United In Difference? The Agape Lunch

Posted on April 14, 2012


Christ Church Southgate hosted the Agape Lunch on 14th April 2012

Is it ‘human nature’ to surround ourselves with like-minded people? Are we compelled into intellectual tribalism by some ancient genetic code? Is our biology a barrier to seeking out alternative points of view? Research by American scientists suggests a high degree of personal choice is involved. Asking 8,000 subjects about their views on a particular topic before offering them a selection of reading matter that either opposed or affirmed their beliefs, psychologists from theUniversity ofFlorida found that 67% chose to read the supportive or ‘congenial’ commentary.

Researchers also found that people are far more resistant to alternative points of view when it comes to matters of religion, politics or ethics. Crucially, they discovered that those who have the least confidence in their own beliefs are less likely to seek out and entertain contrary points of view. Perhaps this explains why, despite the familiar surroundings and having had first hand experience of the impeccable hosting skills of our Lay Readers Cathy Dallman, Jackie Anderson and their team, I was looking forward to the Agape Lunch less than a wet weekend in Wolverhampton?

I waited for some of the Wine Society’s finest to kick in before taking my place at the table and, as expected, found myself in rather mixed company. As any American psychologist worth their salt would have predicted, I opted for the easy option and turned immediately to the familiar; engaging fellow C of E guests in small-talk ranging from their new vicar’s penchant for trendy satchels to the state of the ASDA car park – and everything in between (except any talk about religion of course; come on chaps, this is the C of E after all!)

Sitting alongside me were two ladies – let’s call them Cissy and Ada, because they were certainly just as engaging and with as many pearls of wisdom as the Norman Evans inspired characters (atheism and constipation having much in common, I have always found “Trust in God and keep your bowels open” to be an excellent maxim for a happy life!) Despite their close friendship it became apparent that they held somewhat divergent views on almost every topic, including the ‘best’ way to do religion – and were more than eager to engage in some God-talk. After describing our Easter services at Christ Church, Cissy told me how much she loved Choral Evensong on Radio 3 and how disappointed she had been that one of her neighbours had a full washing line on Good Friday. My sort of woman I thought (well apart from the washing bit – the drying of my drawers follows only the calendar of necessity). From one opinion on public displays of faith (and laundry), we moved to another, rather more expressive viewpoint. After extra helpings of Vicarage Pork (ask for the recipe)Ada asked;

“So, where were you when you were touched by Jesus?”

 Cissy rolled her eyes – a cue that this rhetorical question was a preamble to an oft told story. Ada went on to explain that she had been put off  “organised” religion from a young age after feeling nothing whatsoever despite thrice mounting a Salvation Army Mercy Seat (described as a sort of holy electric chair). Years passed by until she felt Jesus move through her while she was standing in the kitchen scouring a roasting tin. She acknowledged how odd this sounded; her self-mocking somehow seemed to make her account more authentic. Cissy whispered (just loud enough for Ada to hear) that it was probably nothing more than funny turn brought on by fumes from the oven cleaner. She asked me enquiringly, if I had ever been “touched”“I don’t think so.” “Yet” I added, hedging my bets, before excusing myself from the table to fetch pudding.

What did I learn from these (admittedly somewhat enhanced) takes on kitchen sink Christianity? Cissy and Ada’s different approaches to engaging with the Church suggest that the American scientists are right; we are particularly resistant to alternative points of view when it comes to religion; no matter who presents them to us and for how long. I think I am the same; no matter what counter-argument is made, I don’t believe women bishops will be a bad thing. I don’t believe single parents or same sex couples are sinners, nor do I really think the world was made in six days six thousand and twelve years ago. However, for some reason, I was persuaded to share a meal with people who may believe some – or perhaps all – of those things. Despite our different interpretations of the bible, we all identified ourselves as Christian and we all said Amen to the same prayers at the start of the meeting. Maybe somewhere in that moment lies the answer to what the Agape Lunch is all about?