For All Who Hunger

Somewhere around 2014/15 a series of what we might call Godincidences brought St Lydia’s to my attention. I had stumbled upon a subject for my Masters’ thesis that involved sacramental theology and communal tables – and in the process discovered this “dinner church” in Brooklyn that appeared to embody much of the theology I was advocating. At the same time, a friend moved to NYC and joined the church’s staff team; another friend found themselves there sporadically when in the city… I finally made my first visit in September 2015, when over a two week break post-MA break, I managed to spend four evenings at St Lydia’s. (I wrote a very enthusiastic write up in the days when I still blogged regularly.)

I returned to St Lydia’s multiple times – my last visit was just a couple of weeks before my friend Hannah left the team to move to Toronto in January 2019. Each time, I picked up the name badge I’d written in 2015 and got stuck into to dinner conversation, washing up (always my preferred post-dinner chore) and after-church drinks. It’s also thanks to Lydians that I have a favourite karaoke/Korean food haunt in Brooklyn.

The Lydians setting up for Advent 2017

In St Lydia’s, I found a place where the meaning of the Lord’s Supper was enacted with an authenticity that felt lacking in many other churches. All were welcome at the tables; all were fed, physically & spiritually. [I have never gotten over the communion service I attended at a church in LA where in order to receive bread and wine I’d have needed to hand over documentation to prove that I was entitled to it. Not what Jesus meant people!!]

In the five years since my first Lydian encounter, I’ve pondered setting up a version of dinner church in my own context. Various things have got in the way, and now who knows what might be possible in a Covid-19 world? But the principles behind it remain inspirational.

By a stroke of luck, I managed to get onto the launch team for the release of For All Who Hunger – the story of how St Lydia’s came to be, by its founder Emily Scott. An advance e-copy of the book landed with me last month, but I’ve discovered that being a church leader in the midst of a global pandemic doesn’t allow much time for reading. So I find myself having finally read it – mostly within a single afternoon/evening – a week after it’s official launch. (Although it looks like readers in the UK can’t buy it till the end of May, so I feel marginally less guilty.)

British church culture currently seems very focused on church planting that results in large churches – particularly following the ‘resource church’ model. [Although who knows what the impact of Covid-19 will be on this? Perhaps we’ll be looking at planting lots more smaller churches….here’s hoping.] It was therefore refreshing to read Emily’s account of the slow grind in getting St Lydia’s off the ground.

“The part no one ever talks about is the humiliation. It’s humiliating to try to start a church in an aggressively secular city. To invite people to come to worship when they’ll likely think you’re unforgivably naïve, unsophisticated, uneducated, and conservative to believe in something so off-trend as God. It required divesting myself of the notion that I would ever, ever be anything resembling cool.”

For All Who Hunger isn’t a blueprint for starting up a church – every church, every leader and every community is different – but with its stories of how St Lydia’s evolved over the years, it provides examples that should inspire others. There’s common-sense relationship building – listening to people to hear what their needs are, rather than just barging in. Collaborating with the right people at the right time. Learning from those who were there first. There’s a powerful account of getting involved with Black Lives Matter and Faith in New York, told with acute awareness of white privilege. The description of the response to Hurricane Sandy hits particularly hard right now, as the world struggles to formulate a response to the pandemic. Who knows how St Lydia’s might have evolved were it not for the insight that that disaster provided?

The story of how the church evolved is told alongside (some of) the story of Emily’s own personal evolution.  As a single female church leader myself, I really appreciated Emily’s – often comedic, always realistic – insights into the perils of trying to date as a pastor! It concludes with her moving on from St Lydia’s – an important part of the journey that isn’t often told in this kind of book. St Lydia’s and Emily’s ministry continue, but in different places.

Ultimately, I’m grateful that there’s now a book I can point people towards when I tell them something of my own experience of St Lydia’s. Telling Brits to head over to the Atlantic for a Sunday or Monday night service isn’t particularly feasible, but reading this bridges that gap. It evokes so much of the atmosphere of St Lydia’s that when I finished reading late last night, I looked up from my iPad half expecting to be back in Brooklyn.

