Fencing the Table

Now, Christians – wise up. I want some answers. I’d like to return to this question about what it is that entitles someone to receive communion.

We had quite a chat about it when I asked whether one sacrament needed to come before another one.

Lots of people seem to think this really matters a very great deal indeed.

Consider, if you will, the following invitations and exclusions from the table of the Lord. All these are real and are quoted either from service sheets printed by congregations or noted from the spoken invitation to communion given by the person presiding. The first two are quite interesting because they each have a comment in both English and French and it is noteworthy that there is not a direct translation in either case.

  • Le pain consacré et distibué au course de la messe a une haute signification pour les catholiques: c’est le Corps de Jésus-Christ leur Seigneur et Dieu. Si vous ne partagez pas notre foi en sa présence, nous vous demandons de ne pas vous joindre à la procession de communion.
    The bread distributed during mass has a high significance for Christians: it is the body of Christ, their Lord and God. If you do not share our faith in the living presence of Christ in the eucharistic bread, we ask you not to join your neighbours at communion time.
  • L’hospitalité eucharistique est offerte à toute personne, quelle que soit sa confession ecclésiale.
    All are welcome to share in the banquet of the Lord’s Supper. Please come to the altar at the direction of the ushers. It is customary to kneel at the rail (as you are able). Receive the bread (wafer) in the palm of your outstretched hands with the right over the left. Receive the wine, which follows, by drinking from the cup as it is extended to you. Ladies, please blot your lipstick.
  • Everyone who loves the Lord Jesus Christ as their own personal Saviour is welcome to receive the bread and wine in this church.
  • All baptised Christians of trinitarian churches are welcome to receive communion in this church.
  • Those who are in good standing in their own churches are welcome to join us in receiving the bread and wine at God’s table.
  • This is the table not of the Church but of the Lord. It is to be made ready for those who love him, and who want to love him more. So, come, you who have much faith and you who have little, you who have been here often and you who have not been for a very long time, you who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
    Come, not because it is I who invite you: it is our Lord.
    It is his will that those who want him should meet him here.
  • Everyone is welcome to receive the bread and wine at communion in this church. If you do not wish to receive the bread and wine, please come forward with everyone else for a blessing, holding a service sheet in your hands.

Now, my brothers and sisters. What do we think about all this?

Isn’t it interesting how many churches believe that not everyone should be able to receive communion. And yet, isn’t it interesting how wide the discrepancies are in the terms of the deal, even in the seven churches quoted above. Some say that you are unworthy if you’ve not been baptised. Some that you are unworthy if you don’t believe the right thing about a point of doctrine, some that you are unworthy because you’ve not been initiated properly yet, some that you are not worthy if you are “not in good standing” with someone or other because of something or other.

Is it not incredibly interesting that 2000 years on from the first Last Supper, God’s people really have not managed to agree what the terms of the invitation are?

Now, what do you think?


  1. I work on the principle that it is not the church’s job to put guards around the sacrament, so favour the latter two – half a point to the one with the lipstick (because it’s better to be long-winded about practicalities than actually to exclude), and a “nod, interesting…” to the one about being in good standing (because that has its scriptural basis, but also the liturgy should suffice to clear the air through the Peace).
    But ultimately the job of the sacrament is to point beyond, so the poetically florid “This is the table not of the Church but of the Lord” wins.

    So what happens at St Mary’s?

    • St Mary’s is the last one.

      Don’t forget that the one about good standing would excommunicate divorced Roman Catholics from Anglican Eucharists. Something which we might not be too keen on doing.

  2. Roger says

    The thief on the cross (not sure if he was penitent even) was assured of a place in paradise and therefore a seat at the feast of the Lord. Jesus shared the bread and wine even with Judas. Now who are we to deny?

    • My thoughts exactly. If Jesus saw no problem with Judas partaking, it’s hard for me to come up with a reason to deny it to someone. That being said, I can understand the idea behind seeing that baptism comes first. It seems that, at least traditionally, that was the way things were done.

