Reflections on the Open Table: Encountering God in the Midst of Difference


Rev Dr Bec Lindsay

About the Author

Rev Dr Bec Lindsay is an ordained minister of the Uniting Church in Australia and worships on Gadigal and Bidjigal Country at Hope Uniting Church in Maroubra. She is a sessional lecturer with United Theological College (Sydney) in Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew. Her research explores decolonial hermeneutics for ‘Settlers’ in Australia, reading the book of Ruth in conversation with Indigenous texts. She is particularly interested in the intersection between communities of worship, deep engagement with Scripture and the often mundane experience of everyday life.


Among the first subjects I studied in my Bachelor of Theology was an Introduction to Christian Worship. One interaction relating to Holy Communion has stayed with me. In describing their experiences of the Lord’s Supper, students from the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) named their appreciation of the ‘open table,’ the explicit invitation to everyone present in the service of worship to share in the sacrament of bread and wine. The lecturer cautioned that this was not UCA ‘doctrine,’ which names the Lord’s Supper as the meal of Christ’s baptised people. While the Basis of Union identifies the Holy Communion as Christ’s feeding of the baptised for their discipleship journey, this statement does not preclude this feeding being wider than baptised (or baptised and confirmed) members. Anecdotally, the practice of the open table seems to infuse Uniting Church worship.1 A brief survey of ministry colleagues suggests that few have experienced limitations on participation in Holy Communion. So, even if the open table is not UCA ‘doctrine,’ it is UCA worship ‘practice.’ In what follows I explore some of the significance of this practice and then move to some of the questions that arise from it.2

The meaning of the open table first needs to be clarified, as diverse understandings of this term exist and varying degrees of openness that churches might practice. An open table can refer to the acceptance of baptised disciples from one denomination at the Eucharistic celebration of another denomination. It can refer to the acceptance of baptised children or those who are baptised but not confirmed at the Eucharistic celebration. Or, the Open Table can refer to the welcome of anyone present, baptised or unbaptised, whether a person identifies as a disciple of Jesus or not, to the Eucharistic celebration. In a Christendom context, the assumption would be that all present at a celebration of communion would be baptised. This is no longer the case within our social setting in which people identify with a diversity of religious traditions and none. In this paper, I focus on the practice of the Open Table as invitation to all comers to participate. I ask whether it is time for the UCA to shift its doctrine to reflect its liturgical practice.

There are, of course, a diversity of Eucharistic practices across Christian traditions and denominations.3 I would argue these each begin from the same premise— this practice is somehow special (‘holy,’ ‘mysterious’) and within it is encounter with God. Christians share in the Lord’s Supper to keep faith with Jesus who said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). In instituting the breaking of the bread, Paul writes to the Corinthian Church that “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (1 Cor 11: 23). Some traditions restrict access to the table to safeguard the holiness of this encounter with God and because this is seen as in keeping with interpretations of Scripture and tradition which limit who can commune. In the traditions forming the UCA, this resonates with the tokens Presbyterian elders gave to confirmed members in good standing to show they could participate in the quarterly celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. It is also reflected in the concern of the UCA to ensure that those who Preside at communion are authorised by a council of the church, having been through a formation process of reflection on what Holy Communion is.4 However, an alternate way to highlight the sacredness of Holy Communion is to understand it as a lavish and abundant example of God’s hospitality.5 This resonates with the Wesleyan instruction to participate in communion often, expecting that it might be a means of grace, calling receivers to repentance and renewal.6 God does not hold back grace, love, and sustenance in the world. The theology underneath the open table responds by asking how we could hold back something that God offers.7

Experiences of Holy Communion in Uniting Church Worship

There are a number of names offered for communion in the Basis of Union, Uniting in Worship 2, the Constitution and Regulations, and the Code of Ethics and Ministry Practice. These include sacrament, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist,8 and food for the journey. The Basis of Union states that “in this sacrament of his broken body and outpoured blood the risen Lord feeds his baptized people on their way to the final inheritance of the Kingdom.”9 Communion is food for the journey, feeding followers of Jesus as they walk Christ’s Way. That this is the case does not necessarily preclude this food from being shared with others who travel along with the community for a time or who find themselves in the midst of Christian gatherings.

