God, food and me - my journey with communion

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, but first I want to share my own experience of combining food and religion.

 

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.

 

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 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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Comment by Forrest Curo on 4th mo. 3, 2012 at 5:16pm

Sarah Miles is a good one to read!!!

But the meaning of 'feast' is different for people who can count on eating routinely.

The Clerk of my Meeting often brings baked goodies of various kinds... and I like being able to tell newcomers: "These are good. David over there makes them." But too much food, too few eaters, and we've put up our Meeting building far too distant from parts of the city where you'd find many people hungry. It just becomes another occasion for my greed to run away with me.

The kind of 'symposium' meal that Jesus enjoyed with his followers... which also became the approved dining style for celebrating Passover... involved more than eating together and feeling part of the gang. What makes a meal... a setting where serious religious discussion is not just allowed, but welcomed?

Comment by Alice Yaxley on 4th mo. 4, 2012 at 3:06am

Ah yes! Great post Mark Russ. I get a lot of support through a meal-and-prayer group my daughter and I go to one evening a week. We cook together and pray and eat, and I hear you about the importance of eating together.That group is great because cooking together gives great opportunities for christian discipling - sharing the struggles of our everyday lives and sharing the work of putting that into christian context and working out what God is teaching us.

I think perhaps Quaker practice has got a bit broken over the last century or so - if we look backwards then I get the impression that a lot of the substance of christian practice and discipling was done in the family (and extended family - including apprentices, employees, domestic servants and so on)  meetings for worship at home usually in the morning, which of course were part of the household routine which included eating together as well, with habitual practices of grace to connect eating with spiritual life. So maybe the public Meetings for Worship once or twice a week, though important, weren't so much the centre of community that they become when isolated Quakers only meet there.

Best wishes with finding folks to worship and eat together with regularly.

Comment by Mark Russ on 4th mo. 4, 2012 at 5:40am

Thanks for you comment Forrest. This morning I read Jesus' words 'For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them' [Mark 14.7] and thought, well my Meeting is a very wealthy area of London, some of us owning houses bigger than the Meeting House, and are the poor with us? Are we with the poor? I would love to see a Quaker community house set up in one of the 'forgotten places of the empire'. My next post will pick up on some of things you've mentioned.

Thanks Alice for your insights. With so many Quakers being the only Quaker in their household, and Quakers travelling outside their local neighbourhood to get to Meeting, there is a greater demand that Meeting House life should be a model for domestic discipleship. Some Meetings and other Churches do this very well, other Meeting Houses have become 'steeple houses' in all but name. If the building was destroyed, would the worshipping community survive?

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