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eating in church?

coffee and cakeShould we eat and drink in church buildings? Why or why not?

I recently saw plans of alterations to a church building which incorporated a kitchen that could (only) serve food into the nave.

The Architectural Design Guidelines (PDF link) raise the issue “Considerations of Tapu and Noa of food in a sacred space” (3.1 page 14; 4.1 page 44; 4.5 page 60). But they make no suggestion or recommendation.

There is an impression given by some that this is more a Maori cultural issue, that Pakeha conform to out of respect for Maori. [A lot of practices important to Maori were important to Pakeha, but Pakeha have often succumbed to cultural amnesia eg. not sitting on tables, important to Maori, used to be important to Pakeha: “no uncooked meat on the table.”]

This post is interested internationally and ecumenically; so please vote and add comments.



The particular plan I saw was of a church complex that includes a hall. I am not discussing exceptional situations – after earthquakes, or in a rural area where the church building is all that is on the site. Nor do I have set-in-concrete positions on this – so I am genuinely interested in perspectives on this.

bread and wineIs it OK if the eating and drinking only happens in the nave? Does it matter if people take food and drink into the chancel? Into the sanctuary? I have seen people put a cup of tea on the altar. Does this matter? Is the Eucharist primarily a meal – how does that affect our perspective?

If you respond the nave is OK, but chancel is not, I’m reminded of when some complained that there were other-faith rituals in the Christchurch Cathedral at the launch of a multi-faith book. The response of the then bishop included that these non-Christian rites had occurred only in the nave, not in the chancel/sanctuary. Does this devalue laity? Is the nave less “sacred” than the chancel? There are some traditions that refer to the whole of the building set apart for worship as “sanctuary” (not just a section of it).

What do we understand we are doing when we “consecrate” “sacred” space? There was a diocesan ball in the cathedral in the Square. It used to be rented out as a useful (inexpensive) space, for example, for graduation ceremonies…

In some places the church building was the only covered space and used for a large variety of activities. Part of the origin of communion rails was the the perceived abuse of the altar table and Archbishop Laud’s ordering them back to the East wall to be roped off by rails to keep them protected from dogs etc.

It may be of interest: our diocese has no particular stance on eating and drinking in any area of a consecrated church building. Perhaps it should have a standpoint? Particularly with so many new church complexes about to be planned and built?

Looking forward to your opinion on whether to eat/drink in church buildings, and why.

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52 Responses to eating in church?

  1. we do in our church and i hate it. Not sue why I think it is something to do with respecting sacred space. I do usually have the cup of tea but refuse the biscuit. (I should have been a Jesuit). i also vacuum the church every Friday and it is amazing how pervasive biscuit crumbs are.

  2. Beyond the trouble with honoring tradition, fasting before Eucharist, etc., I believe one of the most troubling aspects of allowing food or drink into the sanctuary is that it deadens the liturgy and limits participation by the laity. How can you sing or pray communally with a mouthful of tea or coffee? Ultimately it has the potential to make the liturgy consumptive rather than active, i.e. I’ll sit back and observe whilst I sip my coffee and and munch on my scone. (In fact it goes beyond potential, our early service started informal and now everyone sits with their coffee mug in hand watching the preacher as if it is a one act play!)

    • I am speechless, Jeff, and lucky I didn’t have a mouth full of coffee! Eating and drinking during the service had not even entered my head! So thank you for adding that perspective/possibility to this thread. Blessings.

  3. How does this relate to the various re-enactments of the last supper with variations of possible original ingredients which some churches hold on Maundy Thursday ?

    • Good question, Mark. I have, more than once, made my own position clear, that I see the Easter Vigil, rather than Maundy Thursday, as the Christian “passover” (see, for example, here and here). Blessings.

  4. I spotted a young mother surreptitiously giving her new baby the breast during Matins yesterday and thought ‘how lovely.’ I’ve a feeling not everyone would have approved but a delightful little boy remained content for the entire service and we had something extra to praise God for.

  5. At St Mary’s ProCathedral we have a narthex opening off the nave. We regularly use it for teas and suppers but I don’t recall anyone taking food or drink into the Church itself.

    Some of us were horrifed when a visiting music group’s after-concert party strayed into the Church. On an earlier occasion in another facility a visiting group served their drinks on the altar!

    • Thanks, Roger. Yes, I made that point in the post. Does that mean you reinsert the meal, tearing apart the current four-fold shape to replicate the original seven-fold shape? Does it mean you recline, and other mimicking of the Last Supper? Does it mean we can eat and drink in “consecrated buildings” now? Why do we consecrate them? Should we, following the Last Supper, not consecrate our buildings; not have a nave, chancel, sanctuary? Blessings.

