The idea is beautiful in its simplicity. Hold a community dinner paired with a gospel reading, some discussion, prayer and the eucharist. That’s it — no music, no sermon, no vestments, no creed, no pomp.
Low-key church is what the Rev. Harold Boomer, missioner in the Upper River Valley, is doing, and it’s catching on quickly. It could be the enthusiastic tagline: “Everyone is welcome, everyone is loved, everyone is family.” Or it could be Harold’s cooking.
North of Florenceville-Bristol and south of Edmundston, there are only a few Anglican churches. The parishes of Tobique and Grand Falls no longer exist. The congregations in the parishes that remain — Andover and Denmark — are aging and thinning.
Despite that, “there are still a lot families in those areas with a strong faith,” said Harold. “If I can make it easier for them to worship in place, that’s what I’ll do.”
The notion of dinner church comes from the Fresh Expressions movement, which was a topic of discussion during a missional cohort Harold was part of. Dinner church has been so successful in some places that entire churches have sprung from them, and some has grown so big they’ve had to divide in two.
With this idea, and the BELLS-Surprise the World* approach that includes a shared meal, Harold had been making plans for a while, at least in his head.
“I talked it over with Archbishop David and with [parish development officer] Shawn [Branch] on occasion,” said Harold. “It’s a great opportunity for reaching the community, eating with people, learning, blessing people. Finally, this fall, I felt there was no better time to do this.”
With vestry approval from his two parishes, Denmark and Andover, Harold began to put his plan into action.
Harold has just held the fourth dinner church, two at St. Ansgar in New Denmark and two at Trinity in Perth-Andover, chosen because their halls are the largest and most accessible.
“On the first night, I hoped for 10 or 12,” said Harold. “We had 28. The second night we cooked for 30 and had 35.
“It was a bit of a fishes and loaves case, but luckily we just added more milk to the pancake batter.”
At the third dinner church, he met Anglicans he’d never seen before, “but the nice thing is the people who are coming are not all Anglicans. We have Roman Catholics, Wesleyans, Lutherans, and of course, our own congregations. It’s absolutely wonderful.”
On the fourth night, lasagna, Caesar salad and garlic bread were on the menu. A smaller but enthusiastic crowd enjoyed the meal.
“The lasagna was a big hit,” said Harold.
People come early to chat, and parishioners from the two parishes are attending both sites, not just their own. It has become a true community, or as Harold says, a family gathering.
In the two halls, a place is set at a table, with a candle burning, acknowledging Christ’s presence. A prayer asking forgiveness is said.
Then they read the appointed gospel using three versions: the Good News, the New Revised version and the First Nations translation.
“It’s three very distinct readings of the same gospel,” said Harold. “It creates a wonderfully vivid mental picture of the scripture that gets people talking about it through supper.”
After dessert, Harold blesses the Eucharist and people are invited to partake. Only once has someone not participated, but they did come forward for a blessing.
With communion over, everyone takes their plates to the kitchen, clean-up begins, and another dinner church is complete.
“Already there is a solid base of people helping out with both cooking and cleanup, and no shortage of volunteers to deliver leftovers to our family who could not make it,” said Harold. “I think that is the key! We aren't coming together for a church supper, we are coming together for a family dinner!”
There will be one more dinner church before Christmas. A donor has already committed to providing the turkeys, and this one might be the only Christmas dinner some folks have.
Harold is unsure if dinner church will be able to continue through the winter months. With elderly drivers, short days and stormy weather, it may have to take a hiatus.
“We’ll play it by ear,” said Harold. “But at least we know now that we can do it. They continue to come back and enjoy it.”
The first dinner church cost about $120 for the food, and Harold and the vestries went into it feeling like there was nothing to lose but that initial investment. Since then, their donation basket has raised more than enough to cover the cost, so the project is self-sustaining.
“But it’s not meant to be a money-maker,” said Harold. “It’s meant to bring people together.”
Even so early into this new venture, Harold has been asked ‘is this something we could do in our home?’ That leads to the concept of home church, where a meal and worship take place in a house, rather than a church building, with a smaller group.
“Absolutely! We’re pretty excited about it,” said Harold. “Anything that organic and self-manifesting — people are inspired by it and that’s wonderful! We’re going to use this as a transition into home church.”
“The whole idea is to find a way that’s accessible to those not drawn to a traditional gathering,” said Shawn Branch, parish development officer and the bishop’s liaison to the Archdeaconry of Woodstock. “Typical dinner church is a gentle way to invite those either estranged from church or those who’ve never experienced it.
“The exciting thing is how this unfolds and what it does for these people. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Archbishop David sees dinner church as well-suited to northwestern New Brunswick.
“It’s an exciting idea and I’m glad it’s being done. It very appropriate for any of our communities, but particularly in rural areas.
“Jesus did a lot of his best ministry around the supper table. This makes a link between our eating together and the Holy Eucharist.”
*Surprise the World, by Michael Frost, was a focus of the 2017 Diocesan Synod.
1. Some of the foods served at the four dinner churches held during the fall of 2023, including lasagna and caesar salad, fruit coleslaw, biscuits, individual pies and beef stew.
2. The Rev. Harold Boomer during the Eucharist at dinner church.
3. A place is set for Jesus, an acknowledgement that the Son of God is always with us.