Venturing into unknown spiritual territory

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…or, a reflection on pioneering in a time of religious and social change

A wise person once said that what marks out a pioneer is their ability to allow the Holy Spirit to guide them, then fill in a back story afterwards. That’s definitely me.

From early on in this ministry I have been encouraged to make sense of the way it has been shaped.  I knew early on that I was called to inhabit a space Christian Ministers are rarely called to: in the midst of people who practice alternative spiritualities. But I was unaware of how much it would stretch me, both in terms of my doctrinal beliefs and worship life.  I could never have predicted how bereft I would feel not having a sacramental community to belong to; and I never would have realised just how orthodox many of my beliefs are, had I not been asked to explain and defend them so many times over the years.

As this particular ministry draws to an end I find myself asking what it is I have learned from this journey; and what questions would be most helpful to ask as a consequence.  This article is the result of that.

In order to reflect in depth on what it is to pioneer in this time of religious and social change,  I have found it necessary to understand the landscape against which this spiritual path has been set.  And to do that I have had to look back over the history of religious change, particularly in England.  I have had to ask myself:

  • Why are those who engage with what might be called New Age Spiritualities treated with such suspicion by the church – and is it justified?
  • What does it mean to walk this path alongside them, and how has it changed me?
  • What questions might I offer to churches thinking of engaging in a ministry of their own alongside those on a spiritual journey but not a traditional Christian one.

Religious Change in the Age of Modernity

In his comparative thesis on Christianity and New Age spirituality / Neo-Paganism, Steve Hollinghurst suggests that all religious developments are subject to a process (1996, 5-6). As patterns of behaviour begin to alter and traditions change or start to be lost, those deeply immersed in them feel threatened.  As new ideas gain credibility, levels of suspicion reduce, and an opportunity for engagement opens up.  Eventually the new practice will be rejected or accepted – but this time on the basis of a mutual understanding that has previously not existed.  Some ideas might even be accepted into the mainstream and become the ‘norm’.  When another new idea or concept emerges, this cycle, which can take several hundred years, begins again.

Hollinghurst suggests the current period of major religious change has its roots in the Enlightenment, but it first became apparent in the Romanticism of the late Victorian era. While British missionaries were imposing Victorian religious values on, and teaching Moody and Sankey songs to, populations at the far corners of the globe, a significant number at home were engaging in what Linda Woodhead describes as re-engagement with “the magical” (2012, 179-180).  At a popular level illusionists, escapologists and magicians became what Hollinghurst describes as the “scientist[s] of the spiritual world” (1996, 5-6), while prominent intellectuals such as Arthur Conan Doyle became huge advocates of Spiritualism – the belief that, through the art of clairvoyance, it is possible to communicate with the spirits of those who have died or “passed over” into the spirit world. The difficulty was how to identify where magic (the art of illusion) ended and true spiritual engagement began. How could one be sure someone claiming to have spiritual gifts weren’t con artists becoming rich on the backs of those desperately seeking answers to questions the living could never give them? It is a question I ponder now in a similar way it was asked back then.

Religious Change in the 20th Century

In 1910 the General Assembly (national governing body) of the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA), became embroiled in what was known as the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.  They agreed to adopt a Doctrinal Deliverance, consisting of the following Five Fundamentals “necessary and essential to the Christian faith”.  In the decades that followed there were huge arguments over the extent to which the five points had to be taken literally.  By the 1930s the Modernists (who believed that the fundamentals of the faith should be interpreted in a way contextually relevant to the age) appeared to triumph over the literalists.  It wasn’t until much later that Christian Fundamentalism came back into vogue.

