On the final morning of last month's Gay Christian Network (GCN) conference in Portland, which our staff from New Direction attended, it was clear that the conference organizers had gone to great lengths to figure out how to serve communion to 1300 participants from multiple denominations.
It may have taken more time to explain how to receive communion than it did to receive it.
Besides the twenty-some stations offering wafers, white bread, and wine, there were also special stations with gluten-free bread, and bowls of juice for those who abstain from wine. In one corner of the huge room, Catholics could go and receive the host, consecrated and served by a priest. And in the middle, there was something I'd never even heard of: the antidoron, the non-consecrated Bread of Fellowship, baked by attendees from the Orthodox tradition and offered especially to others from closed-table churches. Gosh, I thought, they've even got a way to participate for people whose traditions prevent them from participating.
These superhuman efforts to include everyone in the Eucharist were reflective of the conference's theme, “Together at the Table.” Besides our love for Christ, what brought us together around the Table was our common experience of navigating the Christian life as sexual and gender minorities, or in the case of my parents and other family and friends who attended, navigating life alongside LGBTQ+ loved ones.
What threatened to divide us were the diverging paths along which our navigating had taken us, namely, whether we believed God blessed intimate same-sex covenanted relationships (Side A) or whether we believed God wanted LGBTQ+ people to be celibate (Side B).
Differences on this key interpretive matter often seem far less surmountable than the differences in sacramental and dietary practices accommodated by the conference. In my online travels, I have witnessed Side A LGBTQ+ people condescend to Side B LGBTQ+ people, diagnosing them with “Stockholm Syndrome” and internalized homophobia. I have also witnessed Side B imply that Side A is full of disobedient Christians who fail to practice the celibacy to which all LGBTQ+ people are called.
The conference's opening keynote speaker, Jeff Chu, had anticipated this rift, and had issued this challenge to us in his moving, articulate speech:
"If you are Side A, can you regard Side B without pity? If you are Side B, can you look at Side A without judgment? If I told you that I’m Side C, or Side M, or Side Z—or if I were to refuse to opt for sides or labels, because they vex me—could you meet me there too? Can we create a community without litmus tests, just a shared pursuit of Jesus, and will we welcome “the alien” with all his fears and her disappointments and messed-up, marked-up human roadmaps and interpretations of Scripture?"
As I waited for my turn to go receive the elements as an gay married Christian, I felt a sense of gratitude for the celibate conference-goers I had talked to and learned from that weekend. They had shown me no judgment, and I hoped I had shown them no pity. I felt eager for communion, this tangible reminder that together, despite our disagreements, we are the Body.
Just as I was congratulating myself, I recalled a question that had burned itself into my memory while listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Liturgists...
“Is there anyone you would refuse go to the Table with?”
The previous morning, members of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church had traveled all the way to Portland to picket our gay Christian conference and demonstrate their impressive ability to each hold four offensive signs with two hands. Thankfully, a crowd of local Christians had kindly stood in front of them, in the pouring rain, creating a wall of love to buffer us from that hatred. As one of these Portlanders remarked, “It was Christians protecting Christians from Christians.”
But suppose all these Christians, in all three categories, were invited together to the Table. Yes, the scenario is preposterous, since the Westboro folks would never agree to it. But what if they did come? Would you come, too? Or would you boycott in protest? Would you picket the Table?
My friend Richard later proposed another hypothetical situation... suppose there were people from the Restored Hope Network at the Table, people who persist in practicing the ex-gay ministry and reparative therapy that has traumatized so many LGBTQ+ Christians, filling them with self-hatred and shame?
Is it possible to go to the Table (or for the closed-table folks, share the Bread of Fellowship) with people who interpret Scripture in ways we would consider blatantly un-Christian? Is it possible to share communion with Christians who arrogantly believe they have a corner on God's Truth?
It is possible to receive the Eucharist with people who claim to be Christians, but whose actions suggest they aren't following the same Christ we follow?
Would God really ask us to share His broken body and blood with people who are unapologetic about the fact the their attempts to serve Christ have seriously hurt us and our loved ones? Isn't this just re-opening wounds and re-triggering victims, putting them further at risk? Is this showing God's mercy, or just enabling abusers?
The Liturgists podcast episode I quoted featured Rachel Held Evans, who herself has been written off by many brands of Christians (especially in recent weeks, due to her association with Tony Jones). When asked if she would share the Table with a Christian who advocated killing Muslims, she said:
“I understand that if there is a safety concern, there have to be ways to keep people from being further victimized. But symbolically, I think the cup and bread is not meant for the worthy, but for the hungry... It doesn't mean you don't do all you can keep them from hurting, abusing, and killing other people, or that you accept their words as true... At the end of the day, I would break the bread of communion with that guy."
At which point one of the podcast hosts, Science Mike, seemed to have a revelation, remarking, “Maybe receiving communion together is not saying 'I stand for what you stand for,' but rather 'I'm broken in the way you're broken.'”
This thought experiment forced me to grudgingly name the people I tend to mentally exclude from God's mercy, the people whose brokenness I categorize as exponentially worse than my own. The truth is, there is nothing in me that wants to join any of the aforementioned people at any kind of table, whether capital-T or lowercase-t.
But I'm someone who claims to believe that “our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers.” So I probably need to stop treating people like they're on opposite sides of a cosmic “good vs. evil” battlefield, when in reality, every single person, in and of themselves, is a self-contained battlefield. Every person has the capacity for the same human beauty and the same human cruelty, and these battles waged by principalities and powers are waged not between us, but inside us. We're called to do our best to help the right side win, both in our own internal battles, and, with as much influence as we have, in the battles happening inside other people. And probably one of the most powerful ways to do that would be to eat with people whom we feel don't deserve to be eaten with, since we ourselves have been undeserving invitees to Christ's table.
These are thoughts that continue to bother me as I prepare myself to join some diverse groups around tables this month for dialogue and communion... I'll be at the Oriented to Love dialogue in Philadelphia and the New Direction Generous Spaciousness Retreat outside Toronto. Thankfully, as far as I know, no one from Westboro or the Restored Hope Network will be in attendance, so I don't yet have to see those difficult hypotheticals play out in real life. Still, I'm praying for soft hearts and a will to understand one another, and I ask you to pray for us too.
I'll leave you with more profound words from Jeff Chu (seriously, go listen to or read the whole thing!)...
“The table I long for—the church I hope for—is where we care more about our companions than about winning our arguments with them, where we set aside the condescension that accompanies our notion that we need to bring them our truth.
The table I long for—the church I hope for—has each of you sitting around it, struggling to hold the knowledge that you, vulnerable you and courageous you, are beloved by God, not just welcome but desperately, fiercely wanted.
The table I long for—the church I hope for—is made of rough-hewn humility, nailed together by a Jesus who has given us the ridiculous freedom to be wrong and yet still be made right.
The table I long for—the church I hope for—is a place where we love especially when it isn’t easy, allowing us to be vulnerable, inviting every voice to join the conversation, pushing us meal by meal toward community, toward communion.”