Without Baptism is not theologically correct. It never has been, it never will be. Our theology of the sacraments begins with Baptism--period. Baptism is the act of incorporation into the covenant relationship with Christ and his Body that is nurtured and nourished by the Eucharist.

    To engage the original piece itself, my biggest problem with it is that it's partially right--it makes correct moves but is built entirely upon air because the foundation is missing! Yes, Jesus is quintessentially present in the Eucharistic community but that is because the Eucharistic community is also the communion of the Baptized. To invent a Eucharistic Community divorced from a Baptismal Community is an absurdity.

    I also take issue with the way that the graces of Eucharist are parsed. I have serious trouble with this phrase: "The invitation to the Eucharist instigates reconciliation between persons and God" especially in relation to the paragraph before it. The previous paragraph is talking about liturgical practice and the presider's invitation to the gathered community. This invitation by a priest as a representative of the community to the covenant community does not instigation reconciliation: only God instigates reconciliation with himself. And how? The clearest and most profound discussion of reconciliation in the New Testament is Romans 5 that flows naturally into chapter 6--yes, for Paul it's all about Baptism... Our individual reconciliation with God through Christ self-sacrifice for us occurs in Baptism.

    Ditto for the discussion of sanctifying grace. What is sanctification? It is the process by which the Body of Christ comes to inhabit and incarnate the Mind of Christ. But how is this to happen without prior incorporation into the Body of Christ?

    We have a perfectly serviceable sacramental theology. I can't for the life of me see why, rather than taking the time to understand it, leaders in this church choose to make up an entirely new one with which to replace it...

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  4. Is there a difference between a baptized disciple of Jesus and an unbaptized disciple other than a historical experience? What happens in Baptism? Isn't that a place of metanoia, of grace?

    [Editor's note: Thanks for the comment. Please leave your full name next time.]

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  5. Is there a difference between a baptized disciple of Jesus and an unbaptized disciple other than a historical experience?

    Well, that what the Church, the prayer book, and the Creed teach and it's what I believe.

    In our liturgy we say "Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them up to the new life of grace . . . N., you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever" (p. 308).

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  6. Derek,

    You write,

    "We have a perfectly serviceable sacramental theology. I can't for the life of me see why, rather than taking the time to understand it, leaders in this church choose to make up an entirely new one with which to replace it..."

    I don't see the 'perfectly serviceable sacramental theology' that seems so clear to you.

    In the inconsistencies (some graceful) and movement in sacramental practice, rite, and canon we've seen since at least 1970 I'd say we've got emerging (and sometimes competing) sacramental theologies.

    In 1970 we decided to admit baptized infants to communion and, I'm guessing at the same time, began to practice what you're calling 'open communion' for the first time, letting go of a sacramental theology (with a lengthy English history and scholarly books defending it) that conceived confirmation as the 'completion' of baptism when the baptized person received the Holy Spirit. That change was (almost) incorporated in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, but the Bishops insisted on retaining confirmation (in apparent contradiction to the 1979 Prayer Book's teaching that Baptism was full and complete initiation into Christ.).

    We have since then been engaged in a strange see-saw of adding and subtracting canons because confirmation has continued (and in some places been added) as a condition of leadership/holding office in our church.

    Meanwhile, especially since the introduction of the Baptismal Covenant and some people's beginning to frame the center of baptism as promises that the candidate makes, a good number of liturgists have begun arguing for adult baptism and the baptismal covenant.

    And those arguing for adult baptism will often remind us that we're no longer fearful of unbaptized children going to hell. But in working to maintain Baptism as a now public sacrament celebrated at a public liturgy of the church, I've certainly encountered irate parents who don't know why they 'have to' come to church in order to get their child 'done,' and been asked how we dare imperil their child's relationship to God.

    Meanwhile it appears that a very large number of Episcopal Churches across the country ignored the historic (and I believe fully warranted) shift in sacramental theology that the 1979 BCP introduced in continuing to recruit classes of twelve and thirteen year olds to make a "mature public affirmation of their faith and commitment to the responsibilities of their Baptism..." Do we actually believe that they're making a "mature" affirmation? Or are we simply consenting to pressure for parents who want their children "done"?

    And isn't chrismation (anointing the newly baptized with oil of chrism blessed by the bishop) where 'confirmation' came from? If we're using chrism why are we confirming anyone?

    Meanwhile, many voices arguing against communicating unbaptized people who are moved (perhaps irrationally, or perhaps by the Spirit in ways deeper than rationality) to receive communion repeatedly warn us that they won't and can't understand what they're doing, which makes it dangerous to receive, quoting (inappropriately I believe) I Corinthians on 'not discerning the Body of Christ.'

    So is 'understanding' sacraments the core of readiness in our 'perfectly serviceable sacramental theology'? And if so, why did we shift to communicating infants?

    Or, to put it the other way, why do some priests excommunicate infants and children who have begun to receive in another Episcopal Church?

    And why do some bishops, even baptizing adults themselves, withhold chrism so they can make a pure argument for subsequent confirmation?

    I could go on. Ecumenically we've got more layers of confusion, or least complexity and ambiguity and they extend to who can preside at the Table. Our Lutheran communion partners authorize not-yet ordained candidates to preside at Eucharist.

    There's much more in flux or unresolved than the question of who we invite to receive communion.

    We do (thank God) continue to practice our sacraments and I hope and pray we're learning from the diversity and contradictions of our practice, but I think it's untenable to assert that we've got a 'perfectly serviceable sacramental theology.'

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  7. If you are a starving person who has not showered, would you reject that person for a meal that would nourish them?

    In the same vein, would you reject someone who is starving for the Grace that Communion offers which would allow them to then make that decision to be baptized under full Grace and understanding of what they are undertaking?

    Communion's root is in the Jewish Passover Seder, and in the Passover Seder all are welcome whether they are Jewish or not.

    I agree what Derek said about Baptism, but I respectfully disagree that you have to be Baptized to take part in Communion (given it's roots).

    We have a man-created set of rules about the man-created sacrament of Communion. Given that those are rules man created and not rules Christ or God outlined in Holy Scripture, those rules are always open to revision as we see fit and as suits the times.

    Neither the Symbolum Nicaenum nor the Symbolum Apostolicum specifically states that one must be Baptized before Communion. So which creeds are you referring to Derek?

    There were a number of things we as Episcopalians used to believe that we don't anymore and we updated the BCP accordingly.

    As my vicar likes to say (and I paraphrase) "You don't check your mind when you come through the doors of the church."

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  8. 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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  9. 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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  10. 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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  11. 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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  12. 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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