I recently went to visit Tatton Park for the first time. I've been reluctant to visit because you have to pay for the car park (if you trace my ancestry back I come from both Yorkshire AND Scotland), but it was worth it - a beautiful place to visit.
What made it even more worth it was an exhibition called 'Guardian Angels' by the artist Cristina Rodrigues. Rodrigues is a Portugese born, Manchester based artist and a lecturer in Architecture. Her art installations use objects that were simply functional and sometimes obsolete and she gives them an artistic identity. Her art tells the story of and celebrates the role of women as keepers of cultural traditions. The art tells the story of those women, interwoven with her own stories.
The art installation at Tatton Mansion was inspired by the room in which each piece stood - where the stories of the people who lived in the mansion were in conversation with the modern day stories that had inspired the artist.
One piece that fascinated me was called 'Dining at the Heart'. The table was donated by an Iranian family who had replaced it with a table from Ikea. The description of the piece explains how it is reflecting on the fact that we now spend less time gathered round the table which once stood in the heart of our homes. The red ribbons are like blood - energy lines that bring life and tell a story. The ceramic hearts connected by the ribbons show how we connect to one another. The piece was in the kitchen of the mansion - the kitchen as the heart of the house making the house a home.
I'm currently thinking about what to do for my MA dissertation, and whenever somebody asks me I often reply 'something to do with food'. It's not because I love food and cooking (which I do, clearly) but because I believe that gathering around the table with food is vitally important to the building of Christ-centred community and is a practice that began with the early Christian communities we read about in the New Testament as they gathered, broke bread and shared lives together.
I've seen how food draws people together. I've seen how food inspires us to talk. I've seen how eating together before our church meeting enhances the conversation. I've seen that gathering intentionally together with a brew (how Lancashire am I now!?) and the offer of cake to explore life and faith can bring deep conversation and open up channels of faith exploration that have been avoided for fear of saying the wrong thing.
I've been looking back and going through my post it notes I'd left in 'Slow Church'* and I found again a whole chapter on 'Dinner Table conversation'. Smith and Pattison write that "eating together and conversing together are both vital practices of slow church community...." because we learn the language of the family at the dinner table. To build community we should make it a priority to eat and relax with our neighbours - yet so often we eat fast and we move on.
I've made it a rule before our Sunday church meetings that we can't have soup until 12pm, when everyone is able to gather, so we are not rushing from service to meeting without pausing to be family together. It felt forced at first, and I think people thought I was just being stubborn, but now it's becoming habit, and it makes a difference to what we say and do in our meetings - and we leave later - not because the meeting goes on forever, but because the meeting begins around the table, with food, where we gather and we learn what it means to be the family of God. Encouraging slowness in community sometimes needs to be intentional and often counter-cultural, but in that intentionality, slowly, slowly the community begins to become more beautiful as it takes time to realign and centres itself on Christ.
*Slow Church by Christopher Smith & John Pattison. I blogged about it here