Open or Closed Table? — The Rev Dr Truscott weighs in

This year will mark my fifteenth year of teaching in Singapore, as well my nineteenth as a missionary in Asia.  When one reaches milestones in ministry, one looks back to reflect on the changes in the church and in one’s ministry context. One significant change has been the interest in discussing “open table,” the practice of offering communion to any and all persons present at a service regardless of whether they have been baptized.

On the one hand, it seems that there is good biblical support for open table. The Lord Jesus himself is rather indiscriminate when it comes to table fellowship. He eats with anyone—respected members of communities and religious leaders, as well as with “sinners and outcastes,” a fact that spiritually discredited him in the eyes of his critics. Access to Jesus was open and inclusive. Proponents of open table would argue that this same openness and inclusivity should characterize the church’s Holy Communion today; we should not erect “barriers” to the Supper, for example, by insisting that only baptized persons can commune.

But, on the other hand, the Christian tradition has emphasized instruction in general and preparation for Holy Communion in particular. We should note that Jesus had instructed his disciples for three years before he shared a final meal with them in the upper room—a meal that we regard as the institution of our Holy Communion. What’s more, in the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28, he commands his disciples to teach new followers. In my own Lutheran tradition, Martin Luther stressed the need to prepare first communicants (children) by teaching them the basics of the Christian faith.  An important Lutheran confessional document of the sixteenth century, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, states that all persons desiring to receive Holy Communion are to be “examined and absolved” (Article 24, par 1)—in other words, those desiring communion had to demonstrate to their pastor a basic understanding of the sacrament, as well as confess their sins and receive absolution from him. Simply put, Lutherans required catechesis and confessionfor communion. In the Anglican tradition, instruction and confirmation by a bishop were requirements for reception of Holy Communion (1552 Book of Common Prayer).

In this respect, Lutherans and Anglicans have held to the very oldest practice of the church, for a number of ancient church documents state that only the baptized were to receive communion. Importantly, these same documents (e.g., the second-century Didache), assume that “baptism” involves an instructional process that prepares converts for discipleship and participation in Holy Communion. Thus in the early church, baptismal instruction was preparation for communion, and communion was the culmination of the baptismal process.

We can best understand the need for pre-communion instruction when we consider the situation that St Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 11.  The wealthier members of that church engaged in meal practices that humiliated the poorer members and thus fractured the unity of the church. Their way of doing communion failed to reflect the love and charity of the Lord Jesus. In short, the Corinthians did not fully understand the ethical implications of communion, and so needed instruction from the apostle.

St Paul’s objections to Corinthian meal practices teach us that we cannot treat the Supper of the Lord like any common meal, one that is informed by the values and customs of our culture. The spiritual and ethical implications of communion suggest a need for instruction in the Christian faith in general and the Supper in particular. Such instruction today is part of the baptismal preparation of adults (the “adult catechumenate”), and confirmation instruction for those children baptized in infancy. Meal fellowship with other Christians and with the Lord makes such high spiritual and moral demands on people that we dare not allow any but the baptized—or rather, the baptized and instructed—to approach the table.

To some people, this dictum will seem like a contraction. It will appear that I am making baptism and baptismal preparation barriers to communion, effectively erecting a wall between the Lord and those whom he would receive into his fellowship. However, I believe that this is not the best way to view baptism in relation to the Supper. In fact, baptism and baptismal formation are not onerous burdens imposed on seekers; Christ himself accompanies the church and baptismal candidates during this process. His own words in the Great Commission (“and, lo, I am with you always…”) assure us of his presence as we instruct new disciples. Indeed it is ultimately the Lord himself who imparts faith, wisdom, and understanding to the candidates. Baptism in the fullest sense is a journey of grace, and a gift that the church gladly bestows on newcomers to the faith.

For me, “open table” is not an option. Communion is for the baptized only, otherwise we seem to imply that baptism is not necessaryfor being a Christian, since communion is central to Christian life and identity. We only do justice to the meaning of both sacraments when we (1) admit only the baptized to the Supper, and (2) instruct those who want to participate in it. But this “insistence” on baptism (and instruction) is like a host’s insistence that a guest take an additional portion of food, or a piece of dessert—it’s an invitation to accept grace. My opposition to open table is not so much about upholding traditions or following rules. Rather it is about our commitment to sound pastoral practices that help people to receive the gifts of communion.

But what of hospitality?  Here I would argue that the church can be hospitable in other ways. For example, we might adopt the practice of Orthodox churches who offer  a special blessed bread to visitors (the Antidoron), as a sign of welcome.  And of course, churches can (and should!) be always welcoming people to baptism. Essentially, the way to the table is open by way of the font.

 

Jeff Truscott

 

The Rev Dr Truscott is presently serving as a lecturer at Trinity Theological College (TTC) Singapore. He teaches worship and liturgy as well church architecture. Prior to 2018, the Lutheran minister was serving as TTC’s chaplain. Dr Truscott completed his doctoral studies in liturgical theology at the University of Notre Dame. Some of his published works includes The Reform of Baptism and Confirmation in American LutheranismWorship: A Practical Guide,  The Sacraments: A Practical Guide and more recently Twelve Whys of Worship. The books can be purchased from the admin office at TTC. 


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