Sunday, February 27, 2011

One Table

The experience of being in a church to worship and being told point-blank that you’re not welcome at the Table is a daunting one.

It’s happened to me in Roman Catholic churches more than once when I was there to celebrate the union of a couple in love, or to remember with gratitude a life that had ended—both emotional times when being rebuffed seemed uncharitable and insensitive. In other denominations too, the Table has been “fenced” when some theological or ecclesiastical barrier was thrown up to keep me and others like me at a distance from the Eucharistic banquet. The barriers have been announced humbly or haughtily, callously or courteously, all to the same effect—“You’re not welcome at this Table.”

The restrictions include a number of rationales:
You don’t have the proper theological understanding of Communion/Lord’s Supper/Eucharist.
You don’t belong to the right denomination/church/organization/fellowship.
You haven’t signed on to the correct creed.
You aren’t one of us.
And so forth.

It’s often said that Britain and America are “two nations divided by a common language.” In the same way, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and all other Christians are different denominations divided by a common sacrament, the Lord’s Supper. The painful irony of it is that it is the Sacrament of Unity that is wielded as the weapon of division in the church.

There was a time, those heady years after Vatican II, when hope sprang forth that ecumenism meant recognition of an underlying unity among Christians, a God-given unity that would dissolve lines marking us off from one another.

Events took place when priests and ministers prayed as one, and before long dared to share bread and wine in Holy Communion to honor Christ as our common host. Protestant congregations heard priests preaching, Protestants stood before Catholics to proclaim the same Word. On rare occasions, ever so quietly, bread was broken and wine poured, and Christ was at the Table for all.

In the last couple of decades, however, those threads of unity have been unraveled and broken to the point that ecumenism has regressed to a state roughly equivalent of the late Middle Ages. This is not entirely the fault of the Roman Catholic Church or even the Pope, although they have certainly done a fine job of stepping away from the accomplishments of Vatican II. The “windows” John XXIII opened to bring in fresh air are slammed shut. Protestants, too, have dropped the ball, not following through with relationships established, not encouraging Catholic friends to share in faith with them, not finding ways to join as one people, God’s people.

So, what’s to be done? What can be done? Here’s my plan.

First of all, we Protestants have got to get our act together. We have no business complaining about not being allowed to receive the Lord’s Supper in another church or denomination when most of us deny it to our own people three-quarters of the time. Shame on us.

It’s time for us to put the Eucharist with the proclamation of the Word at the center of our worship. Without it our liturgy is incomplete, stunted, deficient, inadequate, and sorely lacking. Restoring the Eucharist to its proper place every Lord’s Day is one way to show other Christians that we understand and cherish the sacrament and live out in our own churches the unity we find there.

Next we need to make sure that the Lord’s Supper really is the Lord’s Supper, and not our own home-made meal of nostalgia. The Eucharist offers us nourishment that we need, desperately, if we’re to be Christ’s disciples in this world. The bread we break and pass along, the wine we drink from the cup, are signs of sharing with one another, and a rehearsal of our sharing Christ with the world. This is not just feel-good liturgy. The Lord’s Supper requires rigorous ministry to the needy, the poor, the outcast, everyone nobody else likes much.

Then we need to find times, places, and ways to break bread and pass the cup with other Christians. I’m convinced that the only way that the barriers will fall is if the people ignore them, and gather around the Lord’s Table in spite of whatever ecclesiastical authorities might say.

If this sounds subversive, then you’ve got the point. Liturgical theology is the primary theology. We all know that the Lord calls anyone and everyone to his Table. So we can honor him by coming to his Table with all those who hunger and thirst for what he offers.

Now is the time to claim the gift of unity God promises when two or three gather in Jesus’ name, and the Spirit enables us to recognize him in the breaking of bread and the sharing of a cup of wine.

How often do you have Communion at your church? Do you restrict who may come to the Lord’s Table at your church? Other than on Sunday morning, are there other times you share the Lord’s Supper with other Christians? Would you welcome a Jew or Muslim to the Eucharist?


  1. Don, I too regret the diminished attention being given to the issues related to experiencing our oneness in Christ at the eucharistic table. My current research project is the history of the Consultation on Church Union which maintained a clear focus on this goal for its first decade and a half. While I agree that more needs to be done, I am grateful for much that has been accomplished: new worship books with strong eucharistic liturgies (including BCW), increased frequency of eucharistic worship in most mainline Protestant congregations, and much wider eucharistic hospitality across denominational lines. The severe break in the western church in the 16th century still haunts us. There is much still to do and churches in the Reformed Tradition (yours and mine--Presbyterian and Disciples), with our antipathy toward the historic episcopate, are a big part of the continuing impasse.

  2. I have read your blog for some months and appreciate your cogent thought regarding matters liturgical. Thank you for your efforts.
    FYI see

    Throughout my ministry in the UCC and since retirement, in the ELCA, I have always invited "all baptized Christians to come to the Lord's Table to receive his Body and Blood." In my first pastorate 45 years ago, this raised the ire of some members in a congregation that still "fenced" the altar. That is a rare circumstance today.

    However, in the present day many have gone over the edge in the opposite direction to have an invitation of "ya'll come," and baptism is not a consideration. I have been told that this is a form of hospitality that makes sure that everyone is included so that they feel good about themselves.

    The Order of Corpus Christi, which I serve as Abbot, invites all baptized Christians to the feast. The non baptized or those from other religious tradition are given to understand that inclusion in the feast is not appropriate, but that they are welcome to the community nonetheless. To my knowledge no one has ever been offended.

    The witness and mission of the Order of Corpus Christi is to lift up within the church the necessity of regular weekly Holy Eucharist along with catechesis regarding all the sacraments and rites of the church. Our efforts are bearing fruit in small ways in various places in the US and the British Isles. See


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