One proponent of fundamentalism was the highly influential evangelist Billy Graham, whose simple message of salvation through a personal belief in Christ caused a revival across continents.  Graham first visited the UK in 1954.  New choruses and informal liturgies were introduced, combining a focus on the working of the Holy Spirit with a sense of joy, hope and renewal.  Meanwhile the theologian and Bishop John AT Robinson published his ground-breaking Honest to God (1963).  His writings opened the way to the acceptance of a belief in a liberal God, who was gender neutral, egalitarian, and a spur to social action, to be related to through a less hierarchical church structure and more informal worship.  Suddenly the distant, sovereign, and judgemental God promulgated by the traditional church seemed outdated and irrelevant  Attendance at traditional church services started to plummet, while new congregations, shaped by the Billy Graham experience, encouraged charismatic worship not seen in the churches in England for a long time – if ever.

During this period an influx of immigrants brought with them their own faith traditions. There were the formal religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, but also numerous informal spiritual traditions and religious practices founded in Eastern philosophy and herbal medicines.

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Emerging from this came a new found interest in Paganism, distinctly different and rooted in ancient British culture. It appealed particularly to those with British Christian backgrounds, looking for spiritual practises relating to ecology and creativity, and with a focus on the feminine attributes of the divine.

In the meantime, Linda Woodhead suggests, belief for some was transferred entirely outwith the spiritual realm.  With the advent of the welfare state, and ending of church provision of health and social care, the British nation had a new ‘God’ to believe in: the National Health Service (2012, 159-160). Spiritual practices founded in the use of plants and energetic techniques straddled both the sacred and secular realms, satisfying those who had lost faith in the church, but weren’t yet ready to leave a spiritual path entirely behind.

Connections between healing and wholeness have always existed; but in recent years they have started to gain credibility within the healthcare profession. In Cullompton the surgery opened in 2010 was built with an ‘integrated complimentary care’ centre attached.  The Managing Partner, a practising Christian, has been advocating for many years the use of non-invasive complimentary therapies alongside what is generally known as ‘traditional medicine’ in the treatment of patients. Interestingly they have now begun to issue ‘social prescriptions’ and started a Community Life Hub.  The aim is to tackle loneliness and isolation through the provision of interesting and stimulating activities rather than prescribe anti-depressants and pain killers en masse.

Navigating today’s religious and spiritual milieu

To a certain extent the history of religious change explains why those who engage with what might be called New Age Spiritualities are treated with such suspicion by the church. For many Christians belief is not simply about experience. It is also about the adoption of a certain set of doctrines which combine with experience to create belief.  Refusing to accept those doctrines is like challenging the validity of a Christian belief system in its entirety.  For the average Christian this is an uncomfortable business.

During this ministry I have adopted a policy of never telling anyone they are wrong. There are times I have been profoundly challenged by the beliefs of those with whom I engage – sometimes fellow Christians as well as others.  But in challenging myself to listen openly to the views of others I have been able to work out what I truly believe, as well as being able to share in creative conversations about faith and spirituality.

However, there are some practises I have chosen never to engage with, either because I am simply not convinced they are genuine, or because they make me feel uncomfortable.  We call it “the line I won’t cross”. For me these have mainly been to do with mediumship and clairvoyance.  Although I have an open mind, I am not convinced I can tell where illusion ends and genuine spiritual practise begins.  And it works both ways. There are Christian activities I would never expect another member of Hug Cullompton to join in with, although I could, and sometimes do, invite them.

My principle is that if I practise a faith founded in the belief that the Holy Spirit can work through any encounter, why shouldn’t I be influenced by someone on a different spiritual path to mine, as long as I feel it is a genuine path and there is no danger or malice in it? And what might I learn that I didn’t know before that might help me understand myself and my relationship with Jesus better?

Suggested Reading

Woodhead, Linda and Catto, Rebecca, 2012, Religion and Change in Modern Britain (London, Routledge)

Hollinghurst, Steve, 2003, New Age, Paganism and Christian Mission (Grove Booklet)

Cudby, Paul, 2017, The Shaken Path: A Christian Priest’s Exploration of Modern Pagan Belief and Practice (Winchester, Christian Alternative)

Is God a man? No, of course HE’s not!

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… or, the art of choosing words carefully when we speak of God.

