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Give us a quiche, and other church offerings

22 March 2024

Hospitality should be central to churches’ theology — even the dreaded bring-and-share lunch, says Fergus Butler-Gallie


ON 17 February 1763, the Revd James Woodforde accepted hospitality from the Chaplain of New College, Oxford. The Chaplain provided Woodforde and his friend with “roasted tongue and udder”. “N.B.”, the great clerical diarist wrote, “I shall not dine on a roasted tongue and udder again very soon.”

Despite having had such gastronomic creativity inflicted on him, the great clerical diarist remained an avid enjoyer of hospitality throughout his life. Indeed, what Woodforde seemed to enjoy even more than receiving hospitality was dispensing it. He was a consummate host. When it came to entertaining, he always sought to give of his best: he relates how, at Christmas 1764 — the year after Uddergate — he made sure to provide 30 lb of “fine beef” and three large plum puddings for his Christmas party. The guests treated to this feast, however, were not the great and the good, but 15 poor elderly people from his parish.

There were others to whom Woodforde was less keen on offering his hospitality — notably, the clergy. The visit of the appalling Mr Bridges, a priest-vicar of Wells Cathedral who “made himself very disagreeable and exposed himself much”, was a particular low point. Yet, still, even after his behaviour, Woodforde saw him off with a breakfast. When Mr Bridges finally returned to Wells after this, unlikely to return, our hero noted: “I am not sorry for it.”

Woodforde is rarely thought of as a great theologian. That’s unfortunate — although I did know of one priest who used to read the parson’s diary as a Lent book each year. Woodforde has much to teach us about rootedness and pastoral care. But, above all, he has much to teach us about hospitality. To him, it wasn’t just something that he did, but a part of his vocation. Woodforde’s hospitality is theological.

And hospitality is something that we ought to think about theologically. After all, it is at the heart of the gospel. In St Luke’s Gospel, this is more than just a metaphor. “Throughout Luke, Jesus is either coming from, going to, or actually at dinner,” the Revd Benjamin Bell informs me. He is the Rector of St George the Martyr, Southwark, where hospitality has been in the brickwork for nearly 1000 years. It is a good fit: Fr Bell had a previous life in the hospitality industry; and his wife still works in it.

“We” — Fr Bell says of St George’s — “are at the top of a ladder of little streets filled with coaching inns.” The most famous was, of course, the Tabard, where Chaucer’s pilgrims set out for the shrine of St Thomas Becket. There, Fr Bell explains, those departing London were given food and a good night’s sleep to steel them for the journey, while those arriving were given the same by way of a welcome after days of wearying travel.

St George’s provided a spiritual nourishment and welcome alongside the more practical hospitality provided by the inns. Now, many of the inns are gone. St George’s remains, providing both spiritual and physical refreshment. The Prayer Book’s Comfortable Words spring to mind as a good encapsulation of the purpose of Christian hospitality. It is our job to live up to Christ’s words: “Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

AT St George’s, as with Woodforde, hospitality and the refreshment that it brings are a two-way street. The church runs a food co-operative in its crypt, designed to provide food to those in need and to minimise food waste. In 2023, they served 10,000 customers, and saved 42,000 kilos of food waste from going to landfill. All sorts of people come, paying what they can. For some, this means that that they pay nothing at all.

One such family who took advantage of the hospitality offered were Christians who had fled persecution in Pakistan. The hospitality offered with food was transformed into a hospitality of worship, too. Now, with their children, they attend St George’s every Sunday, bringing tangible new life. “They’ve refreshed us much more than we refreshed them,” Fr Bell tells me.

Of course, it isn’t only through initiatives such as pantries and foodbanks that the Church is involved in hospitality. There are as many expressions of Anglican hospitality as there are Anglican expressions of liturgy or worship. What is parish visiting but the clergy enabling the laity to put hospitality into practice?

The Rector of Liverpool was adamant that it was, and so, as a new curate, I was dispatched to visit, receiving hospitality of different sorts, from a hot drink to meals of many courses. All of them gave me something. A cup of tea and a malted-milk biscuit might seem a very long way from Jesus’s surprising a nude Peter with a demand for a fish supper on the shores of Galilee in John 21, but, in both, the offer of food and welcome became ways in which Jesus was encountered.

There are more formalised instances of hospitality, of course, than either the cup of tea or the biblical barbecue. I write this in Lent, when Lent lunches — vegetarian soup, cheese, and an improving talk — still feature in the seasonal offering of many churches. I have found ours particularly edifying, because we do them jointly with other denominations: Christian hospitality acts as a unifying force that doctrine cannot be.