The context of communion is already set within the service of worship. This means that for someone to hear the invitation to come to Christ’s table, they must already be found within a context of worship. Whether within the regular pattern of life for a community of faith or a one-off event and context, the sharing of elements is framed within the liturgy that names this meal as a gift of God within the wider story of God’s participation in the life of the world.10 The story of Jesus among his friends is retold, prayers are offered, the Spirit is invoked. Those present who are followers of Christ, those who are not yet baptised, and those who have no intention of joining the ongoing life of discipleship all hear and see the ritual of the meal unfold within the drama of the liturgy. Given this context, it seems unlikely that someone would participate in the meal without at least a small sense that this sharing is connected with the Christian story of God’s presence in Christ Jesus and that it is a moment of sacred expectation for the community in which it is embedded.

Worship practices often highlight the underlying theology of church communities, revealing what that community believes about God. The Service for the Lord’s Day liturgies within Uniting in Worship 2 demonstrate the UCA’s theological understanding of Holy Communion. There is a strong emphasis in the invitation that the table does not belong to the presider, the congregation, or even the church, but it is Christ’s table and Christ, rather than the presider, congregation, or church, who offers invitation to join in the meal. The practice of the open table asks who the Presider, or the doctrine of a church, is to hold anyone back when it is Christ who calls them to join in the community of the shared table. Reflected here are the many stories of Jesus eating with all sorts of people and his miraculous feedings which are generous and produce enough and more than enough. Resonant also are the images of God as provider of food and sustenance in the Hebrew Bible. We ought to expect that those who accept Christ’s invitation will be diverse, with difference across all labels and divides that we can think to name, including their faith, doubt, and belief, and including those who Geoff Thompson names as “in ambiguous, uncertain, tentative and curious relationships with Jesus.”11 Alongside Christ’s invitation to participate in the shared meal of thanksgiving is the claim that Christ makes Christ-self known in this meal.

The liturgy also highlights the importance of sharing in the Lord’s Supper for the formation of faith in Christ around whose body we gather. The ritual is named as food for the discipleship journey, as the community are called to become this body that is shared in love for the world. We ought to expect that participation in the eucharist will be transformative. It will call us deeper into the neighbour-loving, justice-seeking, peace-making, world-transforming Way of Jesus. When communion is celebrated we should expect that those who partake will be caught up by the Spirit towards confession of faith, and so Presiders, congregations, the whole church, should be excitedly at hand, ready to work together to nurture and grow faithful communities: Christ’s body in a particular time and place. This gathering up might lead from sharing at the table to receiving water in baptism, when a worshipping community highlights the interwovenness of baptism and communion, noting the significance of baptism in aligning life with Christ’s Way.12 This raises the question of what might happen when people partake in the Eucharist without understanding themselves to be a disciple of Christ.

The liturgy also suggests that the community gathered at the service of worship is already Christ’s body as seen in invitation to the table which draws on the words of Augustine: “Let us receive what we are; let us become what we receive. The body of Christ.”13 The words of blessing and epiclesis, which call upon the Holy Spirit’s presence in the midst of the ritual also suggest that through sharing in the eucharistic meal, the community are able to become the body of Christ: “By your Word and Holy Spirit, bless these gifts that we may truly share Christ’s body and blood, and become, by grace, his body given for the sake of the world.”14 This raises a question for those who practice an open table of how Christ’s body is formed given there may be present and partaking in the service of worship and in the communion those who do not consider themselves to be members of the body. How, then, do we understand God to be at work in those who partake in this holy meal? There is here a reminder that it is Christ who constitutes Christ’s body in the world, not the church in any of its forms. The governance and policies that we construct are for our ease, to enable accountability, and because human creatures desire structures in which to ground our life. They are not structures embedded within God’s reign.

Hannah Bowman pushes further here, arguing that it is the real presence of Christ, the reconciler of all things and the one whose witness and invitation to God’s reign breaks down boundaries, that offers the deepest argument for an open table.15 She suggests this understanding of the open table:

The Eucharist is the sacrament by which those baptized into Christ are nourished in their baptismal life and formed into one body in Christ. Through the absurdity of Christ’s death on the cross, even the division between baptized and unbaptized is deconstructed, so all people are welcomed, by faith, to effectively receive the body and blood of the crucified God in communion.16

The scandal of breaking down boundaries, which is the scandal of the cross, should not be a surprise to followers of the risen crucified Christ.