  3. I would go for ‘in good standing in their own churches’. Middle class respectability is the most important thing.

  4. “This is the table not of the Church but of the Lord.”

    That’s long been my opinion. The sacrament is Our Lord’s body and blood, and the invitation is from Jesus. No human has the right to refuse those who come forward for the Eucharist.

    If, after receiving, the person discloses that she/he is not baptized, then an offer for a quick and easy baptism should be extended.

    • I love your idea about offering to baptise the person on the spot afterwards, if they disclose that they haven’t been baptised. A non-denominational church that I used to attend would have a sort of ‘altar call’ towards the end of every sermon, in which if anyone wanted to get baptised, they could…right then and there! And then AFTER that offer was made, we would all have communion together.

  5. Blair Robertson says

    Who is worthy? We go to receive communion because we are not worthy; any righteousness we have is in Christ. The second last ‘words of invitation’ is what I frequently use. The Church of Scotland (of which I’m a minister) has a very open table tradition: anyone who loves the Lord is welcome.

    • Ah yes, Blair – those collections of Communion Tokens from your church and my own speak so forcefully of an open table tradition, don’t they?

  6. I also wonder if people’s views on ‘who’ can receive communion have to do with how often a church *has* communion. If you only do it once a quarter, they probably feel that having all these hoops to jump through isn’t a big deal, b/c you have so much time to get everything in order. I’ve never quite understand churches that only *do* communion once a quarter (or even less often).

  7. I recognise the last one, and I like the one second from last.

    I have long been of the view that communion should be open to all who feel called to receive it. This is partly, I suspect, a product of my own upbringing in a church where an invitation to communion reeked of exclusivity. It’s more because I think that fully sharing in communion can be a transformative experience, and if they are never given the opportunity to experience it, they may never really understand what all the fuss is about. If by sharing this particular sacrament with people to whom it has usually been denied we open their eyes to faith, then it seems to me that that can only be a wonderful thing.

  8. fr dougal says

    No 2 is interesting! “ladies please blot your lipstick”! It should really read “Would anyone wearing lipstick please blot it!” But “quelle que soit sa confession ecclésiale.” Where was this sourced from? RC or Diocese of Gib and europe?. I rather agree with it.

  9. Andrew says

    You specifically ask for answers, so here’s what I think:

    Admission to communion is a spiritual blessing, and there is no great merit in the elements themselves, but only in the significance attached to them when they are consecrated. People who receive communion should have at least some understanding of this significance, otherwise you might as well be giving them sweets. This would preclude very young children from receiving communion, although I am sure God looks after them in His own way.

    Of course there are many ways to gain this understanding, but an important one is by Confirmation Classes. I (personally) started my Christian life when I was confirmed, and I greatly regret to loss of this deeply significant custom.

    • While, Andrew, this symbolical understanding is a view of the Eucharistic elements, it is not the only view. Even the manifestly Protestant books of Common Prayer of the 17th century note that consecrated elements are not to be used for ‘common’ purposes but are to be consumed devoutly at the end or immediately after the service.
      But to me I think we should beware assuming that God’s blessing is not objective, and is somehow dependent on what you and I make of it. The case of Baptism, particularly as you mention it, is a case in point. What is important is not what we receive, but what God gives.
      I too deplore the demise of Confirmation, but I am eternally grateful that my parents chose to have me baptised when I was days old, and I believe the faithful God has been faithful to the promises. Promises which I was pleased to confirm when I was 11, but pleased to say I have always been a Christian.

  10. I take the view that the priest is only the waiter at the banquet and not the chef. The chef didn’t mention anything about conditions when he cooked the meal. Therefore, we should view all gatekeeping as purely a human invention and not as having any theological base. Decisions to make the receiving of the sacrament conditional may be valid within the context of the group that imposes them, but, as they are not from God, they can be (and should be) changed if the context changes and makes them irrelevant and/or unhelpful to the mission of the group.

  11. manageremeritus says

    In the first example, “les catholiques” appears in the English version as “Christians”. Hmmm…. Interesting.

