Table Fellowship


This morning I will be leading a communion service as I usually do every month. Most Methodist churches in Ireland usually celebrate communion on the first Sunday morning in the month, where they have an ordained minister who can preside. Mr. Wesley would not be impressed. He argued for daily communion. I'm not sure whether this was out of his conviction that the outward and visible sign of communion should be a daily reminder of our fellowship with others in Christ, or simply because he was a High Church Anglican. I suspect the latter, as some of his writing on the sacraments (particularly baptism) were so esoteric as to be superstitious.
Throughout the history of the Christian church the importance of Communion/the Eucharist/the Lord's Supper/Breaking of Bread has vexed generation after generation. Within one generation of the Last Supper, Paul had to put the brakes on the traditional practice of commemorating this within the context of a community meal, because of selfishness, gluttony and drunkenness, leading to a much more formalised liturgy by the time of the writing of the Didache towards the end of the first century. From that day to this the importance of this sacrament has led to different and indeed at times divergent approaches. Whilst it led Wesley to advocate daily communion and his conviction that it was a converting ordinance which should be open to all who would come, our more Calvinistic friends have had a less frequent practice (usually quarterly in any PCI churches I know), with extra services to prepare for communion, and, in many cases rigorous "fencing" of the table, to prevent anyone partaking "unworthily." Whilst I believe that this latter practice is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what Paul was referring to when he was talking about "recognising the body of Christ", both approaches do at least take Christ's institution of communion seriously.
I am also led to believe that it was also, in part, over communion practice that there was a split between Wesleyan and Primitive Methodists... As with much else the fracture lines were not necessarily along intuitive lines, with the more evangelically-minded "Primitives" opting for retention of links with the local parish churches for communion, whilst the "Wesleyans" wanted to celebrate communion themselves, an idea that would have horrified the one from whom they took their name.
Later that century the importance of communion, and an attempt to recover early church practice led both to wildly divergent strands of Brethrenism, with their weekly breaking of bread, and the Tractarians, who in turn prompted the sacramental renewal movement within Roman Catholicism led by converts from Anglicanism like Newman.
Before I became a professing Christian as a teenager and for some time after that, I regarded communion, which was tacked on after the normal service in the church where I worshipped, as an added extra for the super-spiritual elite. Later, as a young "rebel without a cause" Christian, I couldn't see the point in any service involving a written liturgy, and shared with my friends in "unofficial" communions where we simply read Paul's account as an introduction to our sharing together. But with the years I have come to value Holy Communion as the most precious of spiritual disciplines. It still distresses me that this gift of God which is supposed to symbolise the unity of the church in Christ, is perhaps the one thing which most clearly demonstrates how divided the church really is. The only time I have been at a communion service where I refused to participate was an ecumenical one where there were 2 tables... one for those in communion with the see of Rome and one for the "separated brethern." I wanted no part of such a travesty. However, that apart (and another time when I was refused communion in a Presbyterian church) I have participated in communion services of all types, from High Anglican liturgical celebrations, to highly informal new church celebrations (although I am always amused at how similar the written and unwritten liturgies are).
In my current church the layout of the communion table means that the participants kneel around it, and whether this was an architectural accident or a theological statement in itself, it is a unique arrangement I would be loathe to lose.
When shared in reverently and in an unhurried fashion, a communion service of whatever hue is, to me, the closest thing to heaven you can experience on earth.
I suppose one of the most moving I shared in in recent years was quite a different one, shared with some colleagues I had taken to Pittsburgh last year at the Open Door Fellowship, an emergent group in the south east of the city. After a high energy praise service, and a relatively traditional communion liturgy, we were invited to go sit at various tables dotted around the room. There wasn't enough space for everyone to sit at once, so we each took turns, serving one-another with the hearty fresh-baked bread, and (real) wine straight out of the bottle into plastic cups...
I haven't tried it since I came back... I'm not sure which aspect of it people would have most difficulty with, the real wine, the bottles or the sitting round a table.
But it was a call back to the original setting of table fellowship, where we could look our brothers and sisters in the eye and offer them the bread and wine which represent the sacrificial giving of the one who sets our example in life...

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