What Does it Mean When Most of Us Are Not at the Table?

M. David Huston lives and works in the Washington DC metro area. He is a husband and father of four who has previously written for poetry, international affairs, and LDS-related publications.

Christian historian Justo Gonzalez notes that in the ancient Christian church Communion (what we in the LDS faith tradition call “the Sacrament,” a shortened version of “the Sacrament of the Lords Supper”) was a time when believers, the Body of Christ, came together to share in the joy that Jesus’s resurrection offered.  By celebrating the resurrection as a community, the burgeoning church embodied what Communion represented: believers were expressing their faith in, and physically enacting the belief that, a community of disciples from different walks of life, through Jesus’ atoning work, can (1) be bound together, (2) be collectively bound to Jesus and (3) become a community that takes part in the divine destiny of creation.[1]  It was bold, and theologically powerful, statement of unification.  In fact, at times, this celebration was held at the tombs of faithful Christians, thereby joining “the living and the dead into a single body.”[2]

This notion of community was so important that as the early church began to spread to other locations, “in order to preserve and symbolize the bond of unity, the custom arose in some places to send a piece of bread from the Communion service in the bishop’s church… to be added to the bread used in the other churches in the same city” so that, symbolically, all Christians were still eating from the same loaf of bread.[3]

Though the language used in the modern LDS church to talk about Sacrament is somewhat different than the sentiments above (regrettably in my view), the practice of the Sacrament ordinance still delivers the same ancient message.  In the Sacrament prayer, the language is expressly plural.  The pronouns are “we” and “they,” not “I” and “me.”  The Sacrament prayers bless the bread and water for “all those”—again, expressly plural—who participate in the ordinance.  The bread and water are shared among the congregation and passed from one member to the next; resulting in children administering it to their parents, daughters administering it to their fathers, and mothers administering it to their sons.  It is the only ordinance in the church administered in this way. 

However, the reality is that many do not participate in this Communion.  The reasons vary and are as unique as the individuals themselves, but include: individuals, especially women, with health restrictions (e.g. COVID) and who do not have a priesthood holder in the home, or families who are no longer authorized to perform this ordinance at home in the push to get people back into pews; those who are traveling; those who are working; and those who, for whatever reason, are just late to the service.  This group also includes those who are struggling with their faith; individuals who feel unwelcome in the LDS culture (LGBTQIA+ for instance); those who have suffered from ecclesiastical/spiritual abuse and who will not worship alongside their abuser; those who feel ‘unworthy;’ those who feel they have been ‘pushed out’ because of social and/or political beliefs; those who have voluntarily departed because they no longer believe or who cannot continue to support LDS teachings, doctrines, policies, or practices; and individuals who are under some form of church discipline.[4] 

At this point, it is worth pausing to acknowledge that the debate surrounding whether the Communion table is “open” (for all people regardless of the status within an institution) or “closed” (only for those who meet certain institutional requirements) has been around as long as there has been Communion.  I am not exploring that issue here—though it is an issue ripe for further discussion.  In the LDS tradition the Communion table is often culturally closed.  There is a strong sense that LDS members should police themselves and not consume the bread and water if something in their life is amiss (however one interprets that).  As a matter of policy, LDS ecclesiastical authorities have the ability to tell individuals that they cannot participate the Sacrament ordinance.

Yet, when one considers all of the people who fall into my admittedly incomplete list of individuals who are unable to, chose not to, or are told they cannot participate in Communion on any given Sunday, the numbers become overwhelming.  I think it is likely that, each week, there are many more people who are (or were) part of the LDS community who do not participate in Communion than those who do.  It causes me to ask the questions: What kind of unity results from having only the healthy, available, self-assured, institutionally-approved members at the Lord’s Table? What does Communion really mean if a large portion of our community is not there? 