One of the most fascinating conversations I have had in recent years was about what to call God. We were writing our prayer, which is a response to the Lord’s Prayer. Although it is the term Jesus himself used, we really didn’t feel comfortable with using the term translated into English as ‘Our Father.’

I suspect that, when we hear the word ‘God’, each of us conjures up a different image. It might be negative or positive, one that either we have had since childhood or which has developed over the years, and it might be visual or otherwise, depending on how our mind works.

For those familiar with Christian language there is an ocean of imagery to draw on. For a start we describe God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or Trinity).  We hear the prologue of John’s Gospel which tells us that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  Jesus called God “Abba”, meaning Father, and in the letters of John at the end of the Bible we read that “God is love.”

But strip away all that Biblical foreknowledge and what do we have? I would like to suggest that the most famous image of God is Michelangelo’s in the Sistene Chapel at the Vatican.  In his ‘Creation of Adam’ painting, God is a depicted as a white haired, bearded man, loosely robed in a Romanesque toga, frowning as he reaches out from his heavenly cocoon to not-quite-touch Adam. Such an image hardly correlates to a creative, loving God who, through the Word, gives shape and meaning to life.

The members of Hug Cullompton who participated in the six week process of creating the Hug Prayer agonised for many hours, days and weeks over how we would address the divine creative power who is entirely beyond us and yet in our midst.  In the end we settled for ‘Divine Embrace’, because no noun seemed adequate. The only option left was to use a term that summed up our collective experience of him/her/it.

It might seem this post is about language, but actually it is an attempt to raise a far deeper and more profound issue we in the church face: not only how we articulate the shared concepts which have shaped our understanding of the world and the one whom we believe created it, but the very concepts themselves.

I know very few Christians who, when shown the picture of Michelangelo’s picture of God, think it’s an accurate depiction of what God is like.  And yet, the way in which many Christians name, address and speak of God gives the impression to the outsider that the God we believe in is imperialistic, judgemental and very, very male.

So what are we to do? Should we abandon all those terms we have grown up using, and which roll off our tongues comfortably? Should those who pray addressing God as “heavenly Father,” be told they can no longer do so?

Of course not.  I would not dream of robbing anyone of the essential elements of their faith and the way in which they name it.

But we do have to realise that such terminology could be alienating to others who have already considered and rejected the image of God as a white haired, bearded man, loosely robed in a Romanesque toga, frowning as he reaches out from his heavenly cocoon to not-quite-touch humanity.  Using terms such as ‘Lord’, ‘Master’ and ‘heavenly Father’ with them could be positively unhelpful.

Language is a powerful thing. Terminology comes with a lifetime’s back-story, rendering the phrase “sticks and stones might break my bones but names will never hurt me” null and void.  Let us choose it carefully, lest we unwittingly turn away those who most need to experience God’s ‘Divine Embrace’ for themselves.

making our mission and ministry Jesus-shaped

anonymous-blur-boy-572463… or, learning, through reading the Bible, how to serve others as Jesus did.

Since handing in my notice last week (I am about to move to pastures new), I have been reflecting, not only on what has been achieved through my ministry, but why and how.  To do so I have returned to a Bible passage I used for a piece of Ministerial Theological Reflection several years ago. It is the story of an encounter between Jesus and a man called Legion, and can be found at Mark 5.1-20. Below is a summary of four main features  of Jesus-shaped mission and ministry I have drawn from the passage:

Stepping out into the unfamiliar

  • Jesus and his disciples have crossed Lake Galilee to  “the country of the Gerasenes”. Not only is this unfamiliar geographical territory, it is Gentile, so the religious and cultural background of the people is very different to that of the Jesus and his disciples, who are Jewish.
  • Location and cultural identity is important. If we are to be the ‘Body of Christ’ in the world, it is not just for those to whom we comfortably relate to in our familiar day to day lives.  Venturing into the unfamiliar, among those who cultural identity and way of thinking are different to ours, is a necessary part of Christian witness.

