On ‘Kitchen Table Eucharists’: a plea to my Anglican friends

It is, to my regret, nearly ten years since I last joined in worship with the small fellowship at Hawkshead Hill Baptist Church in Cumbria. My memories of the fellowship are warm; my memories of the building in which they meet, and of the garden behind it, are vivid.

The building is an ancient cottage, registered for worship in 1709. There is no historical record of what changes were made as it was registered for worship, but very probably the kitchen table was the only table, and so became the place where the Eucharist was celebrated for those people.

The Baptists had begun in Hawkshead in 1678, at a time when the Church of England was aggressively devoted to persecuting anyone who would not worship according to its formularies (even though then, as now, it could not agree on what its formularies actually meant).

I know the Baptist stories; others will tell the Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Quaker, Catholic tales—and the stories that do not fit into any of these denominations. In my tradition, John Bunyan was famously imprisoned for his Baptist faith; Elizabeth Gaunt was burnt at the stake in public for hers, denied the customary ‘kindness’ of a quick death by strangulation before the spectacle.

I could add scores of other names from my own memory, people who I have read and studied, whose faith and courage I have learnt from, whose piety has formed my own; people who are my mothers and fathers in the faith.

I could add tens of thousands of names if I had reference to books. The persecution was savage and widespread. It was also systematically prosecuted and vocally encouraged by Anglican clergy and bishops.

Although a measure of toleration came with the Glorious Revolution in 1689, the Clarendon Code (which, inter alia, forbade meetings for prayer of more than five people unless they were reciting forms from the 1662 BCP) was not fully repealed until well into the nineteenth century.

When William Dennyson of Hawkshead registered his cottage as a meeting place in 1709, it seems clear that memories of persecution were still fresh. The building carefully appeared, from the street, to be still a cottage, and did so until 1876, when the present ecclesial-looking windows were installed. In the garden a baptistry was created by a clever damming of a stream, and then shrubs were grown to conceal its site, and the path that led to it.

When we were last there—and today, I assume—you could walk the garden completely unaware of the baptismal pool, until someone showed you the carefully-pruned branches that needed to be pushed aside to open the path down.

Hidden sacramental spaces are a common theme of Christian persecution; normal domestic paraphernalia are repurposed to allow worship to happen. For one example, a kitchen table often becomes the site of eucharistic celebration.

The phrase ’kitchen table Eucharists’ seems to have become, in the last few weeks, the chosen sneer of a number of Anglicans angry at their Bishops’ guidance, revised yesterday, on clergy not entering their churches.

I have no view at all on that guidance; I know that my understanding of ‘church’, and ‘sacred space’ is simply different from my Anglican sisters and brothers.

I am concerned, as others have been, about the denigration of domestic space implied by this sneer, and by the gendered implications of that.

I am at least as much concerned by the implied criticism of the faith and practice of our persecuted sisters and brothers around the world right now, who find the kitchen table the only eucharistic site available to them.

Most seriously, however, I remember William Dennyson, John Bunyan, Elizabeth Gaunt, scores of others I could name, tens of thousands whose names I could discover—and at least as many again who are nameless.

For nearly three decades they celebrated the Eucharist on kitchen tables, in Hawkshead and across England, because Anglican bishops and Anglican priests were active and aggressive in having them thrown into jail, or even burnt alive at the stake, if they did it anywhere public.

For over three centuries they, and their co-religionists, were prevented from celebrating the Eucharist as they might have wished by oppressive laws, pressed by the Anglican establishment.

I am not an Anglican and I do not live in England; the policies of the Church of England are no business of mine. But for office-holders in that denomination to denigrate ‘kitchen table Eucharists’ is for them to trample once again on the faith and lives of people who, through reading, I have grown to know and love, people who, at their predecessors’ hands, were extensively persecuted, people of whom some were martyred.

To my Anglican friends I say, humbly but seriously: have the debates you need to have, but, when you reflect on the validity of worship in dwelling-places, tread softly, for you tread on the memory of martyrs that I, and others, venerate.

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