OUR town has an annual food festival that is attended by more than 20,000 people. Despite its position at the centre of the marketplace, the church had previously been hidden in plain sight — to residents and visitors alike. Opening up the church and adding “holy feeding” to the food-festival programme was an ideal opportunity to invite the community in, to reveal the holy feasts that God has provided.
Our “Holy Feast” within the food festival is now an annual event. We have used it to bridge the gap between church and businesses, and invited them to be part of the displays. We wanted to honour the fact that they were integral to the town, and to bless their service to the community. We also invite schools to take part, and their work, too, contributes to the creative and colourful displays.
About ten weeks before the original event, we asked people from churches and other Christian communities to be part of an ideas-sharing and prayer evening. A core group of about 15 people turned up, most of whom had never met before — let alone worked together! In the course of this evening, and through prayer, we all heard God speaking to us in similar ways.
All of those who turned up had different skills and talents. Some were good with displays; others were wonderful at communicating with business owners.
Some had links with schools; some were particularly knowledgeable about feasts in the Bible; others were talented at woodwork, or skilled with flowers. And those who were food specialists ranged from retired bakers and chefs to a dietician.
Tasks were delegated accordingly, encouraging, empowering, and affirming people’s abilities; and much of it was left to trusting each other — and trusting God — that this would all come together on the day. . . which, amazingly, it did.
Durham County Council (the festival organisers) agreed to our proposal to invite the Bishop to open the festival with the leader of the Council, and to bless it.
WE TREATED the church as a huge event space, utilising pews and re-appropriating parts of the church. The font area became a prayer space. The choirstalls became a wonder-filled, joyful area for storytelling for young children.
Wooden slats and dressed boards were made and placed over the tops of pews, which were suddenly transformed into display and counter areas. Through the various displays, we brought Bible stories to life. Our “Holy Feasts” displays comprised breads and wine, oils, and displays of Passover and Seder meals; the Last Supper and holy communion; Good Friday and Easter foods.
A “Feasts for the Hungry” stall featured Fairtrade products for sale, and a foodbank took donations of food for people in crisis. Highlighting the reduction of food waste is intrinsic to the Christian message of responsible stewardship of, and thankfulness for, God’s provision; and REfUSE — a café from Durham — displayed food and produce that would otherwise have been thrown away for visitors to take away and use.
WE PUT Jesus front and centre of all we do, and the Cross is at the heart of our display. The first year, we created the Bread of Heaven, the Bread of Life; and a ten-foot-tall cross, elevated above the pews, was covered with bread rolls to represent the physical body on the Cross, and wound in red ribbon to symbolise the veins in the human body of Jesus.
The second year, the Cross was suspended in the chancel, rising above the altar with pulsating white and red rope-lights, drawing attention to the pain of Jesus’s death on the Cross. On either side of it was a display of his first miracle — the changing of water into wine — and the final miracle of an empty tomb.
In both years, the Cross has had a huge impact on visitors. Many have just stood and stared at it in awe and wonder.
BEFORE opening the door in the first year, we prayed. We prayed that, just as Jesus had — with his disciples — fed the five thousand, so five thousand people might come through the church doors over the course of the weekend. God’s answer to our prayer surpassed our expectations: we had five thousand in a single day, and ten thousand over the course of the weekend.
What was unexpected for many of us was not only how many people walked into the church, but how glad they were to see it open, and how pleased to be able to look around. So many were surprised at being welcomed — whether they had dogs on leads, chips in hand, or inquisitive children. Many children spent a long time in church, which pleased and surprised their parents.
During the busiest time of the day, the rain came down so suddenly that the church became a haven for everyone to eat their lunch in. It was an unexpected joy to see the church full: a sort of sanctuary-seeking, if only from the rain.
Because we made it a high priority to engage with the town and county councils, with schools, and with businesses around the town, publicising our shared interests, everyone was eager for — and delighted with — our success. We also made a point of introducing ourselves to festival stallholders and wishing them well, so that they were all happy to direct their customers to visit the Holy Feast.
A bonus benefit is how this new endeavour has changed the way in which Christians and churches of all denominations in our town feel about one another, and how we care about one another’s situations. It has changed our local Churches Together relationships, and we are now praying together and sharing hospitality, not only on holy days, as in Lent or on Good Friday, but frequently and regularly.
The most surprising thing was how, in that first year, we all trusted each other, trusted in the vision of the whole event, and trusted that we would all undertake our allotted tasks; and it was inspiring to see how each person’s skills and talents then shone through.
After the event, everyone who had been part of the planning, the creative process, and the collaboration had a debriefing meal together. We found this incredibly useful, not only as a way of having fellowship and celebrating what we had achieved, but also as a way of reviewing the event and feeding back to each other about how it had gone.
At the debrief meal in 2017, after the first “Holy Feast”, we decided that some of the displays had been too wordy; so we’ve now looked at how to make the posters explaining the displays more succinct, and to present them in a fount and language that all ages can understand.
Charlie Scott-King is a member of the Holy Feasts team of St Anne’s, Bishop Auckland, in the diocese of Durham. The Revd Eileen Harrop is Priest-in-Charge of Gainford and of Winston, and Entrepreneurial Priest in Bishop Auckland.
This year’s Bishop Auckland Food Festival will be held on 13 and 14 April 2019. www.bishopaucklandfoodfestival.co.uk
TO THINK ABOUT:
*Gather your team: this is an opportunity to draw people from other churches, charities, and initiatives.
*Welcome: have a team of cheery, outgoing people, as well as watchful, sensitive ones to welcome visitors.
*Think outside the box: consider how you might use the space inside the church, and what’s already there that could be utilised or adapted.
*Enlist as many people as you can to help with the setting up and taking down of the event, and allow time for the pre- and post-event tasks.
*Health and safety: make sure you have no trailing wires or trip hazards, or head-height corners that children might run into.
*Make the space as user-friendly as you can — for people in wheelchairs, or parents with children and pushchairs, or simply those new to a church environment.
*Music helps to create an atmosphere, and puts at ease those who feel that they should whisper.
*Take photos, and enjoy visitors’ taking selfies. Photos posted on Facebook or other social media during the event encourage more people to come along.