We have a favourite tradition at St. George’s. It happens about once a month, and it is called Soup Sunday. There is always uproarious delight at my house when my kids discover that it’s Soup Sunday. I asked them once what they love so much about Soup Sunday, and they gave me that disbelieving look that children can shoot at their parents, the seriously, Mom? You’re not really that dumb, are you? look.
“The soup,” they answered. “Duh!”
Without diminishing the amount of work that goes into it, Soup Sunday follows a remarkably simple recipe: a bunch of different people make a bunch of different soups, a talented baker bakes some bread, we set up tables, and we sit down and eat. Everybody is welcome, and everyone contributes as they are able. It’s hard to walk away from Soup Sunday and not feel glad that you have been part of something quite special.
Since July 2016, my church of St. George’s has been in intentional conversation with Grace Anglican—the parish just a few blocks away. The city of St. Catharines has struggled with an over-abundance of Anglican churches for decades: 11 in the greater city area, which has a population of only 130,000. In January of 2015, Our Bishop asked us to begin a process of discernment across the 11 congregations. Grace is one of two courageous communities who have chosen to leave their beloved buildings in order to be part of ministry that can flourish elsewhere. On January 22nd, Grace voted overwhelmingly in favour of partnering in ministry with St. George’s at the St. George’s location (57 people comprised the special vestry, 51 voted in favour, 6 abstained). On February 5th at our Vestry Meeting, St. George’s responded in kind with a unanimous vote to welcome this partnership.
As our two parishes have talked these last months, it’s been as if I could hear Julie Andrews singing in my head: part of our ongoing refrain has been around favourite things. It has been an important part of the conversation. As Grace prepares to leave their building and as we prepare to welcome them, we need to know which parts of our community we are most eager to share—not just with one another, but out into the city and into connections with new and searching people. Interestingly, just as eating soup is important to St. George’s, so Grace has identified a number of food-related favourites that they want to share with us.
This is encouraging to me, not just because I love to eat, but because it suggests a closeness to Jesus and an intuitive grasp of what it means to be the church. Jesus, after all, formed the church based on the premise that variety is the spice of life and that God needs all sorts of different people in order to really be known among us. Jesus formed the church as a response to human hunger: each of us hungers to know God, to walk with one another, to be able to offer something meaningful to others. Jesus formed the church around the supper table. Jesus used a variety of symbols to talk about his life and ministry, but first and foremost, he came to us as a meal: bread and wine, life broke open, offered and shared.
And connected to all of the above is this revelation: Jesus commissions us to be salt. There are many meanings attached to this salt metaphor: salt is the second of two compounds needed for all life; salt preserves food; salt was integral to the fishing industry of Jesus’ day. And yet, the most important thing about salt is something we all know: salt tastes good. Salt brings food to life. Salt transforms food from a source of survival into an occasion of pleasure, into celebration, event, offering. Salt, therefore, begins with God’s action and blessing in our lives. We aren’t put here only to survive. God sets up the world in a way that is fundamentally oriented to joy. Eating is not just about fuel consumption for daily living, but also about pleasure. Food is a fundamental building block of human life. And the melding of flavour, the creation and sharing of meals is a way that, across cultures and times, we create community, we strengthen and mend friendship, and we understand ourselves as blessed.
To live as salt, then, is to be people of courage, who know that we have been blessed and that we need to share those blessings with others far and wide. To live as salt is to celebrate diversity because we know that we can bring together a whole variety of different tastes and textures, and that those flavours can meld together into something wonderful. Coming out of our vestry meeting this past Sunday and reflecting on such a remarkable outcome to the intentional process of which I have been a part—first in the city of St. Catharines, and since last summer between St. George’s and Grace—it has been the ways in which we have been able to be this courageous and generous salt that have allowed the process to work so well. Our amazing facilitator in the Grace-St. George’s conversation, Father Kevin Block, started off each meeting with prayerful reflection around pieces of scripture or inspiring saints of the church, reminding us of the real question before us:
What is it that God wants us to do?
After this centring in prayer, we also took the time to name, again, the hope and vision driving our conversation—that we were seeking a way to use resources differently so that God’s work might be deepened and expanded, that this was fundamentally about Good News: Good News that needed to be shared. The other piece that allowed for such a successful outcome was about listening, hearing, and responding. Each member of our discernment team (called The Dream Team) spent a great deal of time, both formally and informally, hearing differing voices in our parishes, addressing questions, taking those questions to our diocesan staff for help and guidance, in every way trying to honour the diverse ideas and concerns within our congregation. Paul Chapman, chair of our St. George’s Dream Team, is widely credited at St. George’s for the ‘yes’ vote because of the clear and thoughtful document he created for parish-wide distribution, giving bullet point answers to the questions we were hearing most frequently, and describing in short paragraphs the vision that led us through our conversation and the details of the proposed partnership going forward. We didn’t get the outcome we had hoped for only by hearing diverse and differing voices: a variety of opinions and ideas shaped the dream.
I breathed a sigh of relief after our vestry vote. It was a quick sigh, though. In many ways, the work has only begun. Talk is cheap, and although we have invested a lot of it, and I believe that we have done this well, now it is time for living into the vision that has led us to this point. We have two communities to bring together: thanks be to God! We also have a lot of other newcomers who need to feel both welcomed and incorporated into this wonderful thing that we are doing.
Our newly appointed Community Team met for two hours the day after vestry. Two of the people on our Community Team are from St. James—the other church in town that has left its building recently—and their input on their very recent experience of transition has been invaluable. At the same time that we focus on building one vital life-giving community, we also have a lot of paperwork demanding our attention. How will finances operate? Who will be responsible for this newly vacated building? What does Canon Law and the CRA require of us all with Grace now continuing to exist in a new location? The key will be for these questions to be attended to faithfully and carefully, but in a way that supports, rather than detracts, from the goal that everyone has named: living as one church.
The image that gives me heart is the one with which I started: Soup Sunday. A bunch of people offer a bunch of different soups, bread is baked and broken open, and something extraordinary happens. After all, to be the Salt Jesus asks us to be is to set the table and invite people to eat. It’s to fling open the doors and send out the invitations, and we don’t get to be in charge of who is going to show up. We do get to assume that what they are seeking is nourishment, not just of the body, but of the heart and soul too, and so we make sure that what is also on offer is faith and friendship and welcome and acceptance. Here is the thing I like best about Soup Sunday: it’s never the same twice. It’s never the same combination of soups. It’s never the same collection of people. The community God creates is most alive when someone new is finding their place at the table, finding a delicious feast being offered, and learning that their presence makes the flavour all the more rich for everyone.
That is what this has always been about: it’s not about Grace’s survival or St. George’s growth. It’s not about downsizing or upsizing. It’s not even about a whole community finding a new home. It’s about the hope and expectation that there are so many others out there who need to hear the invitation to find their place at the table. Please pray with me that as we go forward, God will work through the courage and hope of this moment for the sake of the banquet that is always better with one more.