Rowan Williams on the oddness of the open Table

‘[The Church’s] complete sharing of baptismal and eucharistic life does not happen rapidly or easily, and the problem remains of how the Church is to show its openness without simply abandoning its explicit commitment to the one focal interpretative story of Jesus. To share eucharistic communion with someone unbaptized, or committed to another story or system, is odd – not because the sacrament is “profaned”, or because grace cannot be given to those outside the household, but because the symbolic integrity of the Eucharist depends upon its being celebrated by those who both commit themselves to the paradigm of Jesus’ death and resurrection and acknowledge that their violence is violence offered to Jesus. All their betrayals are to be understood as betrayals of him; and through that understanding comes forgiveness and hope. Those who do not so understand themselves and their sin or their loss will not make the same identification of their victims with Jesus, nor will they necessarily understand their hope or their vocation in relation to him and his community. Their participation is thus anomalous: it is hard to see the meaning of what is being done’.

– Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982), 68.


  1. Interesting. Thanks for this quote. As someone who is open to an open table, I’m interested in the arguments that Williams does not think are valid for a more closed table … I guess maybe participating in the table could be the beginning of understanding themselves and their sin and understanding their hope and vocation in relation to Christ and his community.


  2. I am someone from an open table background and I do not understand how a closed communion system relates with regard to persons with special needs, especially persons who have difficulty with any form of communication (verbal or otherwise).

    Ultimately, who am I to decide on their behalf that just because they cannot express themselves the way the “church” expects that they are not deserving of this means of grace?


  3. Their participation is thus anomalous: it is hard to see the meaning of what is being done.

    That’s true. But if even the betrayer sat at table with Jesus, I reckon there is room too for the I-don’t-really-know-why-I’m-here. I would certainly not want to fence the table on the basis of anomalousness.


  4. This also exposes the flip-side—the absurdity of practicing closed communion, i.e., breaking bread only with those who are members in the particular church or denomination.


  5. I cannot imagine that someone would participate in the Eucharist when he/she had no “connection” at all with this symbolic ritual. The ritual is “self selecting” and there is no reason to put up barriers. That’s why I disagree with the extremely “closed” practice of my own Catholic church.


  6. The Anglican Theological Review did a whole series on this question a few years ago – I don’t remember if any of the authors drew on this piece from Williams’ “Resurrection.” The series is probably online; if not, I’m happy to find it on ATLA if anyone wants it.

    Incidentally, I’ve been posting PDFs of some of Rowan Williams’ more difficult to find essays on my site – Is my betrayal of Wiley a betrayal of Jesus?


  7. To add a further thought, Garry Deverell makes the following point: ‘I … have a difficulty with any theology of Eucharist that sees the table of communion as open to absolutely everyone, without remainder. From the beginning, Christians certainly welcomed everyone to their ordinary meal tables, whatever their beliefs or lifestyles. Here they followed the example of Christ himself. But they did not welcome everyone to the ritual meal known as the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. This meal was reserved for the baptised, for those who had ‘signed up’, as it were, to the Christian life – with all its beliefs and practices. Why? Because the meal was seen as a weekly reaffirmation of the covenantal promises made in baptism. Now, you can’t RE-affirm what you’ve never affirmed in the first place. In that context, it made no sense to welcome those who were not signed-up. And it still doesn’t. So the invitation to the table is indeed for all. But the mode by which Christ’s invitation may be accepted is by passing through the waters of baptism, which (in Christian understanding) is our death to the basic principles of this dark age, and our rising with Christ to a new (de-colonised) way of life’.


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