    • Indeed so, manageremeritus. That was one of the first things I noticed too.

      And in the second, those reading in French were not advised to blot their lipstick.

  12. This is something that I have experience of, sadly. I grew up in the C of S, and was about 12 or 13 when the whole “how old do you have to be to receive communion?” debate came up in the General Assembly. It was left up to the individual churches, and in my case it was left up to the individual elders. Which resulted in me, and my friends, actually being refused the bread as part of the communion celebration. Literally. It was taken from my hand by someone who didn’t think we should be partaking. Which I found heartbreaking, as someone who had (and does) believed in God my whole life, and grown up in the church. In fact, it was my commitment to the church which made it hard for me – everyone knew me. And yet as an adult, I could have walked into any church and taken communion without question.

    My husband is an atheist, and when we had a discussion about it, I realised I believe that if you believe in Christ, and the reasons behind the Last Supper, then you are welcome to participate. I was welcomed to the Anglican Church in Wales with open arms, and no need for confirmation, a few years ago. They recognised I believed in the Eucharist. We don’t need ceremonies or certificates to decide whether people are worthy. Of course, for the Catholic church there is the transubstantiation issue. But in protestant churches, I don’t like the idea of people being turned away from the table. It’s Christ’s meal, and he welcomes everyone to the table who believes in him, we’re only His guests.

  13. Agatha says

    Andrew, do you favour a test of understanding then? What about the adults with Downs’ at my church, do we turn them away? No – because they, and the young children, know they are receiving something special, even though they cannot explain transubstantiation.

    • Before I became a priest I used to worship at a church in Nottingham. A young woman, in her late teens, with both mental and physical problems so extreme that she could not communicate or control her movements at all, came to church every Sunday with her mother. The priest insisted that she was confirmed even though nobody had any idea what she understood about anything. I was at her confirmation. After the bishop laid hands on her head and she was pushed back to where her wheelchair was always parked we looked at her. There were tears rolling down her cheeks. that had never happened before in church.

      The following January, after attending an epiphany party at church, she died suddenly.

      It was an Anglo-Catholic church and she was given a full requiem mass. Because of the humanity of that priest there was no hypocrisy at that requiem.

  14. Melissa Holloway says

    Along the lines of MadPriest, I am struck in these conversations at how little we as human beings (and especially those with the power who actually write the stuff down) want to take responsibility for our particular ‘fence’. Better to blame it on a theological system or better yet an analogy.

  15. Somewhere inside me I seem to believe that the gifts of God are lavished most generously on those who least deserve them.

    I’ve a feeling that is the gospel.

  16. Just in the event that anyone cares to know, I always blot my lipstick.

    If you asked a group of 10 properly baptized Christians what meaning they attached to the Eucharist, I wonder what the answers would be and how the responses would differ.

  17. Martin Ritchie says

    I’ve experienced the second last “invitation” used in a communion service and found it incredibly powerful. The church where I heard it regularly attracts folk to its small evening service that you might call “visiting seekers” and also people whose church connection has lapsed. The words seemed spot-on.

  18. Brother David says

    “The church is radically inclusive and baptism is the means by which people are included. Communion is the celebration of that inclusion, not its means.”
    The Revd Tobias Stanislas Haller, BSG

    Tobias said it better than I can, but this is what I believe. An understanding of the theology of baptism lends to then understanding the theology of the eucharist. To offer eucharist prior to baptism is to enter into the celebration of what has not yet occurred, mainly, having become the body of Christ.

  19. On the one hand I agree with Brother David, that is a norm which has its roots in Christian tradition. But life is messy and God is generous. I would rather people came to the Table because they felt drawn, than stayed away because they weren’t sure whether they belonged. Having come from a situation where the question of Holy Communion before confirmation wasn’t able to be resolved I nearly wept on my first Sunday here when two youngsters held out their hands for the host. We are about to start using a new service booklet and I have borrowed a phrase from our diocesan cathedral: “Wherever you have come from you are welcome at the Lord’s Table.”
    None of us might deserve grace, but we all need it.