The radical reformation of communities, neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, pointed to in baptism (Gal 3:27–28), elicits an important question for those who seek to practice an open table.17 Do those who join our services of worship, members or visitors, experience the welcome, inclusion, and hospitality we name? Are there individuals or whole sections of society who are unable to enter the gathering of a worshipping community and so who are excluded from sharing the bread and wine. Experiences of table exclusion recall Paul’s critique of the eucharistic meal in Corinth (1 Cor 11: 17–34). Those who claim to hold communion open to all will need to listen to the voices who critique structures, theologies, and practices of the church, having been marginalised by and among us, fellow disciples or not.18 First Nations Christians in Australia, such as Anne Pattel-Gray, offer sharp critique of racism and the perpetuation of colonialism including within the UCA.19 Queer siblings do not always feel safe, welcome, or affirmed in our communities. Many worship settings continue to be grounded in white, western Christian traditions and power structures, even when this does not reflect the local communities where they are located.20 The findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse reflect to us an image that we must reckon with.21 A community with an open table ought to be marked by an openness to the transforming work of the Spirit as they accept the hospitality of the boundary-breaking Christ. Brooke Prentis and Sandra Crowden offer a helpful image of this Christ for our context and the table we might demonstrate and share:

Jesus has reset the table of Australia. Aboriginal peoples have laid the tablecloth and lit the campfire and, as the world’s first breadmakers, have made the damper and made the sweet cordial from the Grasstree blossoms. The kangaroo tail is roasting in the coals and the bush honey is ready for dessert. The question is, will the guests arrive?22

The Joy and Inclusion of Children

There have been discussions about children, baptism, confirmation, and Holy Communion since the early days of the UCA.23 While there is no question that in the UCA baptised children are welcome to participate in the Eucharist, it is worth pausing to reflect on what this inclusion might teach us about an open table. I note also that not all children who share in the breaking of bread within our congregations are baptised.

My own children are welcome and loved within their congregation, even if their parents find them to be noisy and chaotic during gathered worship. Their favourite moment of church is the bread and the juice. They have been known to shout continually through our family preparations to attend worship “the BREAD and the JUICE” or to profess profound disappointment if it is a Sunday without communion. They, along with all the children in our congregation, have been welcomed to the table from birth. When I watch the children approach the table I see joy. They do not hold back but rush to be part of this meal. During one service, the celebrating minister invited the children to stand with her around the table and share in the embodied gestures of the liturgy. They did this but also began to speak the words of liturgy with her, a beat behind, but clear and sure of their words. These children know that the table is a special place; they know it is a place where they belong. They have no doubt that there is more than enough bread and wine for everyone and that their feasting is not limited to one small portion as they return to the table as many times as they are able and continue the feast when the service of worship is over, juice soaked bread their lunch for the day.

A colleague shared another anecdote of a child receiving the reign of God with wisdom and a generous spirit. On communion Sunday, a family, new to Christian worship, children unbaptised, participated in the gathering. One child was so moved by the service that he insisted to his family that he would approach the table himself. Having shared in the bread and juice, he indicated to the celebrant that he needed four more serves. His desire was to share the meal, to feed his family. He knew that this participation was precious. His actions suggest he understood the sacramentality of the ritual.

Valuing baptism and discipleship formation

Christian tradition links baptism and communion with the sacrament of water leading into the sacrament of the meal. This link is important in naming the adoption and profession of faith, committing to following in Christ’s Way in baptism, and the need for nurture and sustenance in this journey. Baptism is that mysterious and grace-filled welcome into community through the profession of faith undertaken by an individual within a discipleship community or through the community’s profession of trust in God’s faithful nurture of and commitment to create a catechetical community for those who cannot yet make their own profession. The Lord’s Supper is a way-marker. It ought to be a place of profound and transformative encounter with God, shaping the community who gather around the table into the image of Christ. It should take place regularly, at times in mode of celebration, at times in lament, with generous abundance and participation in the words and action beyond eating and drinking embedded within the community of faith.

