A fascinating communion table

by | Oct 7, 2021 | Reflections

Margaret Johnston writes:

Anne Lamont showed me this picture of the communion table at the Howmore Church on South Uist. I thought it was a lovely idea. Seemingly there are very few churches left that have these tables. I thought you might like to share Anne’s picture

John muses:

What a fascinating photo – thanks for sharing, Ann and Margaret. (I’ve attached an exterior photo of the church, and a picture of a 19th century Communion Token from Inverness West Church)

I love the old wooden benches in Ann’s picture – with the signs in the background that tech has arrived! I guess the fact of actually sitting round the table for communion emphasized that it represents a ‘shared meal’.

I am almost certain that I was at a communion service at a similar table at Farr Free Church in July 1969. I was visiting friends who made sure that I was given a ‘communion token’ to show my entitlement to go forward. As I recall, a group of worshippers was ushered to the table and sat down, and once they had been served they retaken their seats in ‘the body of the kirk’ another group went forward.

The mention of a ‘communion token’ (a small metal tablet with the name of the church on it) reminds me why I cringe slightly at the photo of the table in the South Uist Church. It was formerly the custom to seek to ensure that only those people who were showing in their lives signs of Christian grace – the ‘fruits of the Spirit’ – would partake of communion. The Kirk was keen to encourage people not to take the bread and wine thoughtlessly. Often, elders would visit the folk they were responsible for before each communion, checking that they were showing evidences of being ‘in a state of grace’ and only issuing communion tokens to those in whose lives they deemed the fruits of grace were visible. Similarly, at the communion service, the minister would ‘fence the table’, outlining the criteria for partaking.

You can see the thinking behind this, but in fact it tended to make some people think that taking communion had to do with their personal merit rather than the grace and love of God and that they would never by ‘good enough’, and other people to feel pride at their outward goodness regardless of what was actually going on in their hearts.

But you could imagine your desolation if you wanted to experience the love of God, symbolized in the bread and wine and were ‘fenced out’ by the words of the minister, the judgement of the elder, the verdict of your own despair, and physically by that wooden ‘wall.’

The reason these tables mostly been removed is because we now see God’s open invitation to us all – to everyone who hungers and thirsts, as Jesus said. If one of us wants to encounter God, then we are welcome to come, despite the failures and brokenness of our lives, despite – indeed because of our despair and hopelessness. We all take the bread and wine knowing that we mess up, we make wrong choices – that we are sinners in other words. And God says ‘I love you.’

‘All are welcome’ as we sang the other Sunday.

‘All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.’