From Fencing to Open Communion

This is the story of a piece of folk liturgy within the Reformed tradition that is so common that we don’t even see it as there. It is nice because it is tidy story that covers Reformed tradition from start to current day and probably is most influential in creating the Ecumenical movement

The story starts off in Geneva with John Calvin. John Calvin in quite a dramatic way fenced the table from libertines. His document Treatise against the Anabaptist and Libertines does suggest some more moderation:

“That is, that none be so hardy to approach to this holy table, which is not verily of the body of Jesus Christ, worshiping one God with all faithful men, and serving him in good lawful vocation. But where they come to make declaration  in their fourth Article, how a man ought to separate himself from all pollutions of the world to join himself to God: there they begin to deprave [turn out of the way] altogether”

Note that piety is indeed required but separation from all pollution is not.

However in Scotland under Presbyterianism and fencing the table got out of hand. In the song Cameronian Cat, you get the story of a cat found catching a mouse on the Sabbath day and the dire consequences it suffers. James Hogg, author of  “A Private Memoir and Confession of a Justified Sinner” writes about this song in his collection of songs called Jacobite Reliques:
” It is by some called The Presbyterian Cat, but generally as above; and is always sung by the wags in mockery of the great pretended strictness of the Covenanters, which is certainly, in some cases, carried to an extremity rather ludicrous.  I have heard them myself, when distributing the sacrament, formally debar from the table the king and all his ministers; all witches and warlocks; all who had committed or attempted suicide; all who played at cards and dice; all the men that had ever danced opposite to a woman, and every woman that had danced with her face toward a man; all the men who looked at their cattle or crops, and all the women who pulled green kail or scraped potatoes, on the Sabbath-day; and I have been told, that in former days they debarred all who used fanners for cleaning their oats, instead of God’s natural wind.” 

From what had been a sensible practice the barring has become as ridiculous in its strictness as the anabaptists practice that John Calvin wrote against.

Now let us move to the end of 19th Century   and to the pastor of Trinity Congregational Church Edinburgh, one John Hunter. Now Congregationalists in Scotland often struggled to find their position with respect to the strong Presbyterian culture. A Reformed church that was not Presbyterian in structure just seemed odd.

Equally at the time in Scotland there is renewed interest in written liturgy with the forming of the Church Service Society and the work towards a new Book of Common Order for the Church of Scotland. It is perhaps therefore not surprising that John Hunter who has an interest in liturgy writes his own Service book.

 

Now Reformed churches did not do much beyond basic liturgy whether Congregational or Presbyterian but John Hunter takes the prohibitions that are used by the Presbyterians and changes them around  in his address by the minister to the people. This change is described Horton Davies  as John Hunter’s “… greatest single liturgical invention” [Davies, H.(1962) Worship and Theology in England: From Newman to Martineau; Oxford University Press p232].

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins and are in love and charity with your neighbours and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of the God and walking henceforth in his holy ways; draw near with reverence, faith and thanksgiving, and take the Supper of the Lord to your comfort

Come to this sacred Table, not because you must, but because you may: come to testify not that you are righteous but that you sincerely love our Lord Jesus Christ and desire to be his true disciple: come not because you are strong  but because you are weak; not because you have any claim on heaven’s rewards, but because in your frailty and sin you stand in need of Heaven’s mercy and help: come not to express opinion but to seek a Presence and pray for a Spirit
And now that the supper of the Lord is spread before you, lift up your minds and hearts above all selfish fears and cares; let this bread and this wine be to you the witnesses and signs of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit, Before the throne of the Heavenly Father and the cross of the Redeemer make you humble confession of sin, consecrate you lives to Christian obedience and service and pray for strength to do and to bear the holy and blessed will of God”

What was a prohibition is now an invitation.

At most URC communion services today you will here an invitation often picking up phrases from John Hunter’s original. However, if you go back to the worship books you won’t often find it, yet time after time in the actual act of worship. What is more is the invite asks people to come, more and more it has stressed that it is Christ’s table not the table of any creed or sect (yes I am quoting but not sure where from).

This repeated use of this liturgical innovation has entered into the consciousness of the church-going public. It has become part of how we think of ourselves. I have seen it quoted in theological debate as well as during worship.  It has been picked up by lay preachers as a key element of worship. Most people’s understanding of the rubrics of communion come from this and not from the dry rules that technically govern such things. If a congregation of whatever tradition has some sort of an open table, I suspect this working in the background. The genie is out of the bottle, the tables have become open, I suspect no-one can put it back, however, much any tradition tries to apply the rules. This all because a Scot’s Congregationalist needed to find a way to differentiate his congregation from the Presbyterian around it!

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1 Comment

  1. Nice to know about John Hunter,
    part of that prayer is in the Lenten communion liturgy in the 1999 Methodist Worship Book, and I love it, nice to know its history.

    Come to this sacred Table, not because you must, but because you may: come to testify not that you are righteous but that you sincerely love our Lord Jesus Christ and desire to be his true disciple: come not because you are strong but because you are weak; not because you have any claim on heaven’s rewards, but because in your fraility and sin you stand in need of Heaven’s mercy and help

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