A heavenly banquet for all humanity

Faith and Reason v; Last weekend the London Banquet took place. Why, asks the Rev John Kennedy, a Methodist minister, can Christian communities not come together more often?

Rev John Kennedy
Friday 09 June 1995 23:02 BST

Andrew Brown's piece on the Pope's encyclical "That they may be one" made gloomy reading last Saturday. It spelt out clearly that we cannot hope for any significant progress towards Christian unity in conventional terms. In complete contrast to this glumly accurate account was the optimistic happening that took place over the Pentecost weekend - the London Banquet. This splendid, slightly barmy event suggests a rather different approach to the ecumenical impasse.

The occasion had been planned for two years. It aimed to bring together people of London in ways that symbolise important Christian truths. At one level, the participants explored the rich diversity of London. At another level, we were reminded that "ecumenical" is not about relations between churches - it is about the "oikoumene", the whole of God's inhabited earth.

The banquet was mainly a lot of fun, and wore its symbolism lightly. Thousands of people attended 200 feasts, acting out the great variety of London life. One group of people ate their way across Poplar. A very special group of children at the Mildmay Mission Hospital shared a Big Mac blowout.

There was a central tuck-in at the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall - appropriately under Rubens's baroque ceiling depicting "The Apotheosis of King James I". This was indeed the Authorised Version of the Banquet, attended by Tony Blair, Peter Brooke and the like. But the most prominent people there were doing the waiting - like Cardinal Hume and Sir Paul Condon, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

The vision of the London Banquet first gleamed in the eye of the Rev Andrew Mawson. He is one of a new generation of community entrepreneurs, who combine will, flair and imagination to get unusual things done. He and his team were sharply aware that the event risked being seen as a stunt. Andrew and Co are not sentimentalists, however. They work daily among the grotesque inequalities that London generates. They know that in such a world pain and embarrassment are part of the risk they take in attempting such an inclusive kind of celebration.

The service on Sunday night in Westminster Cathedral was magnificent. The presence of the senior clergy in London in full fig signalled strongly that the whole variety of the Christian tradition was here, their clear identities undiminished. One protester did storm up the aisle to complain loudly at the congregation of 2,000 - so the pain and embarrassment were suddenly evident.

This kind of event cannot easily be created by careful church bureaucracies. It needs a bit more of that entrepreneurial flair: "Think lateral, not literal!" in Andrew Mawson's phrase. The churches do many things well. We do lots of imaginative work in our communities. We sometimes say the right thing on social and political issues. We greatly enjoy our big occasions - Green Belt, Easter People, Spring Harvest and the rest. And there is a dazzling diversity of Christian lay vocation in every corner of our extensively secularised society.

But we rarely manage to bring all that together, visibly in one place. On the Saturday and Sunday of Pentecost, it did all come together, and there was glimpsed a church that has a proper idea of the oikoumene, the human household. Christian communities came together as part of a diverse humanity rather than as fragments of a divided church. London, like Jerusalem at Pentecost, was shown as a microcosm of the whole world. New meaning was given to that awkward phrase from the Eucharist "the heavenly banquet prepared for all humanity". There was acted out the alternative Eucharist in John's Gospel, in which Jesus feeds the whole people rather than the chosen few.

If you looked for a precedent for this event, you might find it in the Council of Florence in 1439. The hierarchies there sought in vain to reconcile the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. But the event was a magnificent opportunity for scholars and artists from East and West who were interested in one another rather than in dogma or structure. And the fun side was laid on by the Medici, the community entrepreneurs of their day. They put the patriarchs, cardinals and the rest in procession in Gozzoli's gorgeous Journey of the Magi.

Florence turned out to be a single event because of unfortunate occurrences like the Fall of Constantinople and the Reformation. It would be a pity if the same fate befell the London Banquet. A vision was shared of a common humanity, to which our different Christian traditions felt themselves belonging. London was momentarily a different place, and a better place.

But what to do next? And what would a Bradford, a Glasgow, a Belfast or a Leicester Banquet be like?

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