You Are Welcome At This Table

In the October 2019 issue of the Clarion, The Rev. Bill Adams tells us why it is that we say "All are welcome at this table."  He also mentions The Didache, which he and Dr. Tom Johnson will present on at the Adult Forum on October 13 at 9:30 a.m.

At the end of my most recent column, I touched on the subject of membership at the Communion Table. I had explored how the Episcopal Church had moved from the view that only confirmed Episcopalians were welcome through the phase of welcoming adult Christians of other traditions while still restricting our own baptized children from Communion to where we are now. All the baptized are welcome, regardless of age. Confirmation is no longer a pre-requisite.

It is this spirit of welcome and inclusion that needs our consideration here. From as early as the second century of the common era, it has been the Church’s practice to restrict access to the Holy Eucharist to the baptized. In the Didache, we read “You must not let anyone eat or drink of your Eucharist except those baptized in the Lord’s name.” [9.5] Presumably, this view was adopted out of fear, since Christian worship in the time of the Didache was held in secret and persecution was always near at hand.

The Didache restriction, however, is echoed in the Canons of the Episcopal Church. Canon I.17.7, we read, “No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.” Both the Didache and the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church are clear. Only the baptized are to have a place at the Table.

Alongside these authorities, there is a growing trend in the Episcopal Church to extend to all in attendance an invitation to the Table. “Wherever you are in your journey of faith, you are welcome at this table.” This is what our Bishop has taught us to say. Our former priest-incharge, Rilla Barrett, was heard to say, “All is ready. All are invited,” when it was time for Communion. We at St. Stephen’s are accustomed to hearing this sort of invitation. How do we account for this dislocation?

My own teaching on the subject has had two aspects, both in support of the general and unqualified invitation.

The first support is the practice of Jesus himself. There is no place in the Gospel stories where table companionship with Jesus had some pre-condition. He ate with all sorts of folks and got in trouble from time to time for this practice. Further in this regard, he has admonished us to feed the hungry, and that without exception. Everyone/anyone was welcome.

There is a congregation in San Francisco that has taken this pattern as its own, even to the extent that their building enshrines this understanding. When you enter St. Gregory Nyssa in San Francisco, one comes first to the Altar/Table, to which all in attendance are welcome. In this congregation and in their building design, baptism is intended to come later. Communion first, baptism later if so desired. [Their building has other interesting design features but exploring those will have to await another time.]

So, in my own approach, the liberality of Jesus is the first consideration as to who is worthy of access to the Table. The second aspect is found in the prophesy of Isaiah. I have taught for years that our Holy Eucharist is an anticipation of what Isaiah reports to be God’s desire in the long run. The Prophet says, “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” [25.6] I take seriously God’s good intention to host a gathering for “all peoples,” without discrimination or judgment. It is this radical welcome that is consistent with the intent of God for the long run.

If our Holy Meal is to be a foretaste of that later event, it seems good that it be a proper foretaste, an appetizer, even an aperatif, of a comparable sort.

In a sermon I preached not long ago, I had the happy circumstance of having Revelation 21.5. Here John reports God’s commitment to “making all things new.” It is this disposition of God that invites our reconsideration of what we have received from the past and what the present and future may require. One might say that inviting everyone to the Table is “new,” and consistent with God’s announced habit. At the same time, one could equally well argue that what we propose here is quite old, the custom of Jesus before the Church’s regulations came to be and consistent with the expectations of the Prophet.

“Wherever you are in your journey of faith, you are welcome at this Table.” Benedicite! wsa