The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has recently launched a significant churchwide discussion: Table and Font: Who is Welcome? An Invitation to join the conversation about Baptism and Communion. A number of resources and perspective papers have been published to seed and orient the conversation.Some themes of this conversation have become familiar to many of us. This essay seeks to draw out some of the lesser-known themes and to highlight a few of the relationships between different points in the discussion. Having read and studied all of the churchwide materials (and authored one of the papers) I propose here some shifts in the accents of the conversation, some of which attempt to clarify or simply an issue, and some—I think to the good and for the sake of the Gospel—seek to complexify our approach.
Accenting Welcome to Baptism… in conversations about Welcome to Communion
The disagreements around “open table” sometimes seem to hang on a few words: the grammar of an invitation to communion, either spoken or written in the bulletin. A considerable amount of energy has lately gone into crafting the language in these invitations. Such invitations vary in how explicitly they assert or critique qualifications regarding who is invited to eat and drink. They may invite “all who hunger,” or “all who believe,” or “all the baptized,” or “no matter who you are, you are welcome.” (See the interesting variety of approaches in “Examples of communion invitations among ELCA congregations.”) Since this conversation raises issues close to the heart of Christian life and identity, could these relatively few words of invitation be straining under the weight of a mystery they are unable to bear on their own?
Lutheran theologians (including a number of the authors of the perspective papers) are increasingly suggesting that such weight might be shared by more public and regular invitations to baptism. Melinda Quivik insists in her perspective paper that the invitation to baptism should be a first concern: “we demonstrate our welcome by making sure that everyone has the opportunity to encounter the outpouring of mercy that is baptism.” Perhaps in five years we may be able to publish a compelling set of invitations to baptism spoken on a weekly basis in ELCA congregations. Certainly if all Lutheran gatherings for worship heard as regular, robust, and engaged invitations to baptism as they heard invitations to communion, the contours of the current discussion of Table and Font would be dramatically shifted. And we might also ask, with Stephen Herr, if there is a strong and gracious invitation to hear the living word of God in worship. And, extending this thought: are there invitations to all (baptized and not baptized) to encounter Christ in service to the least of these?
Much of the debate around the relationship between Table and Font rests on a few words of locally composed invitation to communion. Could we take some of the unreasonable pressure off of this invitation by attending to robust and regular invitations to baptism, to the word, and to service to the least of these?
Accenting Incorporation… in conversations about Access
Much of the current conversation around Table and Font is structured by way of the conceptual metaphor of access. The basic logic functions like a gate: the gate to the table can be open, closed, or selective in its openness. Thus, language about coming to the table tends to communicate whether, and to whom, the way to the table is open or closed.
Of course, the metaphor of access does not exhaust the significance of holy communion. In fact, while the words of invitation (i.e. access) to the table are the most contested in the conversation around open table, they are not as central to the tradition as the simple but metaphorically dense words spoken directly to each communicant at the table: “body of Christ.” In short, in-corporation–becoming the body of Christ–is at least as central a dimension of the Lord’s Supper as access to the meal. This accent on becoming the body of Christ helpfully complexifies what is at issue in communion. It’s not just about getting to the table (access). It’s about becoming what we eat—the body of Christ (incorporation).
Gordon Lathrop’s perspective paper illustrates how Paul in 1 Corinthians reframes the question of access through the motif of incorporation. Paul insists that eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper is not simply about one’s own access to the meal, but about “discerning the body” in the meal. This body includes the community as body of Christ (especially the suffering and poor who share the wounds of Christ) and the individual’s incorporation into the body of Christ through bread and cup.
Notice that the use of this motif of incorporation shifts the locus of discernment toward the seeker (“am I ready to become what I would eat at the table—the body of Christ?”) and away from a controlling ritual gatekeeper (“shall I permit this person to eat at the table or not?”) The motif of incorporation also provides a sense of order (even caution and warning) in the approach to the table that is grounded in a theological reality (body of Christ) rather than a rule-based concern for ritual procedure (baptism should come before communion).
Accenting Theology… in conversations about Ritual Etiquette
There is a cycle of argument that takes place around questions of Table and Font that can be understood as being about ritual etiquette. Some argue: “Baptism is an initiation rite. Therefore it is only logical that it precede the rite of the community (communion) into which one is initiated.” An argument back is: “The Gospel breaches etiquette. So communion can (or even should!) come first.” The problem here is that even the breaching of etiquette is still an etiquette question. Read any good book on etiquette and it will remind you: good etiquette is also to know when to breach etiquette. So both sides of this cycle invoke reasoning based on structures of ritual etiquette rather than deeper Christian theological claims.
