My trip to the States was essentially a “hooray for finishing my MA, let’s have a well deserved break” kind of holiday. It had been nearly 3 months since ordination and life had been pretty full-on, with getting to know Christ Church, my MA thesis and a freelance research project. It was to be a time for R&R and a complete break from life in London.
One might have assumed that that would mean a break from churches – but no. In fact, in my first 24 hours in NYC I managed to spend time in four different churches! Out of 7 nights spent in the city, five were spent participating in some kind of church activity. This is possibly what one might call a bus man’s holiday, but in my defence not only did it result in new friends, it also gave me a really interesting insight into the issues at the forefront of churches in this part of the US – from LGBT rights and inclusion, to race and church segregation – which was fascinating to reflect upon, comparing with the UK.
My first stop, having landed at JFK and taken the A-train into Brooklyn, was a church – St Lydia’s to be precise – where Hannah (my host) works and which had been cited in the MA thesis I’d handed in just ten days previously. It is a community that enacts one of the most fascinating acts of Eucharist (communion) that I’d ever participated in. Having read a lot about it and heard many stories from Hannah (and a member of Matryoshka Haus who’d recently got to know it too) it was high on my list of places to visit in NYC!
My thesis was on the subject of how the Church of England could make Eucharist more a part of the mission of the church, and hospitable in the way that (I and others argue) Jesus and Paul intended it to be. St Lydia’s seemed to me to be a brilliant embodiment of this. Every Sunday and Monday night, the community comes together for ‘dinner church’ in its store front home, where the communion is celebrated around a table to which all are welcome. The elements (the bread and the wine) are shared in the context of this meal, and it aims to foster the genuine inclusivity of the Kingdom of God.
I was expecting to be fascinated by the service – I did not expect, over the course of such a short space of time, to be so embraced by a community who were all but strangers to me. I could wax lyrical about the meals, but for starters, I just want to highlight a few things that really struck me.
- Dinner Church is essentially sung Eucharist. Simple songs were taught and repeated (and clearly repeated week in and week out, so many knew them well) as part of the liturgy. They were accompanied by a box accordion and simple drumming that might to a stranger seem indicative of ‘hipster Brooklyn’, but were in fact just instruments that really fitted the context.
- There was a healthy respect for the elements and an elevation of the Eucharist’s role within the community. This is exactly what my thesis was trying to get at – all too easily in the CofE we can make Eucharist a part of worship that we do without thinking, or in some circles, do too infrequently. Here it’s at the centre and drives the life of the community. It is at the table where relationships are formed and lives shared – it was the truest ‘foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet’ I have yet experienced on earth.
- Name tags might seem cheesy, but at St Lydia’s I was touched by the impact they can have upon building relationships. A name tag enables you to offer your neighbour the bread or wine using their name – which I think has a profound effect upon the act. [I am still in awe of a college tutor who would give the bread using the name of the recipient at college worship, I watched him get the names of over 50 people correct!!] It also meant that people would readily start a conversation with “So Liz, how have you ended up here?” – perhaps helped by American confidence, but use of someone’s name helps them to really feel at home. (Plus my name tag went into a box ready to be used on subsequent visits…)
- People really were open to sharing their life stories with one another. After the short sermon was a time of response, related to the topic. British me was surprised at how keen people were to share personal information and stories to a group that would always include some who were unknown to them. Even more incredibly, by Dinner Church number 3, I was willing to share too! [Also, have you ever heard a sermon where the response was to design a tattoo??]
I’ve brought home with me lots of ideas – for church, for my ministry and for Matryoshka Haus. In the case of the latter, it was the very practical divvying up of tasks when cleaning up after dinner! Washing up or fixing tables not only means everyone is sharing responsibility for the task, but also provides great getting-to-know you opportunities. I would love to try this kind of service myself, in some form, once I’m priested next summer. It’s also confirmed to me that ideas I included in my thesis are possible! The church just needs to get a little bit more creative.*
St Lydia’s isn’t just dinner church – there’s a new ‘waffle church’ (a version of messy church where stickiness is definitely an end result) and a vespers service, as well as one-off talks and community events. My final New York evening was spent listening to Phyllis Trible lecture on feminist theology – which I’m sure is everyone’s idea of an excellent way to spend one’s last night in the Big Apple! Whatever, I enjoyed it! I also loved being made to feel so welcome by Emily and Julia and everyone else who makes up the community there – especially the one evening when out of a gathering of 24 people, four of us were Elizabeths or Lizs!
If the long-term plan to do a PhD is realised, and I base it upon the groundwork I’ve done through my MA, I’m vaguely hopeful of spending some more time with St Lydia’s in the future, but until then, thank you guys! It was a real joy.
*On the subject of my thesis, I realise I’ve not said anything much about it. To be honest, as I’m still at the “Argh! It’s probably all rubbish!” stage of awaiting my grade, it’s not a great time to go into much detail. But its official title was: ‘Communion Table or Communal Table. What can Anglican practice of the Eucharist learn from the communal table of the missional community?’ Suffice to say, I now know a surprising amount about certain sections of Canon Law…