I understand that there are myriad ways (maybe even better ways) to find unity with God, humankind, and creation outside of this specific ordinance.  But it does not change the fact that, when I look at the empty seats next to me at church and I consider all the people who are not there, I am reminded of inability celebrate Communion with them and of the missed opportunity to build bonds of unity across categories that often serve to separate us like age, gender, sexual orientation, race, and socioeconomic status.  Maybe our table needs to be a little more open than it currently is?  Or maybe we each need to find ways to build community with those who are not at the table?


[1] These three ideas are based on Daniel L. Migliore’s discussion of the Lord’s Supper in Faith Seeking Understanding, An Introduction to Christian Theology (3rd Ed), 1991 (William B. Eardmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, MI): 307.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, 2010 (Harper One: NY), 110.

[3] Ibid. 111.

[4] As many have observed, the act of excommunication (or, really, any act of church discipline), no matter the euphemisms used or the justifications offered, is a spiritually violent act.  It is the intentional extraction and removal of one who had been part of our community, figuratively cutting off member (finger, toe, arm…) of the Body of Christ.  And while it is probably the case that an action like this may indeed be justified in some cases, too often such surgeries seem more elective than required.  Church discipline carries with it a variety of consequences, but I have come to believe that one of most severe actions taken against those who subject to church discipline is denial of the Sacrament.  By being denied the Sacrament, individuals under church discipline are also denied one way (admittedly not the only way, but a powerful way) in which they could commune with others, with Jesus, and with creation.  This is more than just a denial of an ordinance; it is the denial of community.

Comments

  1. David,

    Surely you know that every ward council is keenly desirous to find and invite people to rejoin in communion? If people are not coming or do not personally feel welcome, I think that it is rarely because local leadership don’t want them there.

    I also think that before you decry too much the violence of membership restrictions or membership withdrawal, you need to acknowledge and address the specific directions given by Jesus that leadership operates under. For example in administering the sacrament Jesus said,

    “22 And behold, ye shall meet together oft; and ye shall not forbid any man from coming unto you when ye shall meet together, but suffer them that they may come unto you and forbid them not; 3 Nephi 18:22”

    “28 And now behold, this is the commandment which I give unto you, that ye shall not suffer any one knowingly to partake of my flesh and blood unworthily, when ye shall minister it;

    29 For whoso eateth and drinketh my flesh and blood unworthily eateth and drinketh damnation to his soul; therefore if ye know that a man is unworthy to eat and drink of my flesh and blood ye shall forbid him.

    30 Nevertheless, ye shall not cast him out from among you, but ye shall minister unto him and shall pray for him unto the Father, in my name; and if it so be that he repenteth and is baptized in my name, then shall ye receive him, and shall minister unto him of my flesh and blood.

    31 But if he repent not he shall not be numbered among my people, that he may not destroy my people, for behold I know my sheep, and they are numbered.

    32 Nevertheless, ye shall not cast him out of your synagogues, or your places of worship, for unto such shall ye continue to minister; for ye know not but what they will return and repent, and come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I shall heal them; and ye shall be the means of bringing salvation unto them. (3 Nephi 18:28-32)”

    Further, in 4 Nephi, One of the indicators of the dissolution of the Zion-like society established after Jesus’ ministry was administering ordinances to the unworthy.

    “27 And it came to pass that when two hundred and ten years had passed away there were many churches in the land; yea, there were many churches which professed to know the Christ, and yet they did deny the more parts of his gospel, insomuch that they did receive all manner of wickedness, and did administer that which was sacred unto him to whom it had been forbidden because of unworthiness. (4 Nephi 1:27)”

  2. Mike, before Covid, I was in the RS Presidency and very active. Because of Covid and a vulnerable family member, I have been only once in about two and a half years. No one from leadership or the priesthood arm ( ie home teachers) has contacted me.
    The one time I went the bishop said hello but I honestly don’t think he remembered my name so I am going to have to disagree that we want people to come.

  3. Kristine says:

    Lily, I’m so sorry that has been your experience. And I don’t think you’re alone.

    The Ward Council may be chatting about how to get people to come back, but it’s going to be tough until the Ward Council realizes that the problem is that they neglected those people during the pandemic, NOT that those people are inherently unwilling to go to church.