Seeing Christ in everyone, and expecting to learn from our encounters with them

  • Legion, whom Jesus encounters when he first arrives, has significant mental health issues, such that he has been forced to live in the graveyard outside the village for the safety of himself and others.  There is not a less likely candidate for the accolade of ‘first person to identify the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth.’ Although there is no reason why he should know who Jesus is, Legion approaches and bows down before him, addressing him both by name and title: “Jesus, Son of the most High God.”
  • Sometimes we need to be challenged to see the world from  a different spiritual perspective. To be open to learning from, and being surprised by, such encounters are evidence of the Holy Spirit at work, and can be symbiotic – a process resulting in positive change on both sides.

Facilitating transformation with a commitment to the long term

  • As Jesus sets about healing Legion’s afflictions, Legion suddenly becomes afraid. He is unsure of his future identity without the accursed mental afflictions which have tortured him for so long.  And yet, when his fellow villagers arrive at the scene, they find him “clothed and in his right mind.”  Jesus entrusts him into the care of those who know him best and can support him longterm.
  • This is a process I have seen many times in my chaplaincy ministry. Change can be a slow business. Presented with the possibility of change, people who are so used to things the way things they are, face an unknown reality stretching into the future. It can be terrifying. Genuine transformative change is a lengthy process, and requires more than a single quick-fix solution. Ongoing support needs to be facilitated, not always under the auspices of the church community.

Trusting that God works beyond the bounds of church congregations

  • The villagers ask Jesus and his disciples to leave. We are not told whether it is because they are afraid of his healing power or annoyed because he has chased a perfectly good heard of pigs to their death in the lake.  One thing we do know is that, when Legion asks Jesus to take him with him, Jesus says, “No,” asking him instead to go and tell the people in his own village what Jesus has done.
  • Our ministry in the world doesn’t always result in new church members.  We cannot see into the future of those we serve, nor can we guarantee that those who cross our paths will continue along them with us.  All we can do is bless them as they go, asking that they tell their story of transformation as they do so.

What I call ‘Jesus-shaped mission and ministry’ is also known as ‘incarnational theology’. To read more about the scriptural background for my incarnational theology click here.

 

Incarnation and divine experience: finding inspiration in the pages of the Bible

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… or, why a load of words written thousands of year ago inspire me today.

One of the currently in-vogue words among mission-type people is ‘incarnational’. Whenever it is used there is always lots of nodding.  For the first several years I heard it bandied around, the term troubled me. I wasn’t sure I truly understood what it meant. I knew God became ‘incarnate’ in Christ – so it obviously had something to do with God taking on bodily form. But what did that have to do with me? And how could my ministry be described as ‘incarnational’?

In the past months I have reflected on the term at length. This is the first in a short series of articles, through which I intend to tease out what I understand by the term ‘incarnational’. I will explain why I consider it so important in the context of twenty-first church mission and ministry, and how it has been outworked in my particular context.  As is my habit (partly because it reflects the theological tradition from which I come) I will begin exploration in the pages of scripture.

Incarnation and Identity in the Hebrew Scriptures / Old Testament

Essentially the Bible is a book about relationship: between human beings and a God who loves them. Described in the first book of the Bible as the pinnacle of God’s creation, human beings, from the earliest times, let God down, both in their obedience to God and love for one another.  The story known as The Fall, in which Adam and Eve are tempted by a serpent to take a bite from the forbidden fruit, is symbolic of the breakdown in relationship between creator and created.  When God searches for them in the garden,  Adam (the name means human being) and Eve (whose name means alive) hide, ashamed and exposed. This is their last physical encounter with God. The result of their disobedience is expulsion from the Garden of Eden and a recalibration of their relationship with a now-distant God.  The journey towards redemption and reconciliation with their creator, who still loves them, will be an timeless one, with many twists and turns along the way.

The Hebrew scriptures – the Jewish Bible and Old Testament of the Christian one – tell the story of that journey. There are swashbuckling heroes and and nasty villains;  paupers, prophets, priests and kings; all searching for the redemption that will bring them back into full relationship with an elusive and at times seemingly fickle God.

