Since my first conversation about writing for this blog, I’ve wondered what to write as my first post and how to introduce myself. Some of you know me, others of you don’t. Some of you like me (or would if you knew me); others of you don’t (or probably wouldn’t if you got to know me). Those are pretty basic realities, aren’t they? They’re pretty much true for anyone.
On a more personal note: my name is Tim – online I often go by “teejtc.” I’m the father of two daughters, husband of one wife, pastor of an average-sized congregation, knitter, home-coffee-roaster, and bicycle-rider. I have a deep love of the scriptures and the sacraments and a particular interest in the ways the human animal needs ritual and plays out that need in daily life and communal liturgy. (For the record, although I have fairly specific personal preferences, I define liturgy very broadly!)
I originally planned on writing something related to Mercersburg (another interest of mine). Perhaps I’ll save that for another day. Today, I’d like to invite you to a conversation on the concept of inviting people to the table and “fencing” it. Many communion liturgies have both an invitation and a “fencing” – some people are specifically welcomed, others are specifically un-welcomed.
In my denomination (the Reformed Church in America), the invitation tends to be broad and the fencing weak (or nonexistent). Our Book of Church Order (BCO) states that “all baptized Christians present who are admitted to the Lord’s Supper are to be invited to participate” (1.I.2.11.a). Unusually, for us, there is not an official “invitation” to use as a guide so specific words spoken in worship vary from congregation to congregation. Some emphasize the “all;” others focus on the word “baptized;” still others place a primary emphasis on the words “who are admitted [by the Board of Elders].”
Why does it matter? For several reasons.
First, it matters because the sacrament matters. There are a variety of beliefs as to what “happens” during the table-sacrament (Communion, Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, etc.) We can discuss that some other time. For now, let’s just agree that “something” happens. In the Emmaus story, we read that the risen Jesus “had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” They had walked with Jesus, talked with Jesus, had the scriptures explained by Jesus, but he was “made know to them in the breaking of the bread” (Lk. 24:35) – something happened – something amazing.
Similarly, 1 Corinthians 11:28-30 says “examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” Whatever else that suggests, clearly something happens – something not to be trifled with.
The table sacrament, apparently, has great potential to affect people positively and negatively. From this perspective – it is important that people be invited to the positive and, perhaps even, protected from the negative.
Secondly, it’s worth noting that there is a difference between policy (doctrine, polity, dogma) and practice. For example, a congregation may have a policy that doesn’t allow a particular group (i.e. children or “outsiders”) to participate, but if they distribute the elements by passing trays down the aisle, it doesn’t practically matter – anyone can partake if they want to. Similarly, there is a psycho-social aspect to this – some people will partake even if they’re not officially “allowed” to (especially if “everyone else is doing it”), others will not even if they’ve been “invited.”
Finally, I believe it’s possible for both invitation and fencing to be gracious and life-giving, if done correctly (although I’ll admit that they have not always been used that way!) When I’m an outsider in a situation, sometimes it’s helpful to be told that “I’m invited” other times it’s equally-as-helpful to know that non-participation is both appropriate and preferred (hopefully in a non-judgmental, but honest, way). Put bluntly, an invitation tells me that it’s appropriate for me to participate, and that even if I don’t fully understand, I will be safe and will not be put in a situation I’ll later regret. A fencing helps prevent me from doing something that (1) I might not actually want to do, (2) could engage me in something I’ll later wish I hadn’t done (or I’m not currently prepared for), (3) could give the impression that I believe something I don’t (which may challenge my integrity personal – and in the eyes of others).
All of which is a long way of preparing to ask:
- What do you think?
- What do you (individual/congregation/denomination/etc.) do?
- What would you do, if you could do whatever you wanted?
- Can you see invitation and fencing as potentially positive, or have the salutary aspects of fencing been spoiled in an egalitarian and seeker-sensitive-influenced society?
Thanks for your time and thoughts!
Grace and peace,