  4. M. David says:

    Mike: You raise important points. First, I don’t doubt that many Ward Councils are as you describe (though I don’t think all Ward Councils are created equally in this regard, as Lily’s comment seems to suggest), but my larger point is that there are a variety of reasons people do not come and not feeling welcome is indeed one of those reasons (but not the only reason). And I’m glad you cited those scriptures. I think that opens the door to a very interesting conversation about what constitutes “worthiness” and the ways in which worthiness is determined. That is a topic that has been address on BCC in the past (https://bycommonconsent.com/2019/01/04/rethinking-worthiness/) and explored in other places as well (https://atlastshesaidit.org/episode-070-what-about-worthiness/), and probably deserves even more conversation.

  5. M. David says:

    Lily: I’ve had a similar experience in the past (the Bishop of a Ward my wife and I had been in for more than a year stopped us in the hall to introduce himself and ask if we were new to the area…. We had been serving in the primary as Sunbeam teachers the whole time) and I know others who have had similar experiences (both before and after COVID). I’m so very sorry that happened to you. :(

  6. I don’t believe the good faith of someone who actually uses the term “keenly desirous”, especially when they then launch into a serious of scriptures with the direct intent of justifying barriers to community.

    Anyways, carry on – FWIW M. David I don’t think the real clincher here is actually the Sacrament ordinance so much as it is a proxy for community participation. Despite our language to the contrary, taking the bread and water is not as important to Mormon identity as all the other stuff.

  7. Pope Francis was asked whether he had ever denied the Eucharist to someone who presented themselves for Communion. “No, I have never denied the Eucharist to anyone, to anyone!”

    He went on to share a humorous anecdote of celebrating Mass on one occasion at a nursing home. Afterwards, an elderly woman thanked him for Communion, adding that she was Jewish. “Those who are not in the community cannot take Communion, like this Hebrew lady,” he said, “but the Lord wanted to reward her, and I did not know it.”

    The reception of Communion, said Francis, is “linked to the community.” While there may be those that are “temporarily” outside of the church community, he said they are “are sons of God and they need our closeness, our pastoral closeness.”

    When I was a Mormon bishop (in the 1990s when we used “Mormon”) I studied these things out and determined for myself that “worthiness” could be a sincere desire. I wanted everyone with a sincere desire to come together, to share in the Sacrament, to attend the temple. I finished that time of service feeling broken, because in the structure of the church as it was and and as it still is today I could facilitate that happening only in limited and sometimes one-off situations. Twenty-five years later it still pains me that I cannot say, with Francis, “no, I never denied the Sacrament to anyone.” I wish for better, for all of us.

  8. I am a traditional-believing conservative member. I never wore a mask and I will never get the covid jab. I believe Biden is president only because voter fraud.There are numerous people on this blog who have said they do not want me in their congregation. Look in the mirror. There are plenty of you who don’t want to sit next to me.

  9. David: Thank you for the links. I appreciate the difference between worthiness to receive an ordinance and our worth as souls. I think that it is important to mark that difference and not fall into the shallow trap that one stands in for the other. I notice, however, in Carolyn’s post she cites several scriptures that talk about worth and worthiness, yet she never touches on the ones that I posted. I mean despite whatever ruminations are made it is really hard to get around Jesus’ very straight forward instructions about administering ordinances to people worthy of receiving the ordinance.

    Clearly, Jesus did not intend for this to be an action of exclusionary intent or even an action that speaks to their inherent worth. He very clearly surrounds his directions with words of inclusion:

    …ye shall not forbid any man from coming unto you when ye shall meet together, but suffer them that they may come unto you and forbid them not
    … ye shall not cast him out from among you, but ye shall minister unto him and shall pray for him unto the Father, in my name
    …if it so be that he repenteth and is baptized in my name, then shall ye receive him, and shall minister unto him of my flesh and blood.
    …ye shall not cast him out of your synagogues, or your places of worship, for unto such shall ye continue to minister; for ye know not but what they will return and repent, and come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I shall heal them; and ye shall be the means of bringing salvation unto them.