The practice of the open table at times may undermine the normative link between Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In many communities, preparation for adult baptism or for the confirmation of those baptised as children have been key moments of intentional faith formation, teaching stories of Scripture, theological insights from tradition, and the spiritual practices of the community. Such teaching culminated in confirmation and the joyful celebration of Holy Communion. In the context of an open table, care must be taken to ensure that the link between baptism and Eucharist, and the commitment to teaching faith within the community are continued.

Participation in the breaking of bread ought to be faith formation in itself, as the liturgy draws participants into the story of Christ’s presence in the world. As Debra Dean Murphy observes, “to come to the Lord’s Table is to be shaped by a story of forgiveness, reconciliation, and communion; it is to refuse to participate in the forces of destruction (however subtle they may be) that deny that all of creation is God’s good gift.”24 Communion teaches us about God’s solidarity with us and with the world; it demonstrates God’s grace; it draws us bodily into the drama of God’s hospitality. Celebrating the Eucharist should thus draw participants to a shared life of solidarity and community, with each other, and with the world that God loves. Baptism is also part of embodying this story, and its importance can be emphasised at the Lord’s Table. Naming the importance of baptism for Christians and inviting those on the journey of discipleship to enter the waters is incumbent on those who offer an open table.25

Naming Holy Communion as the meal of the baptised and highlighting the link between baptism and communion, however, does not require limiting the generous and life-giving hospitality of Christ’s feeding. We can hold our open table and at the same time invite those who gather around it into conversations and practices that will deepen their faith. Just as we expect the baptised to share in Communion, so might we learn to invite those who share at the table to consider baptism. And if someone is visiting for a moment or journeying with us for a time, why would we to hold back from them a meal in which there is life and in which we expect encounter with God to take place? In this we must be honest in our naming of the Eucharist, that we do expect God to be present and at work. Not all who find themselves within a service of worship may wish to participate in such activity. An open table, as a practice of hospitality, will need to find generous and non-judgemental ways to enable the choice not to participate.

Issues arising from hospitality, inclusion, and the practices of the wider church

Understandings of who is welcome at the Eucharist vary across expressions of Christian faith. In practicing the open table, UCA communities of faith are drawn into conversation, and possibly conflict with other parts of the church. These wider conversations are important to engage in understanding what theological claims this practice makes and how this practice may impact on relationships with other parts of the church. UCA theology celebrates difference and seeks to practice inclusion. When the table is open questions necessarily emerge about the limits of hospitality and the boundaries of the expectation that all will participate. While the UCA may consider its table open to all baptised from any denomination, not all from other church groups may feel comfortable to participate given the diversity of Eucharistic practices across denominations. Some may also not be allowed by their church regulations to share communion in a Uniting church setting. An open table, as it seeks to share hospitality, must find ways to respect and affirm the decision of those disciples who choose not to share in bread and wine.

One example is the experience of being a baptised and confirmed person of faith who attends a Catholic Mass but is not Catholic. Formal Catholic doctrine does not allow for the receiving of the elements in such cases, although some visiting a mass may participate in any case. The limit on participation may be experienced as grief, frustration, or an example of the pain of Christian disunity. Catholics who attend a communion service in another denominational setting may also feel this grief or frustration at not being allowed to participate according to their doctrine, no matter how open the table is professed to be by the celebrant. While some may choose to approach the table, others may not. The open table does not resolve difference in how diverse Christians understand the Eucharist. Those who practice an open table still need to engage in the dialogue between these understandings and be open to the questions and critique raised by those who practice this sacrament differently.