      • “1 Cor 23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for[c] you. Do this in remembrance of me.”[d] 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

        As I see it, when Paul spoke these words it was by way of instruction that when the church meets around the sacred feast we should consider it an act of joining with our Lord and his disciples in that upper room. The four fold structure allows for good order in this, confession and teaching, though not part of that feast prepare us for it lest we fall into the ways that Paul addresses in the earlier verses. We share with thanksgiving and are then sent. Prepared by God’s forgiveness, Taught by his example, empowered by his sharing of himself with us and sent by him to be channels of his grace. Do we need special buildings or tables (altars) for this? Do we need to stand, sit, recline? I don’t think that it really matters so long as we come to the feast with the right attitude of heart. Posture and place won’t win me heaven neither will it lose it to me. But then it is 1.30am here in Wales. I hope my humble reflection is not offensive.

  6. I don’t like food being consumed anywhere in the church. Tapu/noa and all that.
    Mind you, I have been to a service in the local pub where folk were sitting around with a beer in hand and the bbq providing bangers for all and sundry. That certainly didn’t worry me, but I did get distressed at a eucharist when kids were given lollies….

    • Thanks, Mike. Like you, I have no issue with services in a variety of contexts. And I too have been present when children were offered a lollie; with words of “administration”: “the body of Christ” no less!!! Some people just think children are stupid. Blessings.

  7. Hi Bosco,
    Without trying to elaborate a comprehensive reflection on these matters, I suggest we consider the use of sacred space for our life as Christians gathering in God’s name and for his glory, and that might include our fellowship as well as our worship.

    On the distinction between the sanctuary and the nave, I suggest the distinction need have nothing to do with distinctions between clergy and laity and what they do or do not do. Rather we might consider the sanctuary as a space devoted to doing some things and not other things (enacting the Lord’s Supper, but not celebrating our own supper with a cup of tea resting on the Lord’s Table) while the nave is a space available for some actions (including fellowship over food and drink) and not others (the Lord’s Supper isn’t enacted there, wedding couples don’t stand there when they say their vows).

    Incidentally, talking of weddings, why am I uncomfortable with a cup of tea resting on the Lord’s Table but not with registers, pens, flowers and such!?

    • Thanks, Peter. I think the sort of reflecting you are doing would help get some thinking going. As a rural vicar, and in small churches, the nave was where the wedding couple stood… there were firm rules about what could be on the altar table (candles could not; certainly not flowers) and hence the shelf above the altar to keep the rule and yet have them! Another blog post some time, maybe. Blessings.

  8. I reckon it depends on how you structure your services and what kind of service it is. Early church ‘Love Feasts’ are a good example. Also, and I haven’t at all thought this through, I’m all for sacred space but isn’t it God that defines it? Since God works in a cultural context does that not make this issue specific to that context rather than general to the church at large?

    • Thanks, Lukas. How would it work in your culture? And what of Aotearoa-New Zealand, where our primary culture is Maori, and we have a multicultural society in a Treaty relationship with Maori? Blessings.

      • I can’t speak for Maori only for myself (a German born kiwi). In my opinion/experience sharing food is central to building relationships and community. We celebreate with cakes, invite friends for BBQ’s and go to wild food and wine festivals. I’d argue that food and rugby are central to at least pakeha culture if not the kiwi mindset as a whole.
        Whilst the church was arguably the communal hub in the past it certainly does not fulfill that role now. But the local cafe and pub certainly do act in this way, both being centered around shared food and drink.
        I’d tentatively suggest that if the church ought to recover this role of community then fresh expressions or a communal meal as part of (or preceding/concluding) our services seem to present a positive way forward. I guess that a diocese wide stance could present obstacles to that happening (especially in multi-use buildings etc) and make a large diverse tent just a little smaller.

          • It read fine to me thanks, Lukas. I hope all of us try and read each other’s posts and comments as generously as possible – I think that’s the culture of the community around this site. Blessings.

        • Thanks, Lukas. I think you are helpfully adding the concept of “multi-use” buildings – a community which, for a variety of reasons, decides that it will also be the place where young people play basketball, that kind of thing; a school that decides its chapel will also be the assembly hall and the drama theatre… Do we “consecrate” such a building? And what do we mean when we do that? Do we need spaces that are purely “sacred”? How do we learn to reverence the “secular”? To find the sacred in/of the “secular”? … Blessings.

  9. We (Orthodox) have several services, other than the Eucharist, which involve eating and drinking.

    At Memorial Services for the dead there is koliva, a mixture of boiled wheat, nuts and other ingredients. In the Romanian tradition the pqarticipants keep the cups and plates on which the food is serv3ed.