    Steve: I am not sure what meetings you have be a part of. Your experiences might be different than mine. In my experience, “keenly desirous” describes the ward leaders that I have associated with.

    christian: I appreciate the sentiment. I doubt that any righteous leader wants to impose restrictions on a person. But when it comes to the practice of administering the Sacrament, I think that I’ll privilege Jesus’ interpretation over the pope’s.

  10. Mike, without knowing your interpretation of “unworthily” in 3 Nephi 18:22 I don’t know whether we agree or disagree in substance, but I suggest it is an interpretation, not a matter of natural self-evident law.

  11. Anon, you are most likely conflating two different situations. Contagious disease and putting others in literal physical danger vs other personal choices that do no such thing. I understand you might not see the dichotomy in such a way, but I highly suspect that the vast majority of people you are deriding do.

  12. Kristine says:

    Anon, besides potentially transmitting a dangerous disease, you’re advocating positions directly counter to those that prophets have recently articulated. But so am I, on marriage equality. We both belong in church. Together. It’s astonishing and difficult.

  13. Brian, I have been told (online) that my position on traditional marriage is racist, homophobic, and hate speech. I have been told that my beliefs are responsible for high rates of teen suicide among LDS youth. Today, now that masks and jabs are no longer required, my views on gay marriage is far more divisive than the pandemic ever was. I have to keep quiet, or be chastised for causing damage. This includes posting the family proclamation on my social media that’s connected to my ward/stake sites. It’s not allowed.

  14. Anon, if someone’s not letting you post the Proclamation on the Family on ward-connected social media, I suspect that you’re doing more than just posting the PotF. Because the church—even in the liberal areas I’ve spent my adult life—is not squeamish about openly advocating and promoting it.

    And honestly, you’re right—I wouldn’t want to sit next to you at church. Because I don’t want to risk my or my family’s health, and sitting indoors next to an unvaccinated, non-mask-wearing person is a significant risk. That doesn’t mean I don’t want you at church. It doesn’t mean you don’t belong (even if, as Kristine points out, you’re not following church leaders’ counsel). But it does mean I’m going to keep my distance.

  15. I prefer to sit next to people who have at least a passing grip on reality. Also when many people have called one out for various bigotries, it’s probably an accurate picture of the face one presents to the world.

  16. M. David says:

    Steve: Your insights about Mormon community and identity are interesting. I think there is something to your observation that LDS folks don’t center their religious identify around (or maybe ‘in’ is a better preposition here) the Sacrament ordinance. And, you are right that, I am approaching the Sacrament ordinance expressly in the context of community (with God, with each other, and with creation). I guess I am longing for an increased sense of community and I see Communion as one way (not the only way) to get there…. not a Communion built around the “healthy, available, self-assured, institutionally-approved members” (as I state above), but one in which Communion is used to break down the barriers that too often divide us.

    Kristine: Thank you for your observation that the type of community to which we have been called is “astonishing and difficult.” So true.

    Christian: The anecdote about Pope Francis you share is powerful. David/Christian: It has been my experience that the words ‘righteousness’ or ‘worthiness’ are sometimes interpreted by those who are in charge to privilege individuals who have cultural power at the expense of those who are different. When this happens, those who outwardly align with cultural expectations are labeled as righteous, clean and worthy those who do not are dismissed as wicked, impure, unworthy. Thus, the labels of ‘righteous’ and ‘worthy’ have sometimes been transformed to become a description of social power, not a statement about spiritual power. That is why I am wary of using access to the Sacrament as a tool of boundary maintenance, rather than as a opportunity for community building.

  17. In the last few weeks I have determined that the Sacrament of the Lord’s supper is a direct link between us and Jesus. I can imagine that last supper as being one of such high emotion that no one wanted to forget it. It became the bedrock of Christian fellowship. A way to share Jesus’ sacrifice and to participate in his love for his little band. If there was any test for the reality of Jesus and Christianity, it is this, a direct line from the here and now to the upper chamber. A direct line from our ideas of exclusion to Jesus’ ideas of inclusion. He sat down at dinner even with his betrayer without malice.

