Faith and Reason : Religion in a pottery mug, with a teaspoon

Andrew Brown explores the `Great Banquets' and other alternative projects which mark the rise to establishment of radical `inside-out' churches.
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There's a playgroup in east London where the cloying smell of Plasticine was overlaid last Monday by a tang of incense. It is the only indication that the building is also used as a church; and even this may be misleading, because the church is some kind of URC/ Baptist/Methodist hybrid, and so seems unlikely to use incense at all.

The children play around a ring of high-backed benches, on a pine floor. Inside the ring, beneath a peaked glass roof, stands a table with a cross on it. But none of this looks in the least ecclesiastical, except on close inspection. Perhaps the smell came from something the children were doing. Perhaps it was supernaturally generated in honour of the visit by Cardinal Hume, who was there last Monday to launch a project called the Great Banquet.

The ceremony of "launching a project", taken over from the secular world, is one of those things that should make atheists wary of mocking the meaningless rituals of Christians. The thing to remember is that it has nothing to do with the aims of the project. It is rather like parading your army before the war to provide a spectacle which would be quite ruined by contact with the enemy. Come to think of it, this does have quite a lot in common with a lot of evangelism.

However, when the project launched on Monday finally makes contact with the rest of London, it may well prove impressive. The idea is a simple one: to get people to eat together in a series of communal meals designed to celebrate the delights and diversity of the city. It is the diversity that will prove controversial, for the banqueters will be drawn from every class where the Christian churches have contacts. Ideally, this would lead to a Bottomley sitting next to someone being cared for in the community, with similar contrasts all around the table.

There will be one huge main banquet in Westminster, and about 100 smaller ones spread around the rest of the city. This is the sort of thing that only the churches could do. However few people go to church, the Churches remain the only organisation which have such deep and regular contact with people from every level of society, and which believe that these contacts should be made even deeper and more regular.

At the heart of the Great Banquet project are three church organisations which appear to have turned themselves inside out, so that their activity is on the outside, and not inside, among or between the members. Of course, this is a misleading impression. Without great inner coherence, constantly reinforced, such enterprises would fly apart into a million pieces. None the less, they appear to their surrounding communities not as churches, but as providers of services.

Bromley-by-Bow, the centre where the cardinal was, offers a great deal that would normally seem to be the responsibility of the social services. As well as the playgroup, there is a pottery centre for handicapped, and meetings, groups, or rooms to support and build the local community.

The Mildmay hospital has been rescued from dereliction to provide care for Aids sufferers, and it does not appear to preach at them while they are dying either. The Kaleidoscope project in Kingston upon Thames gives 300 heroin addicts methadone every day. They are supervised, so that they cannot take the drug away to sell; they are not pressured to come off. Even if they stay addicted to legal methadone, which is free to them, rather than expensive illegal heroin, the community around saves millions of pounds a year because the junkies no longer need steal to feed their habits.

"We never overtly discuss religion with them," says Adele Blakebrough, who runs the project. "But if we bring them tea, we bring it in a pottery mug, with a teaspoon, not a plastic cup with a stirrer; because we know that the world thinks they are only worth a plastic cup. We never mention the words `The kingdom of God', but we try to show them our concept of what it feels like and tastes like."

It may be difficult to imagine anything further removed than these inside- out churches from the traditional image of the Anglican parish, exemplified in the row in Norfolk between the parishioners of the Rev Kit Chalcraft who feel he should be allowed three wives, and those who believe with his bishop that two is enough for any priest.

In fact, the difference is misleading. The more the inside-out churches seem to vanish into the surrounding communities, the more they become established. In a curious way, these radicals and dissenters are returning to the parish model, where the church, as in Kit Chalcraft's case, is not something alien, but a part of the everyday life of the community, and Christian sentiment is as pervasive and clingy as a whiff of incense above the Plasticine.