Powerful People: John Allen and Lenten "At Table."

This is an occasional column on powerful people doing powerful things. The Church of the 1950′s is done and dead. People talk about how the Church needs to change. This column highlights people living that change now through creative thoughts, methods, and endeavors. In sharing stories of power people,  I hope that radical change and the dismantling of domination is seen as having unlimited possibilities.John Allen grew up in Needham, MA, graduated from Davidson College in North Carolina and received his Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in 2013. He is currently a Pastoral Resident at Wellesley Village Church and ordained in the UCC. John spent a lot of time in James Chapel, the liturgical laboratory at Union, and thrives on liturgy that takes us full throttle into the heart of the Biblical narratives.  While at Davidson, John was Pilgrims summer intern in 2008 or 2009---I can't remember what year. Below John shares his experience of liturgy "At Table."

Christian worship, even in its more modern forms, tends to be unidirectional. Classic architecture dictates all participants facing the front, more recently communities are making a shift toward worship in the round facing a center point. Neither of these arrangements however allow truly erode the sense of authority and sacredness having a fixed location which others face from a distance.

At Village Church we have begun gathering for worship around tables. This “At Table” worship service happens in the evening, over a meal, and invites participants to make worship at each of their tables. Bread and juice are set out in the center of each table and participants eat food and share conversation with one another, blessing and sharing the elements at each table and having sacred conversations about ordinary life.

At Table is a model for Christian worship with its roots in the early Christian meal. Jesus’ first followers did not meet in churches, while their movement was fledgling and their numbers small, they met in each other’s homes, or in rented rooms, for dinner. Gathering in ‘supper-clubs’ was a common form of meeting in Roman society. All the ship-builders in a city might have had a weekly dinner meeting, or all those who worshiped Dionysius. So also, the ‘Jesus people’ had their weekly dinner.

Whether religious or not, all these meals followed a familiar pattern. Guests would gather, say a blessing, and eat having informal conversations with those around them, about their day, their lives, and probably a good bit of gossip.

Agape Meal in Ancient Christian Life
Agape Meal in Ancient Christian Life

After a time, the host would rise and bless a cup of wine, sometimes as an offering to emperor, or some other deity. In the case of the first Christians, this cup was offered in memory of Jesus.

After that, attention would turn away from eating and toward the “symposium,” a time of conversation on a specific topic. This might be a time when one of Paul’s letters would be read or a story about Jesus told and the guests would discuss and debate long into the night.

Many ancient ‘supper clubs’ were quite homogenous. Those who attended these meals all worked together and were often all from the same ethnic group. Early Christian meals however seemed to break some of those trends. People from all walks of life ate together, and it seems possible that women’s leadership was recognized more in these gatherings than in other spaces.

It was this sort of radical inclusion that often got Christians in trouble in the ancient world. They were accused of being an unruly bunch who were bad for Roman society because they would not follow social norms. Hence the common accusation hurled at Jesus in the gospels “he eats with sinners.”

It is remarkable how many well-known Biblical stories take place around meals and it is telling that the central sacrament of our faith is the sharing of bread and wine. In recognition of this Hal Taussig and Janet Walton at Union Theological Seminary have developed a modern Christian worship service called “At Table” which seeks to bring the spirit of these earliest Christian gatherings to life for us today.

The service we do at Village Church is our own adaptation of their work.

What we have learned doing this worship at Village Church is that stripping away pretensions and formality around worship creates a space for profoundly genuine experiences of God and one another. By dispensing with vestments, fixed roles, a singular table, and polished forms of speaking and prayer, worshippers are invited to meet God as they are, and to witness each other having that experience.

There are plenty of awkward moments in the service.

  •  Storytellers often stand up to talk and struggle to quiet the room down.
  • Sometimes uproarious laughter at one table impinges on a painful story being told at another.
  • Sometimes people pouring grape juice into their glasses pour too much, and they have to pour from their glass into someone else's to be sure that all have some.

These are the moments I love in the service because the people of God are asked to be improvisational in navigating a shared sacred experience. Worship is a rehearsal for life. The more choreographed forms of Eucharistic worship in our community may instill us with a sense of God’s abundance and abiding presence, but they do not quite help us practice the bumpiness of communal life.

Gathering At Table we learn that we encounter God as we navigate our interactions with one another through humor, grace, laughter, and honesty.

As we go forward, I wonder how we could bring more spontaneity into our time together. For now we plan who will lead different moments, who will tell a story, what songs we will sing, who will cook dinner for everyone. The one thing we never plan is who will do the dishes, but people stay, often because they want to linger over a conversation, or simply because they are faithful disciples.

I often wonder if we might carry that trust to other areas of a service. What would it look like if we did away entirely with roles and entrusted the yearnings of the community to lead us through our time together? What if we asked folks to bring a bit of something to share and trusted that we would be well fed? What if we heard someone’s story and said, that’s the one we all need to hear, stand up and tell it again.