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!

What is holiness

In Leviticus 11:45 we read:

For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.

”. This would not be problematic if it was not for 1 Peter 1:16 which quotes it. So at least one biblical writer thought it applied to Christians as well as Jews. But what does “Holy” mean. Initially it seems in context to have done with ritual purity but then Christians have a different understanding of what makes a person unclean see Matthew 15:11 and refers it to moral deeds done by a person. However I am going to suggest that we learn more about what being Holy entails if we see it as reflecting God. So what are the characteristics that seem to specifically define God as worshipped by Christians. I would suggest that chief amongst them is generous, faithful love.

Generous – In some ways we need to come to terms with this. God’s love is never sensible in its generosity. God does not seem to give us what we think as practical or even what we think we would like. God is frustratingly the sort of person who decides we need a diamond ring when what we were looking for was a good night out. God is capricious and overwhelming. There is not saying what he will do, but you equally can’t be sure that he won’t permit or do something. I don’t know why, but I do know that if God’s action on the cross is what Christians claim it is, then no amount of prayer not answered can balance the books. The problem is that God is does not seem to keep account and give fairly. Generosity in this sense is not about amount its about openness. So our response needs to have some of the lack of calculation that God’s response to us does.

Faithful – There is as saying that goes “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” and that really is the core of being faithful. God has a habit of turning up in the darkest of places. He rescues Israel from Egypt not in Joseph’s day, but when they were basically slave labour. He does not decide to come in person when things in Israel are going well and turns up at the palace, he comes when Israel is occupied and gets himself killed by the occupying authorities.  Now lets be clear I don’t trust God for one moment to get me out of trouble, he may, he may not; I do trust God to be there in times of trouble.

Love – forget romantic attraction, this seems to be more positive regard. Well wishing that is followed through into practical action.If you prefer unconditional regard for all of creation and all creatures with it. Another is that God enjoys creation, much as many men enjoy hobbies, the are serious about it, often  quite nerdishly so and gain satisfaction from doing it.  God does not need creation but it flows out of the very nature of God.  That is important, God’s love comes first. The challenge for the Christian is to mirror this sort of connection back at God and onto creation. As we do it towards creation we become co-creators with God, as we do it to God we honour and enjoy him.

A Radical Welcome Eh?

The United Reformed Church has decided to run an evangelistic advertising campaign called  Radical Welcome. Now I can argue that it is a good thing on a number of issues, and I can also here the arguments about it being wrong on a whole lot of other issues but that is not the point of this posting. It has two names really the one used “Radical Welcome” which seems fairly popular with people at present and the less popular one that the campaign agency prefers of “Zero Intolerance”. Lots of people are attacking “Zero Intolerance” as a title I however want to make clear that “Radical Welcome” is not without its problems.

The problem isn’t with the word “Radical” its the word “Welcome”. What is a welcome? Is it the ability to enter a church building without hindrance and to be physically safe while in there? Is it the strength of the hand shake on the door? Is it the depths of the fellowship?

Most URCs are actually pretty good at the first two although and I hope disability campaigners will take note, we tend when it comes to disability to form fill until we are confronted with someone who is. So at my local congregation we had braille hymnbooks but until we were faced with a person who used them we did not wonder about getting a table to put them on. The number of loop systems that are not properly working until someone who is deaf and understands these things comes along, is appalling. I can still remember one guys face when a friend made the effort to get a loop system working at a church that had one that wasn’t and he heard the sermon for the first time in years. He was beaming from ear to ear. My view on disability is that all congregations should advertise someone as the person to contact, and they should be prepared to meet with a disabled person and/or their carer and discuss requirements before the person is faced with coming into worship on a Sunday. This person should normally not be clergy.

The warm handshake and the brief chat is clearly catered for in most URCs. I mean that seriously, here is the description of the welcome given at the first Mystery Worshipper Report I found today on Ship of Fools

The welcome was amazing. I was greeted at the front entrance by a couple, who both shook my hand. Then, as I entered the church, three other people welcome me. I received the relevant service sheet, Bible and hymn book. One of them introduced herself as Eunice, the church secretary. I sat down near the middle of the church, and three more people came up to me, one by one, to say hello and welcome. The minister also came over and introduced herself. They even showed me where the coffee hatch was, although it wouldn’t be open until after the service.”

Most URC reports are in that style. As far as initial welcome is concerned we largely have it sussed.

What is more most URCs have had it drummed into them that they must be welcoming, it really has been dinned in in the last twenty years. However apart from the tick box approach to equal access and the initial welcome,  most members of the congregation judge a church to be welcoming by the warmth of the fellowship they experience.