For some, however, these are more penitential events. I recall my training incumbent’s annual horror at the “simple supper” hosted on Maundy Thursday: “neither simple, nor a supper”.

Then there is the “Safari Supper”, much loved to help new members of a church meet existing ones. This is when different homes each host a different course, which results in congregants’ stumbling through the dark to find their pudding. When I was the assistant chaplain at a school, it was a great feature among the staff. The pupils were always desperate to catch their teachers in the unforgivable act of having a social life. Cue my senior colleague — who had (successfully) bet the rest of the department that he could spread the affectation of emphasising the final syllable of “Safari” so that it rhymed with “eye” — and I being papped and then doing the rounds on Snapchat as we left the cricket pavilion with a glass of wine in hand.

PERHAPS the most iconic and widely spread of the classic instances of church hospitality is the pot-luck supper, or bring-and-share lunch. These are not limited to the Established Church; there are Methodists who refer to the practice as a “Jacob’s Join”, which rather wonderfully refers to the hospitality extended by Joseph to his father and brothers in Genesis 46.

The bring-and-share lunch has become ubiquitous, however, in the whole Church of England, when previous unifying factors, such as the Book of Common Prayer, or the Articles of Religion, or the parish system, have become treated as optional extras for us recondite and embarrassing few who still love them.

AlamyThe Parson Brewed the Punch by John Arthur Lomax (1857-1923), which is in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Despite their ubiquity, even these lunches can stir up some good, solid C of E controversy. I recall that the biggest argument that I ever became embroiled in on the website formerly known as Twitter was about what has to be in a classic C of E buffet. Meals to which everyone brings a dish are great features; London’s required jollof was met with the compulsory pies of Lancashire, and the necessity of pasties in the West Country did battle with the submissions from the diocese in Europe, which resembled the menu of a round-the-world, all-you-can-eat buffet. Pot luck, indeed.

Being the sort of person who would willingly order the entire menu to try a little of everything, I am very fond of pot-luck suppers and/or bring-and-share lunches. I am aware that many of the clergy are not. Special favour shown to a particular dish by the clergy can cause ripples of animosity which last for years.

One cleric told me of a lunch at which three separate quiches Lorraines were brought, and he was expected to have tranches of all three, with the extra expectation that one would prove finer than the others. “There’s not been that much fuss over Lorraine since the Franco-Prussian War,” he said.

Accepting hospitality can be a minefield for clergy: favouritism, boundaries, and sheer amounts of time (and food) all rear their heads as difficulties. I know incumbents for whom The Vicar of Dibleys infamous four-Christmas-lunches episode is not comedy at all, but closer to a documentary.

CHURCH hospitality can cause controversy in other ways. In 2011, the US State of Minnesota brought in “The Church Lady’s Law”, after a spate of accidental poisonings at church events. Under it, while church picnics and suppers and other acts of Christian hospitality are exempt from the usual laws governing food safety, at least one member of a church volunteer team must have a food-safety certificate, and check that the food served is fit for human consumption. One wonders how Woodforde’s udder would have fared.

One can see why there was some resistance to the idea that church events should be subject to the same rules as the hospitality industry. Unlike restaurant fare, church food itself is very rarely the central point of hospitality. Even in those instances when providing food and support is the original purpose of a hospitality initiative, they very rarely remain as the sole purpose. In my own parish, a little town in Oxfordshire, we have the Cornerstone, which operates out of the old Corner House, once the closest Charlbury got to a town hall.

What began as a surplus-food initiative has since become a place where people in the town — church and non-church — will come to chat or mingle, to pick up excess food, or to volunteer time and effort to those who need support as varied as food bags, signposting to support services, help with buying school uniform and shoes, or with paying energy bills, or just a listening ear.

The initiative is run by our parish administrator, Jo Paton. I am not the only one who would be lost without Jo’s efforts. More than 25 households in the town, which has a population of a little under 3000, rely on the Cornerstone for support. As ever, it isn’t just about food: one family who came first for help with food and fuel bills were subsequently also linked into our warm space and soup lunch, which ran from January to March.

Hospitality meant a warm meal, warm space, and, crucially, company. Yet, as at Borough, the two-way nature of the support given is clear. As I packed cod goujons into a freezer a few weeks ago, a fellow volunteer told me that they felt they got at least as much back from being there as they gave. At the heart of Cornerstone is a desire to be a reminder, in an ever more atomised world, that we are not alone.

