[This article by Rev D W B Somerset was published in the October 2004 edition of the Free Presbyterian Magazine under the title Fencing the Lord’s Table.]
To “fence the table” is to deliver an address before communion, for the purpose of distinguishing between those who ought to come to the Lord’s table and those who should not. The practice of fencing the table goes back to the Reformation and has been in continuous use in the Scottish Church ever since. The expression fencing the table is slightly curious. It is not known when it was introduced, but it appears to be of late-seventeenth-century origin. The earliest instance recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Walter Steuart of Pardovan’s Collections in 1709. It is also found in the Memoirs of Elisabeth West, which date from the same time but were first published in 1724.
There seem to be two distinct but related ideas giving rise to the expression. On the one hand there is the natural idea that the minister, in making the distinction, is figuratively putting a fence around the table. Robert Murray M‘Cheyne uses these very words in one of his recorded “fencings”: “I would now, as was the custom of our fathers, put a fence around the Lord’s table” (R M M‘Cheyne, A Basket of Fragments, Inverness, 1975, p 61). Indeed in some instances a fence was literally put round the table. In Edinburgh in 1562 four workmen were paid six shillings to erect a paling around the table “for holding furth of the non-communicants” (Thomas Burns, Old Scottish Communion Plate, Edinburgh, 1892, p 14).
Elisabeth West seems to think of the expression fencing the table primarily in terms of debarring and keeping out. “At length”, she says, “Mr Flint was fencing the tables; there was not one sin that he debarred from the table of the Lord but, in some measure, I could charge myself with it.” This was in 1695. A few years later, she speaks of another minister who, she thought, “cut her off” when he came to fence the table. But once he had finished this work and “declared faithfully who were not worthy to come to his Master’s table, then he came to open his commission [to those] whom his Master had warranted to call in”. In this number she found herself, “for I heard my name and surname there, and was persuaded of it, the Spirit of the Lord bearing witness with my spirit to the call, so as it could not be resisted” (Memoirs of Elisabeth West, Aberdeen, 1843, pp 33,89).
The other idea lying behind the expression fencing the table is that of opening a court. To “fence” a court was to “open it by proclaiming its object and the authority by which it was held”. This seems to have been a common usage in Scotland in the seventeenth century. Samuel Rutherford, for instance, uses the word fence a number of times in this sense in his Letters. In 1637, writing to Lady Boyd, he speaks of a court being kept within his own soul, but his not knowing whether it “be fenced in Christ’s name”. Later he speaks of another “bastard-court” which the devil had fenced, and to which he had been given a “forged summons”(Samuel Rutherford, Letters (77 and 112), ed A A Bonar, Edinburgh, 1891, pp 163,228).
Steuart of Pardovan (1666-1719) was Provost of Linlithgow and a member of the Scottish Parliament, and there is no doubt that this usage would have been in his mind when he spoke of the minister “fencing and opening the table”. Indeed there is reason to think that he regarded the two terms here as synonymous, but one cannot be sure from the context. At any rate, here is his description of the practice in 1709:
The minister and session having, according to the rules of discipline, admitted unto or debarred persons from the Lord’s table, the pastor doth now, immediately before he read the words of institution, doctrinally debar from, and inviteth all unto the Lord’s table, according to the state and condition they really are in. If there has been an unexactness or omission in the exercise of discipline, through which some are admitted whom the Word of God forbids to approach on their peril, this doctrinal debarring may scare such from partaking; but if there hath been an imprudent and uncharitable exercise of discipline, in debarring of some wrongously, then the pastor’s doctrinal opening of the table, and inviting such from the Word of God to approach, although debarred by the key of discipline, may nevertheless comfort themselves in the Lord, who will be a little sanctuary unto them who are thus roughly and indiscreetly treated by the watchmen. From all which we may gather that it is safer to err on the right hand of charity than on the left hand of strictness and severity. (Walter Steuart of Pardovan, Collections . . . concerning the Worship, Discipline, and Government of the Church of Scotland, Arbroath, 1802, pp 89-90.)
The expression fencing the table does not appear to date back as far as the Second Reformation. One writer of that time speaks instead of “the work” or “the action” being “opened” or “begun” (A G Reid, The Diary of Andrew Hay of Craignethan 1659-1660, Edinburgh, 1901, pp 31, 37,82,120). This does not mean, however, that the practice itself was a novelty. In the Directory of Public Worship of 1645 the following description is given:
Next, [the minister] is, in the name of Christ, on the one part to warn all such as are ignorant, scandalous, profane, or that live in any sin or offence against their knowledge or conscience, that they presume not to come to that holy table; showing them that he that eateth and drinketh unworthily eateth and drinketh judgement unto himself: and, on the other part, he is in an especial manner to invite and encourage all that labour under the sense of the burden of their sins and fear of wrath, and desire to reach out unto a greater progress in grace than yet they can attain unto, to come to the Lord’s table; assuring them, in the same name, of ease, refreshing and strength to their weak and wearied souls.