These people, whose stories are recorded in scripture, are the Jewish ancestors of Jesus and his first disciples, a people whose self-identity was as a holy nation. Despite their propensity to sin, they understood themselves to be chosen by this God, who communicated with them through a variety of means.  Although generally a distant deity, God could, and did, respond to the people when called upon.  Over the generations a cycle of rites of passage, worship practices and feasts and festivals developed, during which the stories of their ancestors were retold in a way that gave shape to people’s lives and helped build both their corporate and individual identity as people of God.

An important element of that corporate worship life was the burnt offering or sacrifice of animals.  In burning all or part of an animal or plant, the smoke emitted was believed to create an odour ‘pleasing to the Lord’, transforming it into a heavenly substance, and providing a link between heaven and earth (Lev.1.14-17).  When they are burned, God responds.  An example of this is in the incredibly moving interaction between Jacob (also called Israel) and God when he is on his way to Egypt in search of his lost son Joseph (the one with the ‘amazing technicolour dreamcoat’):

When Israel set out on his journey with all that he had and came to Beer-sheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God spoke to Israel in visions of the night, and said, ‘Jacob, Jacob.’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’
Then he said, ‘I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again; and Joseph’s own hand shall close your eyes.’ (Gen. 44.1-4)

Through Jacob’s sacrificial activity, God breaks ineffably into his human consciousness, assuring both his identity and legacy, in just the same way God did with his Grandfather, Abraham.

Again and again throughout the Hebrew scriptures, at times when all appears lost, God breaks ineffably into the human consciousness of the people of Israel, acting to assure their salvation.  And in first century Palestine, when the punishing rule of Roman occupation seemed an inevitable future, God broke ineffably into human consciousness once again. Only this time the form God took was human.

Incarnated identity in the New Testament

God, taking on bodily form in the person of Jesus, signifies the beginning of the fundamental restoration of the relationship between God and humanity.  The God who walks in the garden of Eden, searching for the shamed Adam and Eve, is the same God who befriends, heals, serves and commands in the everyday ordinariness of first century Palestine.  No longer is there a need for burnt offerings to thin the divide between heaven and earth. It has been permanently breached in the most glorious way; for in Jesus the ability to see God is opened to all.

This concept of bodily redemption is then modelled in the earliest Jesus-believing communities, who describe themselves as the ‘Body of Christ’ (1 Cor. 12).  This corporate embodiment is outworked, both through their tangible attachment to each other, and the way they reach out together to the world around them.  Rather than making sacrifices of animals, the followers of Jesus reaffirm their identity as God’s chosen through the sharing of bread and wine together; and it is not long before this possibility is opened far beyond the reaches of those born into the Jewish bloodline.

The way of life lived by the Jesus-believing communities, recorded in the Book of Acts, demonstrates how this body of otherwise unremarkable fishermen, zealots, wives and mothers become exemplars of what it is to live as people with God ineffably present among them:

 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2.42-47)

Through a combination of Biblical, literary and archeological evidence, it is possible to piece together a picture of how the earliest Christians lived.  The image is of small communities popping up throughout the Near East and Mediterranean Europe. They gathered to share food and friendship, to learn more about Jesus, and to commit themselves to modelling a way of life which was gracious, generous, egalitarian and compelling. For more on communal eating and worship practices in the earliest Christian communities click here.

Relevance for Today

Of course all the events referred to above were said or spoken between two and four thousand years ago, and canonised (selected and ordered) almost 2,000 years ago. There are those who say it is out of date, that it has no relevance to, or bearing on, our lives today.  But regardless of how literally the words in the Bible are taken (and in ancient times many words were meant figuratively rather than literally), there are universal truths to find amongst the pages.