“St Lydia’s showed me abundance is a secret hidden inside of scarcity. It lives, tucked inside not-enoughness, waiting to show you that God does not do math. Abundance is discovering God’s provision right in the middle of your fret and worry.”

Women in Waiting

Today is the 20th anniversary of the ordination of the Church of England’s first female priests. Last night, I listened to a debate on whether gender is relevant in the question of church leadership, where many of the same issues and disagreements overcome in the ordination of those women arose again in the questions of women in the episcopacy and women in the Roman Catholic Church.

Prejudice against women is still very much in evidence, despite the progress that has been made. There’s still a long way to go…

The debate was part of the launch of a new book celebrating women in the church. Julia Ogilvy’s Women in Waiting: Prejudice in the heart of the church is a collection of interviews conducted with a collection of women in the church over the last year. It’s a diverse group – lay and ordained; married and single; academics; senior clergy; parish priests… and this diversity helps the book paint a broad picture of where women in the church were at during 2013.

Women in Waiting

The timing is an important factor in the book, coming just a few months after the failure of the women bishops vote in November 2012, but prior to the quick progress that has been made at the November 2013 and February 2014 General Synods. In the years to come it will be important to have a record of how people (especially women in the church) felt at that moment of time and not to lose the memory of it in what we hope will be a yes vote next time around.

Being a collection of interviews, this is not a demanding read, but it is an inspiring one. As a female ordinand, it was fascinating to read of other women’s journeys towards ordination – including the barriers they had to overcome and what encouraged them along the way. It would be a perfect book for anyone exploring a call to ministry, regardless of their gender. It also serves as an important reminder that women do not need to be ordained to have a voice in the church (Elaine Storkey’s story is particularly significant for this reason) and that those outside the Church of England can have a voice in the campaign too. Having read Baroness Helena Kennedy’s interview and heard her speak passionately last night, I am very convinced that this is important.

Personally, I was incredibly affected by Lucy Winkett’s re-telling of what she faced when she became a minor canon and chaplain at St Paul’s Cathedral. Back in 1997, when the press were covering every element of the debate regarding her appointment, I wasn’t terribly aware of what was going on. [In 1997, I was a lot more concerned with the general election; the plot of Friends; my GCSE’s; and whether Keanu was hotter than Alex James – big issues!] But, as a woman facing the fact that in a few short months I’ll be ordained and potentially facing opposition from those who are not in favour of women’s ordination, her stories provided much to think about. It wasn’t doom and gloom though – there was certainly hope, as this story shows:

“There’s another amazing story of one of the servers, Ron, who was incandescent that I was there, and he started this thing of the servers all coming up and then refusing communion… It was absolutely horrible and all done very publicly. But after five years of me being there and getting on quite well personally, something happened. It was communion one Sunday morning, with hundreds of people milling about and everyone there under the dome. And I go along the row and I’m just about to miss out Ron. And I see these little tremulous hands held out like this, so I just…I was completely overwhelmed and so was he… It was just a miracle.”

(Women in Waiting, pp.17-18)

Don’t be fooled into thinking that a collection of interviews will be theologically light though. One of the most helpful interviews was with Sarah Coakley – an ordained academic who is writing some of the most exciting systematic theology of the moment. [‘Exciting systematic theology’?? Those words belong more to my tutors than me…] I heard her speak at Heythrop College last term and struggled through a chapter of Powers and Submissions for an essay on gender – but reading her explanation of how she came to study this area of theology really gave me an insight that encourages me to get stuck into more of her work, which is definitely no bad thing!

While this isn’t a book that theologically lays out the arguments in favour of women leading in the church, [there’s an imminent book that does just this that I will blog about as soon as I’ve got hold of a copy & read it!] it is a book about women. It’s about sharing the experiences, feelings and hopes of those who have sought to overturn prejudice in the church and get on with what God has called them to do.

First Women Priests 1994The Times reports the momentous day 20 years ago. Here’s to another momentous day in the near future. 

*Disclaimer: Bloomsbury Books sent me a review copy of the book – but my views on its contents are entirely my own opinions.