Pub theology: through the lens of Tesco, Richard Hooker and St. Benedict

About a year ago, subconsciously, a new form of ritual behaviour began.

After going to the gym, on my way home, I would stop off at Tesco (Buckingham) for a cup of ‘reasonably priced above average’ coffee. It proved to be a wonderful place to meet and greet. Interestingly our M.P. John Bercow (Speaker of the House of Commons no less!), was also frequently to be found in the cafeteria listening to the needs of his constituents.

Although we were in Tesco, it felt that we were meeting people in the ‘public square.’ The geography of the store helped foster this experience, as the cafeteria was situated directly behind the tills and, could easily be seen, as there was no physical boundary separating store from cafe. 

Sadly, the cafe and its staff have now been replaced.

We now have a coffee lounge, staffed by bright young things (and they are genuinely very pleasant), selling above average quality coffee at a premium price (£2:90 for a flat white compared to £1:20 for a white coffee). The architecture has completed changed; gone are the functional tables and chairs, in have come the leather and pine looking ‘eating and drinking hubs.’

Most depressing of all an attractively designed physical boundary now separates store from lounge. Coffee drinkers no longer need to see shoppers paying for their goods, still less punters walking to the lav!

It is much more civilized! Or is it?

For when we go large on demarcation (no doubt endorsed, and validated, by customer surveys) we somehow lose the sense of all being in it together. From a theological perspective the ‘chance’ for a real pastoral, or incarnational. encounter evaporates, perhaps? 

So my ritual has ended. I enjoyed a nice (ish) cup of coffee, today, and the opportunity for ten or fifteen minutes with the newspaper, but I missed the opportunity to smile at, and talk with, ordinary folk. I feel somehow ‘less priestly.’

Richard Hooker, 1554-1600, (the Scripture, tradition, reason man) is reputed to have written the following prayer:

‘I pray that none will be offended if I seek to make the Christian religion an inn (I love this metaphor and, the thought that custodians of Christianity might like to regard themselves as innkeepers) where all are received joyously, rather than a cottage where some few friends of the family are to be received.’ 

I agree with the ‘sainted Richard.’ I also think that the church faces two enormous contemporary challenges, the first of which is to become that inn (hospitality as mission). If other institutions insist on ‘customer segmentation,’ (a posh term for getting rid of people you don’t care about), the church must resist, This is the one area in which the church must be totally, unequivocally, counter cultural. 

Sadly, if we persist in our mission to become publicans, we will be rejected by certain ‘premium shoppers.’ Some of our current ‘members’ will prefer to eat and drink in the coffee lounges, bistros and plush wine bars. Cafeterias and pubic houses are not some peoples venues of choice.

Perhaps Saint Benedict (who the Church remembers this week – the 11th July) can offerrealism and comfort to all who aspire to become innkeepers: 

‘The greatest care should be taken to give a warm reception to the poor and pilgrims, because it is them ABOVE ALL OTHERS that Christ is welcomed. As for the rich they have a way of exacting respect through the very fear inspired by the power they yield,’ (Chapter 53, Rule of Benedict).

Now, I am not suggesting that ‘the rich’ are all bad folk (clearly they / we aren’t), but I am suggesting that the church shouldn’t be impressed by wealth per se and, that the financially well off need to make sure that they remain poor in spirit, otherwise it is almost impossible to stand in solidarity with all people and that one way of expressing solidarity and love is by going down the metaphorical pub! 

So here are the challenges:

How comfortable are you with the metaphors of the inn and the innkeeper?

How do you feel about, potentially, losing some of your existing church members as the church becomes increasingly pub-like?

 

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