The Open Table: the integrity of the eucharistic community

by Stephen Edmondson

In my last two posts, I have pursued the question posed by the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops exploring the Eucharistic assembly as the “quintessential gathering” of God’s people. I’ve discussed the relational character of Jesus’ grace that happens around his table, and I offered one model for understanding the Eucharistic Assembly—that it is the Body of Christ.

Now, to be Christ’s body in the world is to be Christ’s broken body, whose boundaries stand open to the outsider. We must be wary of the attempt to define our communion through the clarity of our boundaries, for these inevitably tend to exclude and become, themselves, oppressive. But does this leave the Church without any sense of clear boundary and definition? How can a Church that will allow all to enter and participate provide itself a sense of integrity? Here we come across one of the most interesting insights born from the practice of the open table—that the community of Christ’s body has integrity in the midst of these open boundaries because it is defined not by its boundaries, but by its bonds. It is the commitment and connection of the members of the Church to the heart of the Church—Christ’s embracing love—and to each other that holds the Church together.

Members of open table congregations are clear about the identities of their communities, and they show no concern that their communities will disintegrate through their practices of inclusion. Their identities are bound to the love of God that is active and manifest in sundry ways among them; it is this love that brought them to these communities in the first place. The dynamism of this active love, moving from the center of the Church—Christ’s presence in the Eucharist—and enwrapping all of the Church’s members, holds these Christian communities together. From this perspective, the inclusionary embrace of the Open Table in no way threatens the Church’s identity; it supports it as a central practice of Christ’s embracing love.

Notice the important conceptual shift that we are making here. Within much of the sociological literature of the 20th century, “communities” were defined by “boundaries,” insofar as boundaries mark the beginning and end of the communities. (See Anthony Cohen, The Symbolic Construction of Community (New York: Routledge, 1985), p. 12.) This logic begins with an idea of community that involves a similarity among its members and a difference from everyone else. The boundary marks this similarity and difference. With this understanding when distinctions are lost, boundaries “become anomalous and the integrity of the ‘community’ that they enclose has been severely impugned.” (Cohen, p. 20)

Concerns about the effect of opening the table on Christian community often trade on the connection between community and boundary. If boundaries are essential for communal definition and identity, then without boundaries, it is difficult if not impossible for someone to gain a sense of belonging to a community. Indeed, this concern for boundaries isn’t a theological position, but simply a sociological one that much 20th century literature would bear out.

But is this right? Are boundaries essential, even primary for conceptualizing community, or is there another direction that we could take? If the concept of boundaries was closely tied to the idea of community in the 20th century, in the first decade of this 21st century more attention has been paid to the role of relationships in community (sometimes under the vocabulary of networks or social capital). This shift forms the substance of Robert Putnam’s epochal work, Bowling Alone, which traces to breakdown in contemporary community in tandem with the dissolution of those relationships that make community possible. Putnam and much contemporary literature cannot assume a world where the potency of community allows a sociologist to consider only the question of differentiating one community from another. Rather, as the reality of community has come under fire in our atomizing world, writers have turned to the relationships from which community is formed to conceptualize its essential qualities. Zygmunt Bauman, in fact, derides the connection between the idea of community and the fact of boundaries, arguing that “community” is invoked only to give symbolic substance to the boundaries we erect in our never-ending war to protect “us” from “them”. (See Zygmunt Bauman, Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001) esp. pp. 7-20.) Bauman suggests that the hope of a way forward out of our boundary-drawing quagmire is in authentic relationships that truly recognize the other—relationships from which real community and real security could be derived.

The practice of the open table relies on an idea of community defined by its bonds, its relationships, not its boundaries. In one sense, this is again to say that it’s a liturgical theology. As Gordon Lathrop has argued, good liturgy begins with strong symbols (of Jesus) in the center—symbols that bind us to God’s love in and through the Jesus they manifest. Relying on these symbols, good liturgy also necessitates open doors (a lowered sense of boundaries) since we betray the very symbols that center us if we fence them off in order to define and protect “us” from “them”.

It entails a covenantal theology, recognizing that covenant is primarily about relationship—first our relationship with God and through that, our relationship with one another. The covenant enacted in Jesus, however, is fundamentally an open covenant—a covenant intended to break down boundaries, that compels us to reach out to the “them” outside of our communities, imploring them to recognize their status with us as God’s children. In this context, an idea of boundaries is not only inessential to the reality of Christ’s covenant—it in fact betrays it.

Clear boundaries can facilitate a clean entrance into a community, but this seems to be a lazy way to do community. A Church can be defined by the walls that surround it, or by the table that it houses. The nice thing about walls—once they are built, they need little attention as they divide the inside from the outside. With sturdy walls, we only need to make sure that we are inside the doors to “belong.” But if the church is defined by its table, then it requires constant attention for its reality to subsist. The table must be set, people seated and served, fellowship must be engaged in. Entrance into this community can be equally clear. It begins with an invitation to be seated at the table, and it culminates (in baptism) with an invitation into the kitchen to join those who serve.

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Edmondson is the Rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in McLean, VA. Before returning to parish ministry Edmondson was an associate professor of Church History at the Virginia Theological Seminary.

Past Posts