Asking the right questions key to ‘open table’ issue

Published May 1, 1999

SHOULD WE be inviting the unbaptized in our worship services to receive communion? Until recently this question would have been answered with an immediate and unequivocal “no.” But in some quarters this is being rethought and the no is not so immediate, a little more tentative than formerly. In raising this issue, I am sometimes challenged with the question, "What is your understanding of communion anyway?" Now this is a question that could lead to a long and complex discussion. But as interesting as that might be, in my opinion, it is the wrong question with which to open this particular discussion. The primary question, I think, is: What is the church, and what is it for? Assuming that the church is God’s idea, what does God have in mind for it to do? What is it that God wants done so badly that he called the church into being to do it? This is not the place for a detailed response to this question, but the short form answer must surely be something like this: To share the good news of God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ with a world that has been alienated from God through the power and deceitfulness of sin; to share God’s gracious offer of forgiveness and reconciliation with all who will hear, and to work for the reconciliation of the whole world to God through Jesus Christ. It seems wrong headed to approach this discussion of communion apart from the question of mission. As radical and heretical as it might sound, the place of the sacraments is secondary to, and always in the service of, our mission to the world. The question we need to ask is: How does our practice around the sacraments contribute to, or detract from, our ability to carry out our God-given mission effectively and faithfully? Rather than preoccupy ourselves with the question of whether or not the unbaptized should be invited to receive communion, we would do well to ponder another question: What is it about our traditional practice that has led to the current situation where there are hundreds of thousands (probably millions!) of baptized people in this country who have no desire even to attend church, let alone receive communion? Or, to continue with this line of thought: What is it about our traditional practice that has led to the current situation where many (perhaps a majority) of those who do regularly receive communion, by their own admission are biblically illiterate, have little or no understanding of the mission of the church, and could not give a clear answer to an unbaptized inquirer as to what it means to be a baptized Christian? Given our mission, and in light of our well-demonstrated inability to connect with this culture and influence it with and for the Gospel, undo concern around the issue of who does or does not receive communion on Sunday mornings comes close to “straining at gnats and swallowing camels.” After all, it is worth remembering who we are talking about here. We are not talking about setting up an altar on the sidewalk and distributing communion indiscriminately to passersby. We are talking about what happens at Sunday morning worship. We are talking about people who, because of their inner quest for God and for truth, have stepped out of their comfort zone and joined us on our territory to participate in worship. They are seekers with hungry hearts. They may not understand much about Christianity at this point, but as citizens of this culture they understand immediately when they are being included and when they are being excluded. To paraphrase Jesus, “even the Gentiles understand hospitality!” To include these seekers in the invitation to receive communion, should they desire to do so, in no way waters down the radical call of the Gospel to turn and follow Jesus. It might well help them do so. We would do well to remember in our conversations about communion that Jesus had a lot of trouble with those who were so preoccupied with institutional rules and procedures that they got in the way of those who were hungering to know the living God. Those who come looking for God should not be given an institutional agenda instead. On its own, the move to an open table will not make us any more effective in our mission than would new liturgical texts, or a new hymn book. But where this mission is clearly understood, and where there is a will to carry it out with passion and commitment, an open table may well help. At least it is worth thinking about. Canon Harold Percy is rector of Trinity Anglican Church, Streetsville, Ont., and the author of several books on evangelism.


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