It is also important to acknowledge that within the practice of the open table those present within a service of worship may feel compelled to receive the elements of bread and wine, even if they do not wish to. Those who do not share Christian faith, who are unused to the liturgy, who feel self-conscious of difference to others present, or who come from traditions which have firmer boundaries around Eucharistic participation ought to feel held, valued, and able to make their own decision about whether and how to receive Holy Communion within a UCA context. The Lord’s Table should not be an experience of pressure but invitation. Furthermore, L. Edward Phillips suggests that sharing at the Lord’s Table is risky, especially for those who are not disciples of Christ. This is because this is a place of encounter with God. Christians expect God to be about the work of transformation through this meal so that those who partake will become Christ’s body in the world. Given this, Phillips writes that

in the interest of hospitality, we must have clearly-worded Invitations to the Table that declare the risk of communion for nonbelievers. Wesleyans have insight into the risk: Holy Communion is a converting ordinance. If you partake of this meal, you have joined a community that intends to be one with the Body of Christ. Jesus declared, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:56). If a visitor is willing to take that risk, so be it. God be praised. But we must allow visitors a gracious way to say “No, I do not want to be part of that.”26

In terms of the open table, this raises the question of where the borders of hospitality lie. Are there people who we would not allow to share our table? Are there contexts where a genuinely open table would limit the participation of disciples, such as those who have experienced trauma or violence being asked to share a table with perpetrators? Such trauma may impact individuals within congregations. As discussed earlier, trauma may also be connected to patriarchal, racist, heteronormative, colonial theologies and structures embedded within liturgical practice. If we are to say we practice an open table, then it is important for congregations to have conversations around the impact of inclusion and where their welcome ends. There can be issues of safety and avoiding potential retraumatisation, alongside the possibility of the church being seen to condone unjust or damaging systems and behaviours, if all are welcome at the table of Christ, whose preferential option is for the marginalised and poor.27 Inclusion and hospitality are central to discipleship. So too is the naming of what is broken in our church communities and in the world.

The open table is one of the joyous and hospitable moments within a Uniting Church celebration of Holy Communion. In inviting everyone present to share bread and wine we celebrate God’s abundant provisions and uncontainable grace. In acknowledging the value of this liturgical practice, it is important for communities of faith to reflect on what we are saying about God and about discipleship as we invite all to the table of Christ. It ought to lead us more deeply into discipleship of Christ, seeking justice and enabling transformation of congregations and wider society. Reflecting on stories of Scripture and the experiences found within diverse liturgical traditions will help us to share an inclusive eucharistic practice that foregrounds God’s gracious actions in the world while also calling people to turn their lives around to follow Christ’s Way.


