God, food and me

Before Jolly Quaker, I began my blogging adventure on qicil.com, the catchily titled ‘Quaker Intentional Community in London’ blog. That blog no longer exists, and we never did start a Quaker intentional community in London, but many great conversations were had, and I wrote a few good posts. Here’s the first of a few that I think deserve a second reading, and a new home here at jollyquaker.com. This was originally posted in April 2012.

I am convinced that at the heart of a community is a shared meal. When I consider my local Quaker Meeting, we eat together only once a month, and it is always precursor to something else, never existing for its own sake. More and more I am convinced that a stranger who attends meeting for worship and leaves after tea and a biscuit has witnessed only half of the Quaker experience. Meeting for worship is not complete until the community has broken bread together, and by that I mean shared a full sit-down meal.

In another post I’ll tackle these thoughts from a theological angle [this was ‘Quakers and the Peacemeal’, also posted in April 2012], but first I want to share my own experience of combining food and religion.

Peasants_breaking_bread

Growing up in a non-religious home, I rarely came into contact with the traditional Anglican wafer and wine communion. At 14, I was offered communion and informed that I was eligible to take it, having been baptised into the Church of England as a baby. As well as being confusing, now communion was offensive. Some were welcome to eat and some weren’t. It was absurdly exclusive. I was welcome not because of any belief or commitment, I was an atheist at the time, but because I’d been given a magic sprinkling to keep my grandparents happy.

At University, now a Quaker, I participated in ecumenical services. I was still uncomfortable with communion, especially with the bread in wafer form, and felt it to be part of my Quaker witness to abstain from taking part. I still wanted to demonstrate my unity with the other worshippers so I received a blessing. I couldn’t see why everyone didn’t want a blessing – the words (from Numbers 6:24-26) were beautiful and I found the physical laying a hand on my head a powerful gesture.

After University I began my relationship with Adrian, a Christian. We ended up going to the Greenbelt festival together. The big event where everyone came together was on the Sunday morning – communion. We sat with friends of Adrian’s. They were preparing to share flapjack and juice instead of bread and wine. Over the weekend I’d begun to think that maybe this might be the moment when I’d take communion for the first time. It had begun to take on an exotic flavour and attraction, and using flapjack and juice appealed to my love of being different. It got to the part of the service to share the bread. “This is it!” I thought, “my first communion!” At that moment I had a realisation. Underneath it all I had been hoping that one day I’d be holy enough to take it. Just in time I really understood that I didn’t need the symbolic elements to experience true communion with God and other people. I didn’t eat the flapjack, I asked for a blessing instead.

Archbishop's_Chapel,_Ravenna

In the August of 2008 I encountered Sara Miles, whose books ‘Take This Bread’ and ‘Jesus Freak’ I highly recommend. The way she talked about communion in such a broad and inclusive way really caught my attention. The week after Sara and Paul, from St Gregory’s San Francisco, led a service at St Luke’s Holloway. The authenticity of the worship moved me deeply. I looked up and saw the ceiling covered with branches and the words ‘and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations’. I saw the people of God as the tree of life, with the Quakers as one branch, and myself as one of many leaves. We are for the healing of the nations. It was time for communion. We processed to the altar, encircled it and prayed. As the bread was broken, real bread, I realised I couldn’t separate myself. I had to express my unity with what had just occurred. I was given the bread and told ‘the body of Christ’, which I heard as an expression of Church unity. Feeling an overwhelming sense of God’s working through all communities passionate for peace and justice I ate the bread.

So now my attitude is that I’ll take communion if I feel moved to, which is more often than not, as a sign of hope for Church unity. The challenge for me now is how do I honour Jesus’ exhortation to remember him through food when the practice of remembering no longer exists in my Quaker community, and even eating together is rare?

[I should add that since 2012 my attitude has shifted once more. If I’m ever in a situation where I’m representing Quakers, at an ecumenical service perhaps, I wouldn’t take bread and wine communion, to honour Quaker sacramental understanding. However, if I’m ever in a worship situation where I’m present as myself and bread and wine communion is offered, I’ll always take it. I’ve come to realise that if bread and wine communion is a sign of church unity, I can’t choose to receive it only when I really like the worship. The church is messy and imperfect, just like me, and if I’m in, I’m in, both when its good and when its bad. As Dorothy Day said: ‘The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.’]

I originally noted down these thoughts in 2009, thinking of them as part of a manifesto for instituting Quaker Meeting for Eating. In my next post I will explain and explore how a shared meal both complements meeting for worship, provides new opportunities and experiences for vibrant community, and allows Christ-centred Quakers to remember Jesus in their faith community. How I long for the day when a Quaker Meeting sharing food every week is seen as a necessity and joy rather than a burden!

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6 thoughts on “God, food and me

  1. Having grown up Baptist and been baptised when I was 15, I’d only ever experienced communion with actual bread rather than wafers, until quite recently. I started participating in communion (with bread and communion-wine) when I was baptised. Since becoming a Quaker in my twenties, I participate when I feel comfortable doing so, which is more likely in circumstances where most people present don’t believe in transubstantiation. I was very moved by an ecumenical communion service at a science fiction convention earlier this year.
    I don’t feel that participating in communion is un-Quakerly; I don’t give it a special status over other ways of worship and of living as a community. I think similarly about occasional participation in other rituals that aren’t part of regular Quaker practice.
    I do think that coming together to eat is very important.
    Looking forward to your next post!

  2. Thanks for your thought provoking blog, mark.

    At my local Meeting, we have breakfast before the monthly children’s meeting. There is a lunch on another Sunday but that’s preceded by an hour talk/presentation that is directed at adults. So, it doesn’t work well for families. Furthermore many families have only one parent who is a Quaker, so they rush home after worship for Sunday family lunch. From these realities, developed the shared Breakfast meal. When “real coffee” (not instant) was served, the Friends attending grew substantially!

    At Tottenham Meeting (not my local but which I attend) we have a bring and share on the Sunday after Children’s Meeting. It’s a lovely, relaxed couple hours of chat and eating. It is a special time.

    An elderly Friend said to me, sometime ago, “When there was a visitor, it was common for a Friend to invite this new person to their home for lunch. That doesn’t seem to happen much anymore.” So, when a visitor came one Sunday I invited the person to my home for a simple lunch of bread and salad. No surprise: it was a wonderful experience.

    My kitchen is much more used than our living room by visitors. The kettle goes on and we rarely seem to move on. Often tea becomes a meal…

    Thanks for sharing, Mark. I, too, wish there could be weekly shared meals after Meeting for Worship but with busy lives, unforgiving school home work schedules and too many commitments many find a weekly shared meal a challenge. Lucky you to have shared meals every day at Woodbrooke!

    In friendship, AJ

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Augene. You’re right that integrating table fellowship into the life of a worshipping community needs to happen in a way that works for the whole group. One size won’t fit all. I love your example of the shared breakfast meal with the all-important real coffee.

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