I have mused less on culture recently than I did in the mid 90s and early 00s. I found a definition of culture which I loved, and have never seen improved. It has not proved necessary to say much more. Until today. I have a new thought. But first the definition.
Musician and producer Brian Eno says that culture is 'Everything you don't have to do.' Thus food is not culture but cuisine is. Clothes are not culture but fashion is. And so on.
It means it is not a cultural decision to eat rice if rice is the only thing on the menu. But once there is a choice of two foodstuffs, or about how to prepare the one, the decision being made about food is cultural.
I've had one or two discussions with folks who don't like this over the years but their arguments against have never seemed to take us beyond 'I don't like it'. I like it.
How we worship the one we call God as a church is, above all, a cultural decision. A church represents the attempts of a local community, perhaps in the context of a national church's guidelines, to worship God and serve others in God's name. It will develop a culture. It follows that the smaller the Christian community gathering on a Sunday is, as a percentage of the community it is there to serve, the less likely it is to be culturally relevant to the non-attenders. The choice of day is also a cultural decision.
Now I am the minister of a planted church which was set up in 1989 to be a worshipping community in a particular new-build place. Many people who moved onto this estate joined this church and established its habits. Two things happened. Well OK, lots of things happened but I am going to talk about two.
Firstly this community established ways of doing Sunday church that were a bit different. To begin with it met in a pub, which got some publicity but did not last a year. Meeting in a school enabled an informal style which people bought into more easily. Movable chairs and a light airy atmosphere worked well for this. Musicians played instruments other than an organ. This attracted outsiders from beyond the boundaries of its area becasue they liked that sort of thing. It became eclectic. To some extent it also neglected its mission to its area of the parish in which it existed. To some extent. Don't worry about giving me examples of how it didn't so neglect.
Secondly, a group of people who joined the church from another place, geographically speaking, who had rejected the cultural style of the nearest church as 'not them', asked if we could enable them to set up another community nearer where they lived. We are doing this.
I have returned again this morning to a determination not to allow the cultural preferences of the church community to jeopardise the relationship with non-attenders as I listen to an illuminating and helpful set of talks on hospitality. Because hospitality is one of the key values I have tried to ingrain in the church. Hospitality not simply us giving books to people and telling them where to sit, but a real welcome, a helpful accompaniment of stranger plus coffee and biscuits that are free. Followed up by a visit to newcomers by someone not the vicar and an invitation to eat with people as soon as possible.
I have repeatedly said that hospitality is not welcoming people when it is convenient for you but when it is convenient for them.
But it is more, I now learn. For hospitality, in its strictest sense, is a meeting of equals. The provision of warmth and nourishment is not the hospitality; it creates the environment in which a genuine encounter can talk place where both bring something to the meeting. The Old Testament, I discover, had no specific word for providing food and shelter. It didn't need one since it was a part of what you did automatically.
Your church should be changed every time someone new walks through the door. Ours hasn't been, enough. But if that were to happen we would never become a cultural island in which people say to us 'We don't like your style' the way they have to the other local church. For our style would be up for grabs to anyone who wants to join us. Strangers come and contribute. What a massive vision. And what a massive culture change for the church to adopt it.
Thanks to Nick Jepson-Biddle, Precentor of Wells Cathedral for sparking these thoughts at a chapter quiet morning. Grateful.