Without doubt, the human race is fatally and fundamentally flawed. What we have done to each other and to our planet in recent history is enough to testify to that. And if, as a species, we were able to obey the Ten Commandments given to Moses in the Pentateuch , strive to learn from the ancient teachings in the wisdom literature (books such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes), and follow Jesus’ example and teachings from the New Testament, the world might look very different.

As it is we can only make a difference where we are, in our own realm.  At the end of the Bible is a future vision of a new heaven and new earth.  In that new world the nations, identifiable in their uniqueness, live in harmony. There is food enough for everyone, and love reigns.  And we do live on a planet where that is humanly possible.  It is also our ‘humanness’, flawed as it is, which prevents that happening.

But…

The Bible teaches me that it is not all hopeless. The picture of goodness, painted in the words and deeds of Jesus and his followers, is inspiration enough to make me want to try and model it, both in my personal life and in my professional dealings. So therein lies the basis for my incarnational theology.  I am called to ’embody’ the person and teachings of Jesus, to see others through the eyes of God incarnated, and to love my planet and its inhabitants, however hard they sometimes make it.

More next time…

The reality of growing up English

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or, reflections on how we construct our understanding of the world (and our churches)

The Secret Scripture, a novel by Sebastian Barry (made into a 2015 film), tells the story of Roseanne McNulty, an old woman who has been in an Irish psychiatric institution for more than sixty years.

Through her diary entries, existent scraps of hospital records, reports from the parish priest and conversations between Roseanne and her psychiatrist, the reader is invited to piece together the story of Roseanne’s life. On several occasions Roseanne and the parish priest give very different accounts of the same event.

One might assume someone is lying; but who? The protagonist – an old woman who has been labelled mentally ill – or a respected man of God? In reality both parties are telling the truth as they remember it. It is simply that their memories – and perspectives – are so different.

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Everyone has their own story and lens through which they view the world. Our personal narrative is constructed from myriad events and experiences, things we have been taught and assumptions we have made; and it is no different when it comes to our sacred beliefs. The way we worship, pray, interpret the Bible and understand our spirituality are all flavoured by who we are, where we come from and the life we’ve lived.

I am a product of a culture still affected by Colonial Imperialism. Although we no longer promulgate the values reflected in the song Rule Britannia, there does still seem to be a subliminal assumption in the English psyche that our way is the ‘right’ way, even if that is not actually the same ‘way’ as our (English) neighbours.

Whether it is an aspect of our particular psyche, or simply human nature, I would like to suggest that this assumption, manifested most obviously in our political system, is just as prevalent in our churches, particularly in attitudes towards other church traditions. Throughout history these attitudes have caused division, even schism. Today we are left with a legacy of dualisms which might seem insurmountable: liberal/evangelical, Catholic/Protestant, Biblical fundamentalism/relativism, ‘high up the candle’/’so low down the candle I’ve fallen off’ (to do with worship traditions). The last one might sound ridiculous to someone not versed in Anglican phraseology – but I have heard it used often.

In whichever unnamed age we currently live (post-postmodernism?) such dualisms seem both dated and increasingly irrelevant. It is no longer necessary to adhere to all the views of one side or the other. We can accept that we construct our own narrative,  and as we do so we can affirm those whose way of worshipping, praying, interpreting the Bible and understanding spirituality don’t relate to our own.

The readers of The Secret Scripture never will find out the whole truth about what happened to Roseanne McNulty, because she is a fictional character. But people in churches of very different traditions (and none) are not. Perhaps there is a need to listen a bit harder to different narratives, trying to understand where they have come from. By doing this, those holding what might appear to be opposing views might find enough common ground to begin to appreciate difference rather than fearing it, and actually live out Paul’s words to the earliest Christians in Rome:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?…
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

An example of Living creatively with difference can be found in a previous blog.

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…”

…or, the Biblical precedent for breaking bread together round a table

Today, many churches are adopting table fellowship – or the practice of sharing food and drink round a table – as a way of attracting people to explore faith in Jesus.  One example is how this ideas is impacting the church is the Eating Together book in the Holy Habits series by Andrew Roberts.

