Faithful Discipleship and the Open Table

Most United Methodist know that we practice what is called an “open table,” meaning that anyone attending worship in a United Methodist Church is welcome to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. The standard Sunday service in The Book of Worship has the following words of invitation to be spoken by the pastor:

Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another. Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.

Those words may sometimes be altered—or if forgotten, omitted altogether—but the invitation still stands. In the notes for the worship service, The Book of Worship states, “We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive.” The Church’s official statement on Holy Communion, This Holy Mystery, further clarifies the churches position: “… there are few, if any, circumstances in which a United Methodist pastor would refuse to serve the elements of Holy Communion to a person who comes forward to receive.” This is not the practice in many, if not most Christian churches. So why is it the practice of the United Methodist Church. The answer to that question  is usually traced back to John Wesley’s view that communion was a “converting ordinance.” In the words of By Water and the Spirit, the Church’s official statement on the sacrament of baptism, “The Wesleyan tradition has always recognized that Holy Communion may be an occasion for the reception of converting, justifying, and sanctifying grace.”

To attempt to summarize what all this means, let me simply say that the United Methodist Church recognizes that holy communion may be an opportunity for those who find themselves separated from God to be reunited to God through Christ and we want to extend that opportunity to anyone ready and willing to receive it. In the words of This Holy Mystery:

Invitation to partake of Holy Communion offers an evangelical opportunity to bring people into a fuller living relationship with the body of Christ. As means of God’s unmerited grace, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are to be seen not as barriers but as pathways.

All this sounds great, and I fully agree with it, but it also stands somewhat in tension with the church universal’s tradition that, in the words of This Holy Mystery, “baptism is the non-repeatable rite of initiation into the body of Christ, while the Lord’s Supper is the regularly repeated celebration of communion of the body of Christ [the church].”  Or to use another metaphor, Baptism is our birth into the Christian family, communion is the regular Sunday dinner. The difficulty arises in that most of the Christian tradition has held—not without reason— that baptism should precede the receiving of Holy Communion. Methodism’s founder, John Wesley didn’t have to give much thought to this because in his setting, 17th century England, nearly everyone had been baptized at birth into the Anglican Church. But for contemporary United Methodists that is not the case. Speaking to this tension This Holy Mystery states:

Pastors and congregations must strive for a balance of welcome that is open and gracious and teaching that is clear and faithful to the fullness of discipleship.
Nonbaptized people who respond in faith to the invitation in our liturgy will be welcomed to the Table. They should receive teaching about Holy Baptism as the sacrament of entrance into the community of faith—needed only once by each individual—and Holy Communion as the sacrament of sustenance for the journey of faith and growth in holiness—needed and received frequently.

This Holy Mystery then quotes By Water and the Spirit (the Church’s official statement on baptism) in saying “Unbaptized persons who receive communion should be counseled and nurtured toward baptism as soon as possible.”

What I see happening here is that the United Methodist Church is trying to thread a very small needle. One one hand, we do not want to deny anyone the encounter with Christ that is holy communion, we want the grace of God to be open to all and thus we welcome all to Christ’s table (note that we don’t claim it as ours, we recognize that it is Christ’s). But on the other hand, we affirm that God wants all people (including ourselves) to become more Christ-like and this involves discipleship, for which we believe the customary formal starting point is baptism. The best possible solution to this quandary? Welcome everyone to Christ’s table and encourage those who have not yet received baptism to receive it with all possible haste. It should probably also be noted that a truly open table also involves respecting the decisions of those who decline the offer. We’ll be celebrating Holy Communion this Sunday, Jenny and I hope to see you at the table.