That this was no new thing is borne out by Alexander Henderson’s description of the practice of the Church of Scotland a few years earlier. He says that after the sermon on a communion Sabbath the minister “useth an exhortation, and debarreth from the table all ignorant, profane and scandalous persons” (Alexander Henderson, The Government and Order of the Church of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1641, p 21).
Similarly in 1623, David Calderwood said that “the minister, when the sermon is finished, reads the words of institution, gives a short exhortation and admonition, then blesses” G W Sprott, Worship and Offices of the Church of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1882, p 109).
Earlier still, however, the Book of Common Order of 1564, which was the precursor of the Directory of Public Worship, contained an exhortation which amounted to a fencing of the table. John Knox had a large hand in the compilation of the Book of Common Order, but the following exhortation was not, in the main, his work. The first paragraph was taken from Thomas Cranmer’s English Book of Common Prayer of 1549, as modified in 1552, while the third and fourth paragraphs were from Calvin’s Service Book of 1542, following the English translation of 1550. The second paragraph was a mixture of Cranmer and Calvin’s work (W D Maxwell, The Liturgical Portions of the Genevan Service Book, London, 1965, pp 129-131).
Dearly beloved in the Lord, forasmuch as we be now assembled to celebrate the holy communion of the body and blood of our Saviour Christ, let us consider these words of St Paul, how he exhorteth all persons diligently to try and examine themselves before they presume to eat of that bread and drink of that cup; for as the benefit is great, if with a true, penitent heart and lively faith we receive that holy sacrament (for then we spiritually eat the flesh of Christ and drink His blood; then we dwell in Christ and Christ in us; we be one with Christ and Christ with us), so is the danger great if we receive the same unworthily, for then we be guilty of the body and blood of Christ our Saviour; we eat and drink our own damnation, not considering the Lord’s body; we kindle God’s wrath against us, and provoke Him to plague us with divers diseases and sundry kinds of death.
And therefore in the name and authority of the Eternal God and of His Son Jesus Christ I excommunicate from this table all blasphemers of God; all adulterers; all that be in malice or envy; all disobedient persons to father and mother, princes or magistrates, pastors or preachers; all thieves and deceivers of their neighbours; and finally all such as live a life directly fighting against the will of God: charging them, as they will answer in the presence of Him who is the righteous Judge, that they presume not to profane this most holy table.
And yet this I pronounce not to seclude [keep out] any penitent person, how grievous soever his sins before have been, so that he feel in his heart unfeigned repentance for the same, but only such as continue in sin without repentance. Neither yet is this pronounced against such as aspire to a greater perfection than they can in this present life attain unto, for albeit we feel in ourselves much frailty and wretchedness, as that we have not our faith so perfect and constant as we ought, being many times ready to distrust God’s goodness through our corrupt nature, and also that we are not so throughly given to serve God, neither have so fervent a zeal to set forth His glory, as our duty requireth, feeling still such rebellion in ourselves that we have need daily to fight against the lusts of our flesh; yet nevertheless, seeing that our Lord hath dealt thus mercifully with us that He hath printed His gospel in our hearts, so that we are preserved from falling into desperation and misbelief, and seeing also that He hath endued us with a will and desire to renounce and withstand our own affections, with a longing for His righteousness and the keeping of His commandments, we may be now right well assured that those defaults and manifold imperfections in us shall be no hindrance at all against us to cause Him not to accept and impute us as worthy to come to His spiritual table: for the end of our coming thither is not to make protestation that we are upright or just in our lives; but contrariwise that we come to seek our life and perfection in Jesus Christ, acknowledging in the meantime that we of ourselves be the children of wrath and damnation.
Let us consider then that this sacrament is a singular medicine for all poor, sick creatures, a comfortable help to weak souls, and that our Lord requireth no other worthiness on our part but that we unfeignedly acknowledge our naughtiness and imperfection. Then, to the end that we may be worthy partakers of His merits and most comfortable benefits, which is the true eating of His flesh and drinking of His blood, let us not suffer our minds to wander about the consideration of these earthly and corruptible things (which we see present to our eyes and feel with our hands) to seek Christ bodily present in them, as if He were enclosed in the bread and wine, or as if these elements were turned and changed into the substance of His flesh and blood; for the only way to dispose our souls to receive nourishment, relief, and quickening of His substance is to raise our minds by faith above all things worldly and sensible, and thereby to enter into heaven, that we may find and receive Christ where He dwelleth undoubtedly very God and very man, in the incomprehensible glory of His Father, to whom be all praise, honour and glory, now and ever, Amen.