And therein lies the particular genius of Christian hospitality. All these types of hospitality, as well as those done by churches up and down the nation and not listed above, are all nice in their own way.

All could be done by well-meaning atheists — although I note that the British Humanist Association is yet to step up to the plate in this regard. The principal point of Christian hospitality, however, whether as a symbol of the Church’s status as a family or as a gift given by that family to the outside world, is not simply to “be nice”. Rather, it is to give and to receive. It is to enter into something that is bigger than ourselves, and, above all else, it is to embody the commandments and the love of Jesus Christ. That was clearly what inspired Woodforde to be hospitable, even to Mr Bridges.

HOW does the Church embody the spirit of Woodforde — and the message of Jesus — when it comes to hospitality today? Well, from Cornerstone to Borough to Galilee, the idea that we might encounter Christ in the sharing of food and hospitality is not only theologically evident: it is also clearly still happening. But what does the future hold for such instances of holy hospitality?

The Revd Jayne Manfredi has written movingly about how much we rely on a certain gender and a certain generation to do much of the hospitality of the Church. The name of the legislation in Minnesota did not come from nowhere: it is the church ladies who are, Ms Manfredi says, “patiently, diligently showing us who Jesus is, through the gifts of hospitality, dependable presence, and many tiny acts of care, repeated over and over again through years of loyal service to God”. For much of the recent past, the rest of the Church has essentially outsourced acts of Christian hospitality to this holy legion of matriarchs.

“Every Candlemas,” she writes, “I light a candle for Anna. For Rosina. For Margaret. For Joyce. For Di.” We all know women like them — perhaps remember a well-earned chastisement from them, or wish we’d asked them for a recipe for that casserole, or those biscuits. What will happen to the Church’s ability to be hospitable when they are gone?

THERE are plenty of ways in which Britain is returning to the 18th century, and perhaps, as in the age of Woodforde, the ball may yet be back in the clergy’s court. Fr Bell reflects on the particular privileges that the clergy have, and how they might be put to work for the Kingdom: “I asked a wise priest how to grow a church. He replied simply ‘Throw parties’ — he was right. But that brings me on to a more pointed matter: clergy housing is a function of our call to be hospitable, not a symbol of our privilege.”

In an age in which the conventional thinking about clergy housing is that it should be small and private, this is radical thinking. But then radical thinking has always — or, rather, ought to have always — shaped Christian practice when it comes to hospitality. As we rush to flog assets, have we really thought about the consequences for hospitality?

For Fr Bell, clerical housing, especially in urban areas, “is a daunting yet expansive opportunity. I, for one, have found that throwing parties at the rectory — be that Christmas, Epiphany, pancakes, or a simple summer barbecue with gallons of punch — is a strategy missing in many a canon missioner’s box of tricks, but more connected to the life of our Lord than any of the prescriptive church-growth courses touted around the C of E.”

I think back to Woodforde. I am serious when I say he ought to be remembered annually in the Church’s calendar. Lists of dinners and drinks might not seem to signify sacrificial living, but, of course, they do. To offer up three of those things that we consider most sacred — food, time, and home — and to give them over for the benefit of others is intensely Christlike — a prefiguring, no less, of the Kingdom of heaven, of which Jesus taught. I think of Woodforde again, at the heavenly banquet with his Lord and Saviour, his little Georgian heart delighted that they don’t serve udder.

It is that sense of a warm-up for the Kingdom of God, of course, which is the theological heart of all Christian hospitality. Wherever it happens — in crypts or rectories or cricket pavilions — it is supposed to be mimetic of the greatest feast of all.

In her excellent essay “Bring and Share: The urban eucharist, Mandy Ford writes about how that most Anglican of lunches mirrors the Sacrament. Feeding others is what the actual Body of Christ does, and so it ought to be the thing that the Church as the body of Christ seeks to do as well. Everyone comes, called to bring their own particular gifts, and everyone, as that great hymn “The Church’s one foundationreminds us, “Partakes one holy Food”.

It becomes an extension of the principles of the eucharist, and thereby a practical application of lives transformed by grace. So it is, in both the Kingdom and at the lunches in the vineyard which foreshadow it, that, if you come in at the very last minute, and you’ve forgotten to bring something, you’re still welcome. Indeed, you’re welcome even if you bring udder.

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