Far from being a novel idea, this practice models that of the first century Jesus-believers and earliest Christian communities.  I would like to suggest that the close relationship between eating together and the formation of early Christian identity referred to in the Bible, makes a compelling argument for adopting eating together as a way of forging Christian community in the twenty first century.

Banqueting, or more particularly sharing food and drink, is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. According to the writer of John’s Gospel Jesus performs his first miracle at a wedding banquet (John 2.1-10); he is invited to a ‘great banquet’ by Levi , where tax collectors and others are reclining with him (Luke 5.29-32); and John sets the Last Supper within the context of banquet (John 13.1-26). By combining scriptural accounts with archaeological and other written evidence, Biblical scholars have suggested that sharing meals was a key aspect of the worship life of first century Christians.

First century banquets – a model for early Christian gatherings

From Symposion to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (2003), Dennis Smith’s exhaustive study of Greco-Roman banquet practice in the first century CE, demonstrates that sharing food and drink in a social and religious context played an important role in both Jewish and Gentile communities. Archaeological evidence suggests that synagogue architecture of the first century was based on the Greco Roman dining model, and many Jewish festival practices followed the same pattern.

Banquets held in the first century followed a model detected in Assyria as early as the sixth century BCE and adopted by the Hellenics 300 years later. As great admirers of Hellenistic culture, the Romans could to see for themselves the benefit of encouraging a banqueting model which built a sense of community at a time when traditional tribal and ethnic groupings were being challenged. Through the medium of eating together, individuals were able to reinforce social status whilst enabling social mobility and, in one to of the earliest examples of charitable fundraising, banqueting provided a means for poorer members of the community to organise and pay for their own funeral.

Banquets were held in temples, hired rooms or in individual people’s homes. In the first half of the century they were small in size, with dining rooms holding between seven and 11 people. Archaeological evidence shows that alterations were made to both houses and public buildings in the latter part of the first century CE to facilitate larger numbers of diners.

Only people who could afford to host them held banquets, although there is evidence that the nature of some associations enabled people from lower classes to participate. Hosts tended to invite people of a similar status similar to their own, and there would be a guest of honour, seated to the right of the host, whose role was to direct the proceedings. There is evidence that women attended as guests, but only infrequently and always at a low ranking place. When they arrived guests were placed in rank order on couches around the walls of the dining hall, reclining to reflect their status as being able to afford leisure time.  Slaves served food, washed guests’ hands between courses, and dealt with any drunken behaviour between guests. Dogs and uninvited guests might be tolerated, but arriving late was a taboo. Once the banquet started, no invited guest was permitted to enter.

Whether it was a religious festival, collegial gathering, association of tradespeople or funerary organisation, the format was always the same: a meal (deipnon) followed by entertainment (symposion), which often included a philosophical debate. In addition the Emperor Augustus had instituted an obligatory toast to be made to the Emperor, to reinforce his divine status and to promote cultural self-understanding as a subject of the Roman world.

During the deipnon the host would often provide food and drink, but sometimes guests would bring their own, to be distributed by servants. Portion sizes varied according to status, reinforcing the rank of each individual guest. During the symposion the guests would continue to drink and there was usually some form of musical entertainment. Often a flute girl would play, although in reality she would often double up as a courtesan. Discussions would take place on various themes, the participants would sing, and fellowship would be shared.

Radical practices for a radical new faith

Dennis Smith’s suggestion, that worship within the earliest Jesus believing communities was in the form of a symposion, has merit. At the Last Supper Jesus is the host, while the beloved disciple reclines next to him, and they share food and drink together, followed by a long period of discourse (John 13.1-26). Although this account may be more reflective of the experience of the writer than Jesus himself, that the banqueting model used in the narrative shows a familiarity with, and acceptance of, this form of commensality. Paul’s suggestion to the Corinthians that each person contribute “a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” for the upbuilding of the community, also suggests this might be the case in the earliest churches (I Cor. 14.26).

