Open Table

While I was in college, I asked Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff if I could sit in on his liturgy class. I knew I didn’t have time to do the homework, but still wanted to peek in on what he was teaching. He let me! And it was wonderful.

We learned about Orthodox liturgy, in particular, and visited a Syrian Orthodox Church. I clearly remember one of the phrases that Professor Wolterstorff told us: “The doors! The doors!” It was the call to close the doors to remind the worshippers of closed communion. Only the Orthodox folks were permitted to receive communion. Others might receive a blessing, but, the boundaries were clear.
communion set
The potluck after church? Splendidly open, abundantly gracious, and delicious. And I’ve been back to this little congregation on several occasions, once, even, to “preach.” (I thought I was just the “moment for mission” speaker!)

I was thinking about open and close communion (yes, some say, “closed” and others say, “close”) with respect to the Reformed Church in America’s Formula of Agreement. Having grown up CRC with its practice of close communion, I continue to delight in the RCA’s open communion. “Come for all things are now ready!” and “all who are baptized are welcome.” After all, if you’ve not been baptized, if you are not Christian, then…what’s the point?

The Formula of Agreement is a long-in-process document noting shared communion with the PCUSA, the UCC, and the ELCA. All four of us share a practice of open communion, and all four of us have agreed to the “equal exchange of ministers,” among other things. The Formula of Agreement seems to me to represent the best of partnerships in Christian faith (along with, of course, the much larger bodies like the World Communion of Reformed Churches (http://wcrc.ch), the World Council of Churches (http://www.oikoumene.org/en)). The reason these organizations represent the “best of partnerships” is because we take each other seriously. We don’t dismiss our histories, we don’t say “difference doesn’t matter,” and we don’t downplay significant theological perspectives. We do take to heart the commitment to honor each other, and to agree to exchange ministers, and to welcome each other openly to our tables. It’s like…treating each other as Christians!

Several RCA ministers have been long-serving pastors of ELCA, UCC, and PCUSA congregations. Ministers from the ELCA, UCC, and PCUSA have served RCA congregations. The General Synod Council, the “Board of Trustees” of the RCA, has an ELCA observer. The RCA’s Commission on Theology has an ELCA member, and other bodies have ecumenical delegates, including General Synod.

Closer to home, I have some terrific, long-time friends who are PCUSA and ELCA ministers. Our friendship has been deep and wide. We talk about our theologies of worship, pastoral care, particular polities, and yearning for the church to continue to cooperate and grow. There is so much to learn from in these partnerships, and I’ve been enriched by some Facebook groups, in which the challenges of ministry and faith are shared and discussed.

Open communion symbolizes a great deal about the nature of the RCA. Along with the Formula of Agreement, open communion has been an asset to my particular ministry as chaplain in healthcare settings. I occasionally celebrate communion with hospital patients; it is a lovely experience. I don’t worry about what denomination they’re from, unless, of course, they’re Roman Catholic. Our baseline question for patients, whatever the request for pastoral care, is to ask if we might refer them to their own pastor. Even open communion folks can honor boundaries and well-established pastoral relationships.

These postures, open communion and the FOA, represent an openness and respect for other people of faith in a way that close communion doesn’t. If you’ve ever attended Catholic Mass, the close communion policy is clear. Lovely hospitality and gracious people don’t diminish the Catholic Church’s “trump card” that they are the ones who will determine when “the church is one.” Jesus’ prayer in John 17 taps into that yearning for us not just to “get along,” but to glorify God’s Triune, interacting Self by modeling that Trinitarian Fellowship in our cooperation with each other.

I very much appreciate the inclination to “protect” the sanctity of the table. I also affirm the attention to liturgy, to the careful and deliberate ways we “set the table.” We tell the same story when we set the table, remembering that “on the night Jesus was betrayed…” We use intentional language about the institution of the sacrament. We even have great names for the instruments that hold the sacraments (how often do you get to use the words “chalice” and “paten”?)

I also know how much I have learned from being a guest at a table where I was “out of my league,” and received the graciousness of hosts in remarkable hospitality. I have been privileged to learn to eat things at other people’s tables that were far more extravagant than I’d experienced before. Appreciating new foods, observing respectful behaviors, and cherishing the richness of what we eat and drink are not done for themselves, but as a way to engage our friendship more deeply and to share the riches of this life with gratitude.

We have many more reasons to be open in welcoming people to the table than we do to “close” it. We have far more to lose by closing off the table. Yes, we know that taking things lightly is endangering judgment; I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone take lightly the reception of the sacrament. It is a means of grace, whether or not we do our homework. The table, the cup and bread, are given in true love by a most gracious host. We receive these gifts as an expression of the communion of saints. It is for us; dinner’s ready!

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