Don’t Tell People to “Come to the Table” Unless They Really Do–Or Should

Today is the Sunday of Christ the King, or the Sunday Before Advent, depending on which liturgical calendar you’re using. (So let’s dispense with the term “the liturgical calendar” as if there is only one.) It’s the last Sunday of the liturgical year, and as was the case with 2019-20 it’s been a long one, glad we’ve made it to the end. Hope the next one is better.

So much for one pet peeve. If we’re going to discuss pet peeves in this liturgical year, it’s now or never. So let me bring up a phrase that is a leitmotif among Affirming Catholics: “Come to the Table,” presumably meaning the table of the Lord (as the opening track in The 10:15: Making Tracks sings about.) There’s a lot of sentiment loaded into this phrase, some of which implies that most of the rest of us aren’t really coming to the table, or are not doing so in a meaningful manner.

I’ll start by mentioning the devotees of Bill Clinton’s Eucharistic Theology: It Depends on What ‘Is’ Is, namely the Evangelicals in general and the Baptists in particular. When they get out the big trays, they also obviate the need to come to the table: communion is served to them, they don’t come or go anywhere. With their Eucharistic theology, it probably doesn’t make any difference whether they come to a table or not, which is one reason why places like C4SO are getting refugees from this kind of church.

As I keep reminding people, I grew up in the Old High Church, and we had an altar rail where people came to kneel and receive Communion. Since a permanent altar rail would render the area around the altar inaccessible, part of the altar rail was a gate, which before the actual Communion I might find myself as an acolyte closing, and opening thereafter.

The late ACNA troublemaker Thomas McKenzie made the observation that the altar rail is in reality a table that we come to. If he’s right it’s the closest thing to people “coming to the table” out there. Coming to a table implies the intimacy of a shared meal, and for that to happen everyone (or as many as possible) must be at the table at which the meal is served. So that’s an interesting defence of the use of an altar rail.

Unfortunately those who implemented the changes following Vatican II had a completely different idea about the altar rail and the table. The altar rail, they said, was exclusionary: it was a barrier to keep people from “the table,” which in turn was torn out from its pride of place at the wall and set at the centre of the altar area so that the priest could celebrate the Mass ad populum. This was the state of affairs I found when switching from the Old High Church to the Novus Ordo Missae one.

The problem with this is that, with all of the changes, people really don’t “come to the table” in Roman Catholicism either. The priest certainly does; so do the deacons and the extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, and depending upon the parish other interlopers might do the same. But most people don’t: they line up in front of the altar area and receive the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ one by one. My own church’s attempt to improve on that didn’t have a better result.

The only place that came close to that in my years as a Roman Catholic was my experience in the Newman Association, where we had a relatively small, intimate group. That size of a group echoes the ultimate “coming to the table,” namely the Last Supper. But it’s worth noting that, even in a group like that, there were those whose major fault was not when they came to the table but when, how and why they left.

In an attempt to get to a better place, I’ll start in a crude way. When my father wasn’t exhorting his children to “get with the program,” he would tell us to “come to the party.” Coming to parties is an obsession with Americans these days, but that’s not what he had in mind. What he was trying to say is that we should align our attitude with what was right. In Biblical terms it meant the following:

Therefore, whoever eats the bread, or drinks the Lord’s cup, in an irreverent spirit, will have to answer for an offence against the Lord’s body and blood. Let each man look into his own heart, and only then eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For the man who eats and drinks brings a judgment upon himself by his eating and drinking, when he does not discern the body. That is why so many among you are weak and ill, and why some are sleeping. But, if we judged ourselves rightly, we should not be judged.

1 Corinthians 11:27-31 TCNT

If we consider the aforementioned “coming to the table” at the Last Supper, we see the consequences of not having “come to the party” in the first place. And that’s my pet peeve with the “coming to the table” crowd: they more often than not short the need for prior regeneration and repentance. It’s an observation I made in my piece Book Review: William Palmer Ladd’s Prayer Book Interleaves, and I won’t repeat it here. All of my observations about the inconsistencies in the way we receive Communion, and how even with all the liturgical changes we really don’t “come to the table,” are only ways of showing that our outward formalities cannot “close the loop” and obviate the need for inward transformation.

So now I’ve said it. IMHO the “come to the table” people have not only failed to grasp the difficulties of how it’s done at the present; they have also put the cart before the horse by not putting the emphasis on repentance and preparation before receiving the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Who knows, perhaps this liturgical year will be one where some churches at least will set things aright, in which case “coming to the table”–no matter how it is done–will be something of real celebration.

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