  20. Eric Stoddart says

    I assume there’s just one Eucharist in which we all participate across time and space. That means there are all sorts of people having rreceived / receiving / will receive Christ, many of whom would never believe that we today are even Christians. Goodness knows who’ll be receiving Him and where in a thousand year’s time. It means that any concept of unity can’t be defined in culturally specific terms but solely in Him.
    On those grounds, we welcome all. Many of us would have been excluded 500 years ago. I don’t want to exclude someone today from a category who 500 years from now will be looking back in despair at our exclusivity in 2012. Substitute whatever length of time you want and it remains salutary.
    If the Church is still celebrating Eucharist in 5 million years who knows what evolution will have brought to sentience and communion. But that’s another issue altogether.

  21. Rosemary Hannah says

    I am interested in Andrew’s comment that because there is nothing inherently different in the bread and wine, understanding is needed to transform it. It does make sense from that perspective, though I guess I then ask myself what harm can be done by those who have no belief taking Wharburtons and Madeira. But you see, I believe that there is something special, very special, about the bread and wine, and I trust the Lord who graciously got himself in there, to exercise good sense and good discretion in the ways he most appropriately leaves – though given the prodigal way he lived, there is always the fear he may be just as reckless today.

    The concerns I have are over the importance of somehow and somewhere communicating to people that actually following that Lord will take all you can offer – but then I turn round and think that none of us knows that at the start, and it takes us a lifetime to grow into the knowledge, and that if I do not really know it after – oh, 45 years – how the heck do I expect any baptismal candidate to know it either. All we can do is model the call.

  22. Marion says

    I went over to the Iona with my school to the youth camp for a week. At the service on the Sunday, we all took Communion. The wine was given first, then we were all given a piece of bread and told to go and find someone we didn’t know and to break that bread with them.

    From what I’ve been studying, the early Orthodox Christians were not baptised until just before they died. So they would have taken Communion without Baptism.

  23. Robert McLean says

    Could anyone who supports the ‘open table’ view please explain what meaning they attach to Baptism.

    • Sure thing, Robert.

      How about this prayer that we use in Scotland over the water of baptism. I think it sums it up rather well. (Though it was once dismissed by “more of that Scotch mist liturgy” by and English priest that I was very fond of.

      Holy God, well-spring of life,
      in your love and justice,
      you use the gift of water to declare your saving power.
      In the beginning your Spirit moved over the face of the waters.
      By the gentle dew, the steady rain,
      you nourish and give increase to all that grows;
      you make the desert a watered garden.
      You command the wildness of the waves;
      when the storm rages you calm our fear;
      in the stillness you lead us to a deeper faith.
      In the life-giving rivers and the rainbow
      Israel discerned your mercy.
      You divided the Red Sea
      to let them pass from slavery in Egypt
      to freedom in the Promised Land.
      In the waters of Jordan
      penitents found forgiveness in the baptism of John.
      There, Jesus your beloved child
      was anointed with the Holy Spirit,
      that he might bring us
      to the glorious liberty of the children of God.
      Send upon this water and upon your people [or upon N.)
      your holy, life-giving Spirit.
      All Bring those who are baptised in this water
      with Christ through the waters of death,
      to be one with him in his resurrection.
      Sustain your people by your Spirit
      to be hope and strength to the world.
      Through Jesus Christ, our Lord,
      to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
      be honour and glory, now and for ever.
      All Amen.

      [Note, no mention of communion].

      • In the gospels, baptism is linked firmly to repentance – it is the washing away of sin. It is not an initiation ceremony and conferred no special status in the Jewish religion on those baptised. Those baptised would mostly have been life-long members of the Jewish religion before their baptism. It wasn’t until after Christ’s ascension that gentiles started to be baptised. Jesus did not mention the need to repent before remembering him let alone the need to be baptised.

        If we restrict sharing the communion until after baptism or confirmation we restrict the power of the communion experience to lead people to repentance. So, perhaps we are putting the cart before the horse when we do so.