    I like the Pope’s idea that we want to include and not use the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as a tool of exclusion.

  18. A few more explanatory words on the topic of worthiness.

    First, the Pope Francis story I mention above is best understood in the context of his entire life as a priest, not just in positions of relative power, and in a tradition with more and more commonly applied rules and requirements around Communion than LDS Church practices around the Sacrament. Worthiness is a big deal. Exclusion from Communion happens. Pope Francis’ acknowledgment that giving communion to a Jewish woman was technically impermissible, had he known, is telling. There are relatively few aspects of the Catholic Church about which I have holy envy, and the current pope embodies many of them.

    Second, I have known people I would exclude from the Sacrament in an LDS context. In general, they represented a danger to the community, or they were flippant about the whole thing. That is, in theory I would exclude them. In practice, however, when it was my job to call the question, I did not see such cases, and every limitation or restriction I in fact placed on participation I regret and am ashamed of. On the other hand, every opportunity I took to encourage and expand participation is a happy memory.

  19. Wow, ok….so….excommunication and/or disfellowship is not designed to be a “religiously violent” act. Here’s the deal. We believe this is the Lord’s church. In general conference when church leaders say “Christ leads and guides this church,” they met mean that in the most literal way possible. Because it’s Christ’s church, we are required to meet certain standards to become “part of the body of Christ.” If an individual has broken those covenants, they need an opportunity to repent without heaping more judgement upon themselves while they’re still sinning. We’ll be judged harsher if we’re winning while in a covenant. Essentially, excommunication and disfellowship would be like a lender tearing up a contract because you’re not making your payment, and giving you a chance to get your finances in order without accruing more debt. Excommunication and disfellowship provide us an opportunity to get out of our contract with Christ while we try to get ourselves back on track…without accruing more debt to the lord. The author used the example of physically cutting off a body part when someone is excommunicated, but why if that body part is gangrenous or is a cancer? Should it not be removed to preserve the rest of the body? Likewise, what if you have church member who is leading people astray, or not keeping their covenants? Should they be allowed to stay on the body of Christ? This week we read about the prophet Eli in the Old Testament. He was a priest working in the temple, but he was allowing his two sons who were not worthy to work in the temple as well. The Lord cursed Eli and his sons as a result, with his two sons being killed in battle and Eli dying as a result. The Lord will not be mocked. He’s made that very clear, and since this is His church, we have to abide by His rules. It’s really that simple. I agree that we should be more welcoming at church, but that’s a member issue, not a policy issue.

  20. Pontius Python says:

    ^ Cutting out cancer and gangrene, tearing up a contract …. there are shades of violence in those analogies, y’know. And in your biblical analogy, Eli’s two sons died in battle (a violent death) and Eli died in an accident (a sudden painful death).

    And you say excommunication isn’t a “spiritually violent act”?

  21. Marcus, excluding someone from fellowship is, in fact, a religiously violent act. You yourself compare excommunication to the violence of cutting out a cancer. Pretending that excommunication and disfellowshipment are “not intended” to be violent is the wrong place to start the analysis. We start by acknowledging that excommunication is violent, ugly and traumatic. (My personal experience on this point is that when I have been in a position to observe and advise in such matters, it has been deeply traumatic even when everyone involved submitted to the process without reservations.)

    Then we can talk about the implications. The real question here is whether and under what conditions the violence of excluding people is justified.

    You have used the concept of contractual obligations to justify excommunication. In my view, that’s a bad argument to pursue. In reality, our relationships with God are based on love, not contract. While the idea of contract might have limited usefulness as an analogy for teaching some concepts, it stops being useful immediately when it is used to justify violence. Christiankimball’s comments offer a better path for analysis here. If Chris is suggesting that exclusion is only justified when it prevents a greater violence from being committed by a dangerous person, then I think I agree with him. When we hasten to punish rather than protect, I have often seen us do more harm than good.

