A common misconception about Methodist worship is that we practice an “open table.” That is, that when we have communion, anyone and everyone can come. There is a nugget of truth in this lie, but a lie it remains. Note the language from our main eucharistic rite, Word & Table 1:
Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him,
who earnestly repent of their sin
and seek to live in peace with one another.
Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.
In other words, Holy Communion is not a Golden Corral. It’s not for literally anyone. It is for those who can respond honestly to the invitation: those who love Christ, repent, and seek to live a Christlike life with others. Confession naturally follows as a prerequisite.
Rightly understood, “open table” does mean that we don’t require baptism (or baptism in our particular church) to receive communion. This is why an invitation is critical. Our own official eucharistic teaching, This Holy Mystery, states:
When Holy Communion is celebrated, it is important to always begin with the words of Invitation, including Confession and Pardon. If these are omitted, all those present may not understand either the openness of the Table of the Lord or the expectation of repentance, forgiveness, healing, and entrance into new life in Christ.
The “openness” offered is not without expectation, in other words. Often times, in common United Methodist practice, the invitation is left out fully, or given so casually, than a guest from no faith tradition or another faith tradition would have every reason to come forward with everyone else not as a result of the Holy Spirit’s leading, but simply out of convenience or a desire not remain alone in the pew as everyone else comes forward.
The evangelical strand of Wesleyan practice, going back to Wesley himself, is open to the possibility that someone might respond, perhaps even for the first time, to God’s invitation at the Communion table. Our Book of Worship is clear that, “All who intend to lead a Christian life, together with their children, are invited to receive the bread and cup. We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive…” (p. 29, quoted in This Holy Mystery) We don’t check intentions before offering the bread and cup, but we do urge those who’ve not been baptized who do receive toward catechesis and discipleship as a response to God’s call as soon as possible: “Unbaptized persons who receive communion should be counseled and nurtured toward baptism as soon as possible.” (By Water & the Spirit)
This is the difference between an open table an a flippant table.
I recall once, when I was in high school, a cousin of mine, several years younger, attended church with me. He didn’t come from any particular religious tradition. Being the first Sunday of the month, Communion was being served. As the rows near us began to be dismissed, he looked at me with concern, “I don’t want to go up there.” He had a look that made clear he would if I insisted, but he was very uncomfortable. I told him it was okay. I sat with him so he would not feel singled out.
That’s a sign of a good invitation given. My cousin realized, on some level, that Holy Communion was a response of faith, a faith he did not yet share. It’s important to be clear in our practice so that those who worship with us can respond to God’s call when it comes, and can be clear on the meaning and purpose we assign to the Supper when it does not. This is the intersection of evangelism and hospitality we should strive to reach each time we celebrate.
Is our table open? Yes, but not wide open. It is a particular invitation that carries with it real expectations of what follows next. When United Methodists celebrate communion, we have the awesome responsibility of offering God’s love, of being stewards of the sacred mysteries. We quite literally get to offer grace.
Let us be sure we are not offering cheap grace.