      • Robert McLean says

        No mention of communion noted, though in context of the SEC Canons someone mentioned earlier somewhere, it seems it isn’t necessary as Baptism then Communion is regarded as normal.

        Very nice prayer, I reckon.

  24. Brother David says

    The oldest writings that we have concerning both baptism and eucharist are from Paul, perhaps as soon as 25 years following Jesus’ ministry. Paul links both to the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul links baptism with repentance and as an initiation into the realm of God. Paul emphasizes only partaking of eucharist in a worthy manner and only after repentance, so as not to bring damnation upon oneself by partaking unworthily.

    The earliest Christian writings regarding both after Paul are by the second century where it is clear that for the 2nd century church baptism precedes eucharist. I will remain part of the church that emphasizes this tradition that we have received from those earliest spiritual ancestors.

    • But that’s a repeated repentance, not baptismal repentance. Unless you are saying that you haven’t sinned once since you were christened or that we should be rebaptised before every communion. You’re joining the dots in Paul to create the picture that fits best with your view of tradition. Best just to say such and such is what you like and leave God out of it. There’s nothing wrong with preferring a particular way of doing things but justifying your own preferences in such a didactic fashion is a bit dodgy.

      • Brother David says

        I don’t believe that its dodgy to point out that Paul emphasized repentance as a major part of both rituals. No, nowhere does a writing of Paul state emphatically that baptism precedes eucharist and I don’t believe that I have inferred that such a dictum exists. But from Paul one understands that for him and the communities that he ministered with, baptism was the gateway into the body of Christ and eucharist was the sustenance of the body of Christ. By baptism one participated in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and became reborn and a member of the spiritual body of Christ on the earth. That by partaking of the meal, for the body of Christ, one was still partaking of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. To me, its logical that one be a member of the body of Christ before one participates in the meal of that body and we find that that is exactly what the church is teaching in the 2nd century, in the oldest writings still available to us.

      • Brother David says

        If that were truly the case, why baptize them?

        • Because Jesus told us to.

          “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

  25. Jesus didn’t found the church. Therefore “the baptism of Christ” wasn’t originally intended as a gateway to the church, it was a rite of repentance. Like the eucharist is a visible sign of an idea. We can add stuff to that idea if we want to, but we can’t claim any authority to do so other than our own.

  26. Of what sins are infants cleansed at baptism? Original sin? Then tell me what original sin means. As a child (oh so very long ago!), I was taught it was the sin of Adam and Eve that we all inherit, but that story is no longer credible.

    What Kelvin says.

    “I think those I baptise belong to Christ long before I get my hands on them.”

  27. Robert McLean says

    @MadPriest: Whilst it may be true that Brother David is “joining the dots in Paul to create the picture that fits best with [his] view of tradition”, isn’t it fair to say that this is what the Anglican Church has done – till now at least, and though it isn’t the only way to regard Baptism and its relationship to the Eucharist, it is the Anglican way to regard it.

    To me it parallels the Anglican understanding of who may celebrate a Eucharist. Theologically I think it is fair to say that all Christians believe that none of us is worthy to celebrate the Eucharist, yet in obedience to Christ’s command we have come up with different understandings so that the Eucharist can be celebrated. For example, Anglicans believe that only those in priest’s orders can preside, whereas other denominations have found other answers to that. Though we all have the same theology we have different ideological solutions.

    So I think that this is a matter of Church order. And, as it stands, isn’t it fair to say that the Anglican view is one of Baptism first?

    • That’s what I’ve been saying all along. It is our choice.

      • Robert McLean says

        @MadPriest: If by ‘our choice’ you mean ‘our Church’s choice’ then I agree with you. As a loyal Anglican I feel I ought to support what the Church has decided. Otherwise I might as well be a Congregationalist. That’s why, despite being a catholicly-minded Anglican I have no time for the type of Anglo-catholic who carries on about the ordination of women to the priesthood or the episcopate. One cannot talk, as the catholics do, about the authority of the Church then ignore it and still claim to be Anglican, or indeed catholic, imho.

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