A perfect sacrifice for the whole world

As I scrolled through Google Reader this week, a title from the ECF Vital Practices blog caught my eye: “[Not Always] Open Table.”

Those readers with an interest in Episcopal polity and politics are probably pretty up-to-date on the open table debate—I know it garnered plenty of talk at General Convention. While I’m not completely settled on any side of the question (I grew up in a church that practiced closed communion, so open communion—let alone open table/CWoB—is a significant step for me), I definitely see the questions of hospitality at stake, which is what the post at Vital Practices addresses.

Tom Brackett’s post (originally shared on Facebook—go social media!) tells of his experience visiting an Episcopal church where no one knew him. He was asked whether he was an Episcopalian in good standing, and he chose to misrepresent himself and answer “no.” The response? Tom writes, “The newly-minted priest then informed me (quite politely but firmly) that only Episcopalians are allowed to receive.”

Of course, that’s not actually true, but this slightly ill-informed priest provided Tom an interesting experience. He later writes, “Can I tell you, it feels pretty odd sitting out there in the pew while everyone else receives! Did the experience make me want to be baptized (again) so that I might receive? No.”

It’s an interesting perspective. I’ve heard it said that the desire to be baptized and receive communion might be catalyzed by better education, but presumably an Episcopal priest is, well, pretty well educated.

I clicked over to Tom’s Facebook page and read the comments (over 80 as I write this!), and found many stories similar to Tom’s, and many interesting insights. One commenter noted, “Someone might not understand what it is all about, but they sure know when they are left out.” Which is completely and utterly true, and a good reminder for all of us. This statement also, I think, broadens this conversation to include not only celebration of the Eucharist but any aspect of church life.

This is where all of us come in. Can we extend the invitation to the communion table? No. Well, maybe, with the right relationship and/or the right words—but for the sake of argument, it’s the presider who offers the invitation. Okay, but the rest of us aren’t off the hook. Receiving communion (or not) isn’t the only place to be left out. What about finding the service music—I mean, the whole S-number thing: who knew? So if you see someone down the pew from you fumbling, why not trade or share hymnals? Or the moments after the altar candles are extinguished and everyone seems to know what to do—do I listen to the voluntary, head to coffee hour, slip out quietly? Why not make a new friend to bring to coffee hour—walking into a roomful of strangers is much less intimidating with someone by your side.

The program year is picking up. Maybe you’ve noticed some new faces—I live in a college town, so this is about the time of year that new (or old) students (or faculty/staff) are church-shopping. Maybe you could make their day with a friendly smile and a, “Hi, I don’t think we’ve met. My name is ______. Do you have time to stay for a cup of coffee?” (Note: this is generally a better lead-in than, “Hi, are you new?,” especially if you’re not exactly a legacy member yourself.)

Christ gave all in his love for the whole world. God loves every single person who sets foot inside our churches. How do we enact this, embody this as the body of Christ in the world? Well…why not start with “hello”?

_____

What are communion practices like at your church? Hospitality practices? When were you shown hospitality? When have you shown hospitality?

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4 thoughts on “A perfect sacrifice for the whole world

  1. After my husband and I had been going to our church for a couple years, we switched what service we went to, and all of a sudden people kept coming up to greet us and asking if we were new. And then when we ended up switching back to the other service, people came up to us all the time saying it was so good to see us again and they were glad we had resumed attending church. It was pretty funny. I myself, however, am terrible at being hospitable, because I am irredeemably shy. I’m working on it, but I’m still at the point where saying more than a passing hi to a stranger gives me panic attacks, so….

    LCMS is closed communion, but it varies as to whether they’ll challenge you on it or how strictly they enforce it. We have a brief notice in the bulletin stating our beliefs about communion and saying you’re welcome to join us if you believe similarly but if the teaching troubles you you should talk to an elder or the pastor first. In practice, if you come up, the pastor will serve you. Other pastors are stricter, though, and will actually skip right over serving someone they don’t recognize–there are various doctrinal arguments for why they should do this, but it’s certainly not hospitable.

    I visited a church in a different town recently, and by the guest book at the entrance they had little sheets of paper that explained about the service: practical things, like what the numbers after hymn names meant and how to look them up, as well as explanatory things, like a brief explanation of the meanings of the different parts of the service. I stole one because I think something like that is such a good idea to have for visitors, especially in more liturgical churches where everything’s not just printed for you on a screen at the front. 😉

    • Nice! the front page of our tri-fold bulletins are almost entirely filled with “If our manner of worship is new to you, we suggest:…” It’s a pretty solid list—it even includes info about the “S” numbering in our hymnals. 🙂 It also says, “Receive Holy Communion if your conscience allows; none who present themselves will be refused.”

  2. Alissa, what’s the policy in Episcopal churches that practice closed communion for Catholics, or does it matter? You already know the Catholic policy on communion (although the joke at St. Tom’s is that there are quite a few first communions every Sunday at the student masses), but I had no idea that some Episcopal churches had basically the same closed policy. Fascinating post!

    • Thanks for your comment, Jenny! I was a little unclear—actually, all Episcopal churches today are open communion in that “all baptized Christians” are invited to receive (the priest in this story who said only Episcopalians could receive was well-meaning but incorrect). My former denomination, the CRC, makes decisions on open or closed communion on a classis-by-classis basis; the congregation I was raised in was part of a classis that practiced closed communion.

      The question currently under consideration in TEC is of “open table” communion, or communion without baptism (CWoB), i.e. inviting everyone to receive. Official policy says this is a no-go, but plenty of parishes already practice it.

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