Although on the face of it the common banquet pattern was followed,  in Paul’s letters we find a model of table fellowship which radically challenged accepted norms.  From fragments of information a picture emerges of myriad groups in a number of different places, each struggling to make sense of their new faith, and work out how to practice it in their own community/ies through their eating policies and practices.

Paul is clear that in the community of Jesus believers there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, or male and female. All are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3.28). This in itself is a radical statement, for of course the Romans maintained strict control on social stratification, reinforced by banqueting practices.

When Paul challenges the Corinthian Jesus believers to wait until all are present before they begin to eat (I Cor. 11.33-34), it implies that members who are slaves and would finish work much later than the free, would miss out on the start of the meal unless it was delayed. Although Paul’s reference to the women in Corinth talking too much is not nice (and possibly a later addition), it does at least demonstrate that they were included as full members of the eating community (I Cor. 14.34-36).

Generally Jews would not share meals with Gentiles (non-Jews), even if they were liberal enough to attend banquets at which Gentiles were present. In defining themselves as members of the ekklesia (church), the Jewish members were released from strict observance of the Torah regarding food. However, Paul asks them to be courteous to those for whom this is an issue: “if your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died (Rom. 14.2-15).  Similarly he writes to the Corinthians,”All things are lawful,” but not all things beneficial.  “All things are lawful, but not all things build up… Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (I Cor. 10.23,31).

These differences were about more than demonstrating equality among members. For in reality those who arrived as slaves left as slaves, and those who were wealthy and had hosted the meals remained so after their guests had left.  Jews remained Jewish and Gentiles remained Gentile. My suggestion is that these practices reflected an eschatological understanding of what participants were entering into by becoming part of the fellowship of believers. This was no future ideal – it was a reality they saw very much in the present.  Where Greco-Roman society promoted inequality and maintained allegiance to Rome through table fellowship, the churches did the opposite; and by so doing created and performed rituals that reinforced that identity.

Worship round the table: its relevance for today

Fast forward two thousand years, and we find worship among most Christian communities very different. Fifteen hundred years of Christendom Church practice has, in many ways, caused a sanitised version of that radical existence, with services having more in common with assemblies or public meetings than times of deep, identity-forming fellowship. Congregations might share a cuppa before or after their service – and indeed it is an important aspect of relationship formation – but I would argue that the format of traditional Sunday morning worship reflects very little of the reality of worship as described in the Bible.

As Christendom fades and a new era as yet un-named begins, that assembly-style way of receiving and taking in information feels less and less relevant as a way of attracting people and forging community.  In response to this congregations up and down the country are exploring new ways of worship – or perhaps it might be said they are returning to ancient ones.

Today’s missiologists (such as Jim Belcher and Kester Brewin for example) suggest that ‘successful’ churches are ones which offer the opportunity to form a deep relationships with God; modelling lifestyles on the example and teachings of Jesus; and allow the Holy Spirit to fire and inspire every aspect of daily lives.  What’s more, commensality is a particularly effective way to achieve this.

My experience is that table fellowship – gathering together round a table to share food and learn more about Jesus – is an exceptionally good way to do this.  Through eating and spending time together, engaging in deep conversation, and even sharing bread and wine in Remembrance of Jesus, community is formed, identity emerges, and people are literally fed, both physically and spiritually, to lead lives modelled on Jesus himself.

Further reading:

Andrew Roberts, Holy Habits: Eating Together (London, Bible Reading Fellowship)

Dennis Smith, 2003, From Symposion to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World, (Kindle version from Amazon)

Wayne Meeks, 2003, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (Yale University Press)

Hal Taussig, 2009, In the Beginning Was The Meal (Minneapolis, Fortress)

Mary Douglas, “Deciphering a Meal” in Clifford Geertz, 1971, Myth, Symbol and Culture (New York, Norton)

Jim Belcher, 2009, Deep Church (Downers Grove, IVP)

Kester Brewin, Signs of Emergence (London, Baker Books)