In his perspective paper, Harvard Stephens writes that any attempt to establish ritual etiquette, or what he calls“eucharistic policy,” will be unstable, “inherently incomplete,” not necessarily because of theological differences, but because of a theological reality: the eschatological tension that is part of all Christian life, including the meal. The nature of the eucharist as eschatological banquet and as located in our own unsettled times means that there are unresolvable tensions in the keeping of the meal. It is the promise of the new creation in the midst of a creation still groaning in birth pangs that does not allow for completely settled “policy” when it comes to the meal. The new day continues to arrive.
Stephens’ approach avoids appealing to categories of ritual logic in order to solve theological dilemmas. Rather he interprets some of the tensions in the current questions of Table and Font in theological terms. This counsel may be helpful in keeping the church from becoming mired in an argument that is attempting to settle what are actually unsolvable permanent tensions in Christian life short of the new creation.
Accenting People… in conversations about Sacraments
One problem with sacramental theology is that it is sometimes not very sacramental. It can be concerned with philosophical categories, abstract questions, and ritual form and avoid the earthbound nature and actual celebrations of the sacraments. But the old theological dictum, itself a kind of sacramental theology, holds true: sacramenta propter homines; the sacraments are for the benefit of the people. Sacraments are not simply intellectual puzzles to solve.
Thus while some of the conversation around Table and Font rightly asks what the true nature of baptism and communion is, another important theological trajectory is to inquire into who the non-baptized members of our assemblies are—and how they experience the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the held-out-to-them promise of the sacraments.
Many of the authors of the perspective papers—including those who come to quite different recommendations for practice—share a conviction: attending to the lives and questions of those who are not baptized and who come to worship seeking God is generative of pastoral wisdom and care. With such attention we can notice significant diversity in the perspectives of those who might be monolithically labeled “the nonbaptized.” There may be interfaith guests, younger (nonbaptized) members of adult-baptizing churches, those without significant relationship to the church, family or friends of members of who casually attend worship as a social event, an immigrant family that understands very little of the language of the service, and someone experiencing a life crisis and seeking meaning or solace. Is there a pastorally appropriate way to invite a devout Muslim to communion? How does the teenage girl staying in the church’s shelter, forced out of her home because of her sexual orientation, hear an invitation to communion that is only for the baptized? Beyond the invitation to communion, how is the promise of God’s surprising presence with us and for us received by these members of our assemblies? Attending pastorally to these real people in our assemblies will make our responses to the questions of Table and Font more contextually grounded in that theological affirmation: sacramenta propter homines, the sacraments are for the benefit of the people.
When the ELCA faced conflict around questions of human sexuality, we came to understand that much of what we were arguing about was how to read and interpret scripture. In some similar ways, our conversation around Table and Font may benefit from questioning the places we have placed the accents in the conversation. Our conversation about communion-invitation may turn us to a confident welcome into baptism and into service in the world. Our worry over giving or withholding bread and wine might be turned to wonder at becoming the living body of Christ. Our concern for ritual coherence might be broken open to consider the new creation welling up even now in our gatherings around word and sacrament. And our educated discussions of the sacraments might be deeper-rooted by attending pastorally to the actual beloved human beings for whom these sacraments flow from God.
- ^Available for download at www.elca.org/worship/
- ^One of the “Table and Font” resources published by the ELCA demonstrates a variety of approaches in these invitations in “Examples of communion invitations among ELCA congregations,” available for download at www.elca.org/worship/
- ^Quivik, “Butter in the Sunshine”: The Fragility of Faith and the Gift of Baptism,” 5.
- ^Herr, “Communion and Baptism,” 1.
- ^Lathrop, “Welcome to Life in Christ: Reflections on Baptism and Hospitality at the Table of the Lord,” 3-4.
- ^Stephens, “Eucharistic Hospitality: Unexpected Grace at the Lord’s Table.”
- ^Notice the narrative accounts of actual or imagined worship participants in the perspective papers of Carlson, Engquist, Lathrop, Quivik, and Schmeling, among others.