This week I attended the Spring Convocation of Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. In addition to the exceptional preaching of Jeremiah Wright (just doesn’t get better!) we had presentations that centered in one way or another on Food and Faith.
In one of the sessions Christopher Grundy, professor of Liturgics and Homiletics and Dean of the Chapel, shared the fruit of his sabbatical labor. During past months he has been exploring the role of food and meals with the earliest Christian communities, those referenced in the New Testament but also those in the first few centuries. Liturgical scholars often refer to the Christian meal experience that evolved into what we now call communion or the eucharist as “proto-communion,” that which led to what became communion.
Hallmarks of the earliest strand of the tradition included: communal worship gatherings around a complete, however simple meal; food brought by congregants; a symbolic/liturgical moment during the meal that included a recitation of the words of institution in the last supper, prayers and songs; and gathering up the leftovers to take to those who could not attend and the poor.
This last feature – going out with the bread/wine/food – is an interesting hybrid of what we now might call home communion and meals on wheels!
The closest analogy to our present day experience would be the pot-luck church supper. Everyone gathers, brings parts of the meal, and shares it together. The difference would be that the pot-luck would be the worship – just by adding features of worship to it, i.e., song, prayer,scripture, testimony, Jesus’ words about the bread and wine.
During Grundy’s sabbatical research he visited numerous communities of faith centered around just that, a meal. One of the most interesting ones was St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn, New York. With its simple beginning of twelve people meeting in a home, it has grown to two twenty-five person meal sections that meet in rented space. That meal format and sacramental sharing is their worship and community life rolled into one.
Other communities make a special point of gathering outside to eat in a city center, distributing food to the hungry while eating and worshiping together. At least one dinner church encourages its members to always invite those outside the community to dinner so that strangers might become friends.
It like it. The model, of course, is limited by the size of the community, but that’s okay. You’re not going to use a dinner church model when you have one thousand congregants that gather at the same time in one space (or are you?). That’s one reason the early Christian house church model of the first few centuries changed when Christianity became the religion of the realm under Constantine. They became a church of empire that met in large public spaces. What was an original real meal became a symbolic one.
This reminds me very much of the slow church movement and the way it insists we slow ourselves down in the community to plunge into it more deeply. One of the most counter-cultural and spirit-filled things we can do today is flee from “McChurch.” And Dinner Church, like Slow Church and maybe even the early table fellowship Jesus shared with disciples and diverse people from the community, may provide one of the answers.