AMEN CORNER: There’s Always Room at the Table

Pray Tell is pleased to feature the first article from each issue of Worship, the “Amen Corner,” along with a response to it (forthcoming). This article is from the June, 2018 issue. Gracious thanks to editor Bernadette Gasslein and Worship for reprint permission. Subscribe to Worship here.

By Margaret Daly-Denton

On a recent visit to a church on the outskirts of Dublin, I spied a laminated printout attached to the communion rail. It read, “No Access.” Moreover, it was replicated not more than two feet further along the rail with an identical sign that put me in mind of the Irish expression, “To be sure to be sure.” On closer inspection, I gathered that this signage was intended to alert anyone accustomed to using the hinged section of the rail as a gateway (cleaners or flower-arrangers perhaps, but certainly not communicants!) that it needed repairing. For me, though, it was quite a telling Freudian slip.

I should say, first of all, that my principal experience of the Eucharist has been in Roman Catholic and Anglican churches in Ireland, but also to some extent in Great Britain, the United States and New Zealand. Several times recently I have found myself being directed to what is known in my part of the world as a communion station. This tends to happen when a church or cathedral is exceptionally full for a major festival, the installation of a new minister, an ordination, or the like. To facilitate the communion of the faithful, the clergy decide to locate ministers of the Eucharist at various points around the building, sometimes half-way down the nave, frequently at the back. From a lay perspective, this means that having been invited to “draw near with faith,” we are stopped in our tracks by a well-intentioned minister of the Eucharist or verger who, in effect, says, “Thus far shall you come and no farther” ( Job 38:11). Or even more disappointingly, having declared that “We do not presume to come to this [the Lord’s] table trusting in our own righteousness,” we are dispatched away from it, down to the rear of the building.

This strikes me as extraordinarily inappropriate conduct in the name of the one who is remembered as saying, “Anyone who comes to me I will never turn away” ( John 6:37). The verb here is ekballō, meaning literally “throw out” and in using it the Fourth Evangelist probably intended to suggest that Jesus reverses the expulsion from Eden (Gen 3:24). I do not think it is an exaggeration to draw this comparison. Ambrose (ca 340-397) is just one of many Church Fathers who see admission to the Eucharist as a restoration to Eden. According to him, it is in the garden, namely, in paradise, that the church’s feast takes place (Sermon on Cain and Abel). That feeling of being turned away or “thrown out” always recalls my childhood sense of exclusion whenever our family table could not accommodate all the diners. The young—1950s children who were expected to be “seen and not heard” at table anyway—would be relegated to a fold-up table off to the side.

In the Western monastic tradition, as represented by the sixth century Rule of Benedict, the disciplining of wayward monks involves exclusion from the common table, along with a ban on full participation in the community’s liturgy (RB 24–25). Benedict has a keen sense of the connection between the common table and the eucharistic table, the altar, as he calls it. Elsewhere in the Rule he insists that the “pots and pans” (Latin: vasa) of the monastery should be regarded as “sacred vessels of the altar” (altaris vasa sacrata; RB 31.10). This idea can be traced to at least as far back as Basil of Caesarea (ca 339–379; Latin Rule 104). It is striking that in the chapters on excommunication (a monastic corrective discipline, not to be confused with canonical excommunication), Benedict speaks in the same breath about the community’s meals and its liturgy. Excommunication is, of course, the antithesis of communion. Exclusion from the full exercise of membership, whether in the oratory or the refectory is something painful, even if intended as therapeutic. Benedict compares it to the “destruction of [the]flesh” that Paul recommended for a certain wayward Corinthian, “so that his spirit might be saved” (1 Cor 5:5, cited in RB 25.4). When communicants desiring to approach the eucharistic table are turned back or halted, it should be no surprise that at least some of them say, “Ouch!” They are experiencing something of this pain.

The real problem with communion stations is that those who decide on their use apparently do not see any problem. Furthermore, in most instances this practice is entirely unnecessary. The provision of sufficient ministers of the Eucharist, the removal of redundant furniture and unsightly clutter, along with some simple logistical planning would easily eliminate the perceived need for it. At least then, even if the communicants cannot literally be at the holy table, they can draw near it and see it.