    Trying to prevent the mockery of God is also a bad justification for excommunication. The God I know is pretty tough that way; he doesn’t need my help to protect his feelings or his dignity. What he needs is for me to embrace everyone I’m capable of embracing.

  22. Loursat, I wonder whether the when to exclude topic should be an entirely new post, but since we’re here, I do have even more thoughts.

    When traditionally-minded LDS people start quoting scripture and sounding officious about these things, it registers as a strict obedience standard to everything from keeping the sabbath to committing adultery. I generally reject and recoil from the whole discussion.

    But then the question is whether there are any limits? When phrased that way, I find the danger to the community case the easiest on my soul and the easiest to sell to others. As you reflect.

    But there’s more to think about. While suggesting a case by case analysis, at least for discussion I posit the following cases (all of which represent real but name redacted people in my life experience):
    >Somebody who is openly mocking or dissing on the whole idea of a Eucharist or of Christ.
    >Somebody who is preparing for baptism but not yet baptized and has set participation in the Sacrament as a goal, almost a reward, to look forward to.
    >Somebody who is in an active repentance process and in mutual agreement about the best way for them to proceed has taken a time out period regarding the Sacrament.
    >Somebody who is in open conflict or a notoriously abusive relationship with another member of the ward. Raising the question what the community is and what danger to the community means.

  23. Loursat says:

    Chris, thanks for those additional thoughts, which are helpful and provocative for me. My immediate reaction is two ideas, although there is substance in your examples for much more discussion.

    My earlier comment didn’t make a distinction between excommunication and withholding of the Sacrament. That was lazy of me. I think it’s important to keep that distinction in view, because excommunication is usually the more violent thing. You give the example of someone who believes that taking a time out from the Sacrament is a helpful step in working on their spiritual condition. I accept that for some people that might be a good choice (in spite of my reservations about it). In those cases, abstaining from the Sacrament incurs relatively little violence and might have value. On the other hand, excommunication is always a traumatic severing from the community. The difference between these situations—abstaining from the Sacrament as opposed to excommunication—can be so great that it might be a difference of category and not just a difference of degree. Therefore, the justification for excommunication might be different from the justification for abstaining from the Sacrament. I’m not sure about that, but it’s something to keep in mind.

    Second, the difference between punishing and protecting is probably something that runs through all of these cases. It might turn out to be a key factor that, in practice, can guide people to the best decisions, even if they can’t articulate theoretical or doctrinal reasons for their choices. Another way of putting this is that we should find our motivation in love for the people whose faces we can see, rather than in loyalty to, as you put it, a strict obedience standard.

  24. Loursat, we do need a whole discussion about church discipline. Yes, excommunication needs to be separated out. In its current form even with relabeling as “withdrawal of Church membership”, excommunication is an act of violence and the practices described in the General Handbook are plainly punitive. Furthermore, (all this in-my-opinion, obviously) excommunication seldom if ever has a desirable effect even in protecting others. On the other hand, I can’t get myself to the common liberal/progressive position that excommunication should never happen. Restated, re-envisioned, I do think there are circumstances and I believe I’ve seen one or two where a forced separation from the community is the least bad option and therefore should be an available option.

  25. When I think of those not taking the sacrament it always brings to mind the group of people who insist that those who are not members should not be taking the sacrament. When my now husband and I were dating and he was occasionally attending with me he was told that, and he simply said that he might not be baptized but it meant something to him, and did it matter if it meant something different to them than to him. I always thought it was a weird teaching particularly since the people most vocal about it always seemed to the the same people shoving bread and water into their unbaptized infants mouths so why was that ok? Anyone know if there’s any actual direction on that one or is it just one of those strange things that someone said and it got passed along and stuck and makes non-baptized adult attendees feel uncomfortable and less welcome.

  26. eastofthemississippi says:

    18.9.3
    Guidelines for the Sacrament
    “Although the sacrament is for members of the Church, nothing should be done to prevent others from partaking of it.”

  27. Thank you!

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