Prudence Dailey’s Commentary
‘Open Table’: The Latest Heretical Fad?
Cynics sometimes say that every heresy that begins on the other side of the Atlantic will reach these shores eventually. That may or may not be true; but there nonetheless remain a variety of innovations of The Episcopal Church (TEC) of the USA that have not penetrated the Church of England—and it is to be hoped that they will never do so.
One of these is the so called ‘Open Table’. There is, in fact, a UK-based initiative known as the ‘Open Table Network’ which began in Liverpool, and which aims (by its own self-definition) to welcome ‘LGBTQIA+ people’. However the implications of that are to be understood, it is hardly novel or surprising in today’s climate. It is also something rather different from the American version of ‘open table’: namely, the offering of the Sacrament to all comers, including the unbaptised.
When our own General Synod decided some years ago to permit (and, in practice, encourage) the admission of children to Holy Communion before Confirmation, I voted against it. Not only do the rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer make clear that ‘there shall none be admitted to the holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed’, but also the Third Exhortation counsels against the dangers of unworthy reception, if Communion is not approached with an appropriate attitude of penitence and faith. The Church of England has, until recently, understood that, if children are ready to receive the Sacrament, they are ready to be confirmed. Notwithstanding the officially doctrinally normative status of the Prayer Book, Communion before Confirmation is a clear departure from it.
During the General Synod debate, it was revealed that, in churches that were already (as part of a pilot scheme) admitting unconfirmed children to Holy Communion, in practice this meant that unbaptised children would also sometimes be admitted. It was not suggested that this was being done on purpose; but it could easily happen by accident and without rigorous processes in place. Indeed, it is not unusual to hear otherwise orthodox clergy invite ‘everyone’ to Communion at the appropriate point in the service: they may in fact mean ‘all communicants’ (of all Christian denominations), but in an age of increasing religious ignorance, it cannot safely be assumed that all those present will know what the ‘rules’ are.
Despite such occurrences, however, we have not seen concerted calls for the Church of England to change its official policy to enable absolutely anyone—baptised or not; (presumably) Christian or not—to partake in the Eucharist. This is what is meant by ‘Open Table’ in TEC, to the extent that the Diocese of North Carolina has tabled a motion at that Church’s forthcoming General Convention to repeal the canon stipulating that ‘No unbaptised person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church’.
The rationale for such a move is couched in terms of ‘hospitality’: it is (argue its proponents) inhospitable and therefore un-Christlike to turn anyone away from the Communion feast. In reality, though, if the potential recipient is not a committed Christian, a tiny piece of bread or wafer and a sip of wine is surely nothing much to miss out on. Communion is a religious ritual with sacramental meaning, which makes sense only to those who subscribe to the belief system behind it: most people would surely not feel comfortable participating in the sacred rituals of a religion of which they were not an adherent, especially if they did not fully understand their significance. At the same time, an invitation to receive soon becomes an expectation to do so.
In reality, the ‘Open Table’ idea is mostly about making the offerers feel good about how ‘inclusive’ and virtuous they are. There is plenty of opportunity for the Church to offer genuine and comprehensive hospitality, during coffee after the service and at various other social events, without sweeping away centuries of sacramental theology. Whatever TEC decides this time around, though, the issue is unlikely to go away.
Miss Prudence Dailey MBE, has been a member of the General Synod for over 20 years and is past President of the Prayer Book Society.