Obviously, if a community is blessed with a liturgical environment that allows it to be gathered around the eucharistic table for the entire Liturgy of the Eucharist, the problem does not arise. Neither does it arise in Christian traditions where the holy food and drink are passed around the congregation who remain in their places. My own liturgical expectations, if I may use such a term, were irreversibly raised by regular celebration in the Liturgy Room designed in the late 1970s by Richard Hurley for Ireland’s Liturgy Institute (in Carlow at that time) where I worked for several years. The assembly, which on a Sunday could be up to one hundred people, was gathered in an elliptical formation around a rectangular table with the presiding celebrant at one end of the long axis and the ambo at the other. In the architect’s words, “There was no ‘sanctuary’ . . . only an expression of ritual space and the integration of everyone who participates in it.”[1] For several of my colleagues from those days who now worship in conventional parish churches, crammed with timber and resolutely divided into chancel/sanctuary, choir and nave, it really has been a case of “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm after They’ve Seen Paree?”

To come close enough to the church’s table to be able to see at close quarters how well it has been designed, how beautifully it has been made and how worthily it is “dressed” is one of the major privileges that the faithful should enjoy. Ambrose, addressing the newly baptized, makes much of their joy when for the first time they drew near the altar (De Sacramentis 3, 11) and saw what they had not been permitted to see before (3, 14; 4, 5). Ambrose bases his reflections on the declaration of the man whom Jesus healed of blindness, “I washed, and now I see” ( John 9:15). He obviously envisages a post-baptismal ritual of approaching the table and a physical seeing of what he calls “the sacraments on the altar” (4, 8), clearly the eucharistic bread and wine.

This is in direct continuity with the memories of Jesus that the early believers treasured and handed on. The origin of the Eucharist lies in their desire to continue his practice of hospitality at table. Throughout the gospels we find Jesus encouraging people to draw near. “Come here!” (Mark 3:3). “Come to me” (Matt 11:28). “Let the little children come to me” (Matt 19:14). “Come and have breakfast” ( John 21:12). In our contemporary translations of the New Testament, the numerous gospel references to Jesus sitting at table or simply being at table with people translate several different Greek verbs that all mean “to recline” (e.g., Matt 26:7; Mark 14:3; Luke 11:37). The Greek does not actually mention the table, as, for example, in the description of the paradigmatic “disciple whom Jesus loved . . . reclining next to Jesus,” literally, in his bosom (John 13:23). The extent to which these verbs reflect the dining customs of the intended audience for the gospels must be taken into account. But one thing comes across clearly: people’s proximity to Jesus in quite an intimate domestic setting. This environment was akin to the ancient Mediterranean triclinium, a dining room with three couches that typically accommodated about nine people with some “over-flow” space around the atrium of the house (an arrangement that probably created the conditions for the eucharistic misbehavior that Paul critiques in 1 Cor 11:17-22!). All of this has, to quote that famous axiom of Leo the Great, passed into the sacraments of the church. It is crucial, therefore, that our ritual actions and spatial arrangements for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper allow us to experience something of that “coming to him” (Luke 8:4; John 6:37.45) that the early believers remembered and wanted to maintain.

The fact is that many of us celebrate Eucharist in settings that are more reminiscent of a stockyard than a banqueting hall. We are quarantined in pews, cordoned off in rigid ranks, peering between the backs of people’s heads into the distance to get a glimpse of what is going on at the eucharistic table. In some cases, this is because we are the custodians of historic buildings that inevitably reflect the liturgical understanding that prevailed when they were designed. Even though in many countries the Christian churches have negotiated agreements with the state agencies charged with the conservation of the built heritage that allow for places of worship to be re-ordered, there is often little appetite for change, particularly in parish churches, as distinct from cathedrals. In many cases, the furnishings that impede our access to the eucharistic table are of no particular heritage value. They do little more than gratify their donor’s descendants while generally heightening the time warp effect that those who have never “seen Paree” assume is essential to a church building. These realities, I would suggest, make the moment when we are invited to move toward the eucharistic table all the more precious and privileged.

This is where the communion procession comes into its own. It is so much richer than the practical matter of getting from A to B. It is a ritual expression of our identity as fellow pilgrims on a journey to the heavenly banquet, singing as we walk. If we are to fulfil Augustine’s famous injunction to “Sing up and keep on walking” (Sermon 256), we need “hands-free” music, music to move by. We also need sufficient ministers of the Eucharist to ensure that we can actually process and not merely queue. In some church buildings, it may even be possible for everyone to go the long way: out to the side aisles, down to the West End and up the centre of the nave ad orientem to the eucharistic table, for the sheer joy of movement and song expressing our communion, not only with Jesus, but with each other.

