Monday, November 23, 2009

Whose Table Is It, Really?

It has been sobering to read about Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin banning Sen. Patrick Kennedy from receiving communion. Tobin has justified his action by stating that Kennedy's political positions--specifically around reproductive rights--go against the teachings of the Church and therefore he should not receive communion.

I hesitate to call this a pastoral act, because there is nothing pastoral about refusing someone access to communion. The communion table does not belong to the Roman Catholic Church, it does not belong to Bishop Tobin. It is Christ's table.  Can Bishop Tobin be so presumptuous as to speak for Christ about who can come to the table?

Communion is a means of grace, meaning that God works through the sacrament to impart saving love that has the power to transform human lives.  To politicize the table and withold this means of grace from someone is a form of ecclesiological cruelty and spiritual violence. 

In 1996, I was a participant in a Reconciling Ministries Network worship service held at The United Methodist General Conference.  This service celebrated the ways that God works through all God's people, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, and provided spiritual support for those who were working for the full inclusion of all people into the life and ministry of The United Methodist Church.  I was one of the communion servers.  Hundreds of people came to the worship service, and as I offered the bread and cup to one worshipper after another--many co-workers in the movement for justice as well as many I did not know--I found standing before me, with hands outstretched to receive the communion elements, Mark Tooley, the director of UM Action of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD).  The IRD is a right-wing thinktank based in Washington, DC that has stirred controversies in primarily three denomonations: Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and United Methodist. The IRD criticizes the churches' social witness, particularly around lgbt rights, women's reproductive rights, and environmental justice.  The IRD tactics seem like they have been written from a page of international espionage, and in fact, Mark Tooley is a former CIA analyst.

I had read many inflammatory articles by Mark Tooley about church leaders I have long admired.  I have also been attacked by Mark.  So imagine my feelings when Mark appeared before me, to join in the communion meal. Here was one who, like Bishop Tobin, seeks to limit God's grace to an "in" group.  As he stood before me, I passed the bread to him, and offered him the cup of salvation.

That meal has made a huge impact on me. There have been times when I have wanted to demonize Mark for the pain he has caused me and others who disagree with his understanding of church. But I can't forget that Sunday afternoon service, and the meal we shared together.  I am reminded that Christ's table is large enough to include both of us, and that it can even hold the tension of our differences.  God is so great. At Christ's table, our ideological and theological differences are stripped away as we recognize around the table our sisters and brothers--children of God who struggle to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. We often mis-step, but at the table we are welcomed and fed so that we can rise from our knees and resume the spiritual journey, nourished by the grace of God.

Why would we want to hold anyone back from this meal?

1 comment:

  1. Karen,

    Thank you for sharing this. I find no reason to ever hold common from anyone, it's not my table, it is the table that Christ set and invited ALL to to participate. Every Sunday when I serve communion I am in awe of the strength and power that communion gives to people, it changes lives. Besides, for me, communion is the most important part of our serve; I can go without a sermon and without reading the creede or saying Our Creature, but I cannot go without communion.