  1. Anecdotally, I would suggest many UCA congregations also have a fairly ‘open’ approach to baptism, particularly the baptism of infants. This practice is connected to the open table in its focus on offering hospitality and celebrating the abundance of God’s grace. Reflection on how this practice sit theologically within the life of the church is beyond the scope of this paper. ↩︎
  2. I note and commend for reading the work of Eojin Lee in tracing the theology of the Open Table, alongside Eucharistic practice in the UCA and the Presbyterian Church in Korea and the work of Geoff Thompson in tracing biblical and theological understandings of sacrament in the UCA. See Eojin Lee, 2016, Theology of the Open Table, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock; Geoff Thompson, 2016, Disturbing Much Disturbing Many: Theology Provoked by the Basis of Union, Melbourne: Uniting Academic Press, 87–122. ↩︎
  3. Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry, outlines commonalities, differences, and questions between denominations regarding sacraments including the Eucharist. ↩︎
  4. See, for example, the Assembly Lay Presidency Guidelines. I note that in allowing Lay Presidency, the UCA has already moved beyond the normative expression of communion in the world church as described in Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry. ↩︎
  5. See, for example, Stephen Edmondson, 2009, ‘Opening the Table: The Body of Christ and God’s Prodigal Grace,’ in Anglican Theological Review, 91 (2): 213–34. ↩︎
  6. Wesley describes communion as a ‘converting ordinance,’ a means of conversion and grace at the beginning of journey with God and not just food along the way for one already a Christian. Among the examples he offers is the experience of his mother. I note here that Wesley emphasises the communicant’s acknowledgement of sin and desire for communion with God. ↩︎
  7. When I use ‘we’ or ‘us’ I am referring to the ‘we’ of the UCA. This is a ‘we’ held together across many differences of experience, situation, and theology. I acknowledge that I write as a member of the church who holds particular powers and privileges, which limit my perspectives and experiences of Communion. I am a white/Settler/colonial-inheritor cis-gender heterosexual woman who is ordained as Minister of the Word in the UCA. I live, work, and worship in the urban context of a capital city. I was baptised as a teenager in an Anglican church and regularly participated in Communion before I was baptised, although not before I had made a profession of my own faith. ↩︎
  8. This might be seen, for example, in taking up the instruction in Uniting in Worship 2 that the baptismal font be present and visible during all services. ↩︎
  9. Basis of Union, paragraph 8 ↩︎
  10. In theory, this should include all the ‘essential’ elements of the liturgy as laid out in Uniting in Worship 2, although how these are expressed will differ contextually. ↩︎
  11. Thompson, Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many, 113. ↩︎
  12. This might be seen, for example, in taking up the instruction in Uniting in Worship 2 that the baptismal font be present and visible during all services. ↩︎
  13. Uniting in Worship 2, 219. ↩︎
  14. Uniting in Worship 2, 215. ↩︎
  15. Hannah Bowman, 2022, ‘Communion without Baptism and the Paradox of the Cross,’ in Anglican Theological Review, 102 (3): 373–392. ↩︎
  16. Bowman, ‘Communion without Baptism,’ 389–90. ↩︎
  17. In reflecting on the “distinctive Uniting Church understanding” of Galatians 3:27–28, John Squires notes that Paul, and the UCA, emphasise the impact of this claim in the church but also within wider social structures. See John T. Squires, 2009, ‘Interpreting Galatians 3:27–28 in the Uniting Church: A relational and contextual perspective,’ in Uniting Church Studies, 15 (2): 22–23. ↩︎
  18. I note that the use of ‘us’ here may be jarring for those members of the UCA who have experienced a lack of hospitality among UCA communities. ↩︎
  19. See, for example, Anne Pattel-Gray, 2022, ‘Colonial Bondage: Liberating Theological Education,’ Professorial Lecture, Melbourne: University of Divinity; Anne Pattel-Gray, 1998, The Great White Flood: Racism in Australia: Critically Appraised from an Aboriginal Historico-Theological Viewpoint, Atlanta: Scholars Press. ↩︎
  20. As Katalina Tahaafe-Williams notes, “at the local setting, a congregation may have a multicultural membership. But as long as power and decision-making are in the hands of a particular racial, ethnic or cultural group, then racial equality is still rather remote. That particular congregation is still some way from being a truly multicultural community of Christ.” 2011, ‘Multicultural Ministry: A Call to Act Justly!’ in International Review of Mission, 100 (1): 22. ↩︎
  21. See, for example, the Assembly’s ‘Liturgy for Acknowledgement and Lament on the Anniversary of the National Apology to Survivors of Institutional Childhood Sexual Abuse,’ ↩︎
  22. Brooke Prentis and Sandra Crowden, 2017, ‘Learning to Be Guests of Ancient Hosts on Ancient Lands,’ Thought Matters: The Journal of the Salvation Army Tri-Territorial Forum 7: 8. ↩︎
  23. See, for example, John Grundy (ed.), 1978, Children and Holy Communion, Melbourne: The Joint Board of Christian Education; D.R. Merritt on behalf of The Commission on Liturgy, The Commission on Doctrine, and the Joint Board of Christian Education, 1985, ‘Children and Communion Report,’ Report to the 4th Assembly; UCA National Assembly Theology and Discipleship, 2003, ‘Becoming Disciples: A discussion paper to help the Uniting Church in Australia prepare for the Tenth Assembly in July 2003 containing seven proposals to help congregations in the ministry of evangelism and forming disciples of Jesus Christ.’ ↩︎
  24. Debra Dean Murphy, 2001, ‘Worship as catechesis: knowledge, desire, and Christian formation’, Theology Today 58 (3): 321-332. ↩︎
  25. Bowman (‘Communion without baptism,’ 375) observes that when communion precedes baptism it accentuates baptism as a deeper calling into God’s reconciling actions in the world. ↩︎
  26. L. Edward Phillips, 2021, ‘Risky Food and Eucharistic Hospitality: A Methodist Approach to Open Table,’ Liturgy, 36, no. 3, 40–48. Open ↩︎
  27. See, for example, William T. Cavanaugh, 2001, ‘Dying for the Eucharist or Being Killed By it? Romero’s Challenge to First World Christians,’ Theology Today, 58 (2): 177–189. ↩︎