Los Angeles Roman Catholic Cathedral comes to mind. As one joins in the communion procession there, one finds oneself walking in the company of the saints of every age, depicted in tapestries hung along each side wall of the nave, all moving, as it were, in the same direction, towards “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev 19:9). The subtle colour scheme of the tapestries blends into the sun-baked-adobe-coloured concrete, suggesting “living stones built into a spiritual house” (1 Pet 2:5). A major inspiration for Jose Rafael Moneo’s design for this cathedral is “the sense of journey that people make, alone and together, on the pilgrimage towards redemption in our lives and, ultimately, the fullness of the Kingdom of God in Heaven.” 2 This cathedral is quite traditional, in that the liturgical space, entered through a long, slightly inclined ambulatory culminating in the impressive baptismal font, consists of a presbytery and a nave, yet the hospitable generosity of the area around the eucharistic table allows for large congregations to receive communion with absolutely no need for anyone to be turned away in the opposite direction.

The perception that communion stations remote from the eucharistic table are necessary is surely a wake-up call for a eucharistic community. It means that their church building is not fit for purpose and is in dire need of re-ordering. If, because of diverging floor levels and a proliferation of prie-dieus, lecterns, chairs, etc, the route to the eucharistic table is a veritable obstacle course, then maybe health and safety considerations might work in favor of liturgical renewal. Even if the building is inexorably split into sanctuary/chancel and nave, a well-planned communion rite will allow the ritual moment of drawing near the Lord’s table to compensate for the assembly’s sense of separation. In fact, it is often in such a divided liturgical space that the communion procession can reach its magnificent potential.

The painfulness of being turned away from the table of the one who desires to draw us to himself (John 12:32) may, in the end, be therapeutic. If we were to reflect theologically on what is happening when communion stations are employed, we may well become convinced that the re-ordering of our church building is a gospel imperative. Our congregation would then embark on the exciting project of commissioning a designer or architect imbued with the spirit of the liturgy to refurbish our liturgical space. And this process would enliven our Christian community with that rejuvenation that the liturgy has traditionally associated with “go[ing] to the altar of God” (Ps 43:4).

Let me give the final word to Richard Keegan-Bull, a member of L’Arche Community in London who frequently acts as an ambassador for this Christian initiative that provides for people with intellectual disabilities to live in domestic-scale homes in a village-like complex. Writing in a recent issue of The Tablet (21 February 2018) about the freedom that he enjoys to turn up spontaneously at mealtimes in any of these homes, Richard said, “If I want to explain what L’Arche is like, I’d say there is always room at the table.”

Mary Daly-Denton, a former director of music at Ireland’s Liturgy Institute, served initially on ICEL’s Music and Psalter Subcommittees and then until 2000 on its Advisory Committee. Her love of liturgical music aroused her interest in the Christian reception of the psalms and this became the focus of her doctoral studies in New Testament at Trinity College Dublin. Her more recent involvement in ecological hermeneutics resulted in the publication of a commentary on John’s gospel in the Earth Bible Series.

[1] Richard Hurley, Irish Church Architecture in the Era of Vatican II (Dublin: Dominican Publications, 2001), 95; “The Eucharist Room at Carlow Liturgy Centre,” Worship 70, 3 (1993).

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4 comments

  1. While more expensive and less “efficient”, this is one advantage of our usually much smaller Lutheran congregations. The altar is very visible, and most of us still commune at a communion rail, while some do what we less than reverently refer to as “drive by Communion”.

  2. A factor not mentioned in the article above is an attitude (perhaps unspoken) to accomplish the rite of communing and communion in the shortest time possible. If we commit to taking time over this aspect of the rite which is so central and significant as a human experience, it should be possible for all to approach the table of communion with the Lord and the members of the Body.
    Eucharist is not a fast-food operation. Think Christmas dinner, or a wedding feast.

    If families or individuals are not habituated to taking time over meals together, or dine while watching TV or talking on the phone, this is a serious impoverishment.

    If communing (bread and cup) takes five or fifteen minutes more, we’re worth it!

  3. I think we need to recover use of the communion rail, as it creates an opportunity to actually gather at the altar with other people. I remember the first time I encountered communion at a rail – it was at a rather average Novus Ordo Mass at a church that had never abandoned the practice and I wasn’t expecting it. It was a startling and transformative experience that really made me rethink the communal aspect of communion. It was probably the first time I’d ever experienced reception of communion as involving a sense of communion with other people as well as with Jesus.

    For me that was “seeing Paree,” and I never looked at communion standing in a line the same way again.

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