The problem is that very cliquey churches where nobody could possibly join are also often places of very warm fellowship for those that belong to the clique. In such congregations the switch from “I am welcomed” to “We are welcoming” happens unnoticed. However this is poor evidence. Are they equally welcoming to the parents of the child with Aspbergers who can’t sit quiet during the service? Are they as welcoming to the person who is twenty years younger than they are or do they think “he will be off very quickly to join a church where there are more young member and modern music”. That sort of thought can become a self fulfilling prophecy and when the next person comes in in that age bracket then there is even less reason to be welcoming as “she will be off like the rest”.  Or what about the person who nips out between worship and coffee to have a cigarette? The person who comes in tatty clothes or smells? Yes we greet them at the door but hold a conversation with them when our friends are around?

No I am not being pious, I know I am as guilty as the rest of doing this, it is always easier to talk to people we know than to those we don’t. I still have to make myself do it. It is also easier to talk to people we think of like us. It is far easier for many churches to accept a middle class gay couple in a long term relationship, than to accept the young married couple with a group of noisy children who use colourful language in discipling them. 

What is more, if I only deal with people I know, then to some extent I am dealing with a known quantity, I like the familiar. The incorporation of somebody new into the community does not just mean change for them, it means change for us, and what is more unpredictable change. It takes real discipline to try and implement a consistent interest in people who are on the edge of your friendship group whether congregation or other. Even if you start from the supposition that variety makes for richness there is still the day when richness isn’t what you want, or the a friends has pressing needs.

That means we need to look further into our hearts that we think. The welcome we really needs to have, is about meeting the person as that person. Not giving them a hand shake at the door then ignoring them, not ask them through to coffee the first week then expecting them to mix with their own friends from then on and leave us to talk to ours. It is also the real challenge of realising that some of them has a profound ability by our standards to mess things up and still managing to care for them without saying it is fine to mess things up. It is also the ability to see the love and care that so many of them demonstrate despite the mess they are in.

Communities that attempt to do that, I believe are struggling to become Christ like, but that isn’t the work of five minutes, the human capacity to mess it up is huge. All I hope is by my death I have learnt slightly more of how to do that than I do now, I can only learn that from trying to participate in such communities not from all the theory books. This sort of knowledge is heart knowledge and the head can be totally sorted and the heart in totally the wrong place.

There is a problem though, the URC has consistently told its congregations that they must be more welcoming. The congregations have responded, they have developed a good initial welcome and dealt with a lot of discrimination issues. Members also find the local fellowship welcoming particularly if it has familiar faces that you see week in week out. So when they are asked to be welcoming they tick the box. Few, very few are going to admit there is something missing and those that do, know they are unwelcome for saying so.

The problem is that we need a conversion, that is us in the church need it, not those outside, and I worry that with all this talk of welcome we might just miss how radical the real task is.

Rant: Where Roman Catholics and Reformed Christians agree.

So the title is jokey, which actually agree about quite a lot, but the Church of England has given us one more item of common consensus.

Its to do with the way the CofE factions behave.

They quite often pick on another tradition as having something valuable to say. This is not bad, cross pollination  is in my opinion a good thing if only because it can lead to better understandings. The more we explore other traditions and come to some understanding as to how they work the better. If Anglicanism thinks there is something within the Reformed tradition that is worth emulating then by all means emulate it. After all imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I am quite sure that Roman Catholicism is also happy for Anglicanism to explore its rich theological and liturgical tradition and to borrow from it. I am even content for these pressure groups to adopt the relevant badges. Nothing is wrong with that


When they decide that they know what we believe better than we do and will tell us so, I object. Especially when they decide it is a stick to beat us with. A bit of humility would go a long way. Anglicans don’t seem to be happy to learn from the Catholic tradition or the Reformed tradition they want to claim they have the essence of it and are more truly it than those who belong to it.

Well I have news, to be Reformed or to be Catholic is not something that is down to purifying the tradition until you have some deified essense. It is about belonging. To be Reformed or to be Roman Catholic is not just to adopt a set of stances, it is a whole way of being. You are formed by the community which you belong to, often in ways to subtle to notice.

Look Reformed Christians disagree about what constitutes a Reformed Christian. We would not be Reformed if we didn’t. We have several hundred years of falling out and making new alliances. Yes we are a dysfunctional family, but we don’t like Anglicans behaving like social workers and telling us exactly how we should be ourselves. Or to put it another way the one thing we will agree on, is whatever Reformed is, it is not what you tell us it is!

I full expect that many Roman Catholics will agree with me on this one point.