    There is Litiya, also called Artoklasia, sometimes held during Vespers, especially on great feasts. This is bread and wine, and the original purpose, I believe was to sustain people during the (long) night vigil service, which in the Russian tradition and in Athonite monasteries is Ninth Hour, Vespers, Matins and First Hour.

    There are various other things as well, usually customs of a particular ethnic groups, such as the Serbian Slaval, the Greek Phanouropita and Vassilopita etc.

    • Thanks, Steve. I always appreciate it so much, and I’m sure others do too, to be stretched outside our own cultural and denominational blinkers. Blessings.

    • The original intention of the wine, bread, wheat and oil blessed in the “artoklasia” or “litiya” on eves of important feasts among Eastern Christians wasn’t just to sustain them during the long night vigil. It was also to collect foodstuffs to give to poorer Christians in the congregation, so they’d have something with which to celebrate the feast. What is laid out nowadays is a mere symbolic remnant of what was originally blessed.

  10. Thanks for the interesting question, Bosco. I think eating and drinking ‘down the back’ of the church can be OK depending on the nature of the space, but I will share with you a couple of observations. First, in my own church in a small North Canterbury town, meditations on the sacred are often accompanied by the sound of the tea urn down the back gently whistling as it (repeatedly) comes to the boil throughout the service. Not great. Secondly, at holy communion recently, during the intercessions no less, one of the sidespeople carried the tea urn up near the front of the church to plug it into an alternative power socket, which turned out the be the one providing power to the data projector. Prayers duly finished, the organist began to play the offertory hymn but … no words on the screen. Vicar of Dibley stuff.

    • Thanks, Gillian, for your concrete examples. Sometimes funny things happen at worship and we need to laugh; sometimes funny things happen at worship and they are inappropriate and we need to work through what led to this and how we can learn from it. God give us the wisdom to tell the difference… Blessings.

  11. I disagree with allowing people to eat and drink in sacred spaces that have been dedicated to God. At my church we do not let people eat or drink inside the sacred space even if it is being used for non-religious events e.g. concerts, and I was very glad when Bishop Victoria asked that no food or drink be brought into St Christopher’s sacred space during synod. I feel that it is in respect of God that we should not eat in sacred spaces as it is the place that we have dedicated to him, a place of worship and reflections, it should only have one purpose and that is to glorify God. In teaching it is said that you should split your class room in to different parts and only do things in their place, so you would teach from the front of the classroom and tell students of from the back, play games on the right side etc. So that when a student goes into that space his mind automatically changes to what happens in that space and I think this is the same for sacred spaces, as soon as we enter the sacred space we should start to concentrate more on God and worshiping him. I have always been taught from childhood not to eat or drink in sacred spaces and using the alter for anything other than worshiping God (coffee cups) is appalling in my opinion.

    • Thanks for your points, John. Your point about the bishop’s comment at synod is interesting. I wonder if this is St Christopher’s decision, or the bishop’s position. If the latter, it will be interesting to see if the proposed kitchen-leading-into-nave I started with gets her approval. Blessings.

  12. There is so often a synchronicity with your topics and my life Bosco!

    I took food to a sick friend a few days ago and his wife was really annoyed when they were singing in church that day some woman was drinking coffee and poising her mug between sips on the hymnal rail…

    She thought there was a disrespect and lack of reverence in the behaviour.

    As a musician who has often sung in church I have often had a cup of honeyed tea or bottle of water close by to give an optimal performance…but then I did try to be descreet.

    Maybe that’s what it’s about? Intentionality.

    Chewing gum, very common here in the US, it doesn’t really look good in church, but then I really don’t know why someone would need to be obvious about it, or eating a cough-sweet, or any of the other things people need to do practically.

    People have always needed to nurse their infants, go to the bathroom, take a drink or bite to eat, but maybe it’s the way it is done which makes the difference.

    And this is very separate to my mind of the especial church services in different traditions and cultures where food is very much the part of the spiritual service.

    The service where food was most prominent in my culture in England growing up was Harvest Festival. People didn’t eat but the church was decorated with the fruits of the season and donations for local needy people, which was afterwards distributed.

    In 1 Corinthians the early Christians were exhorted not to arrive at an agape love-feast hungry, it wasn’t about satisfying their human hunger but ‘when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another’.

    It ain’t what we do but the way that we do it??

    • Thanks, Tracy for these, as always, wise thoughts. I teach and we meet in Chapel four times a week. So my throat/voice is often not at its best. I have a glass of water ready, and would often need to take a small sweet to lubricate my throat. I hadn’t thought to add that into the discussion. Blessings.

  13. So many comments about a matter that seems to me trivial. We use our Church for Eucharist/ mass, daily office. sung Evensong (BCP) and frequent lectures on largely non religious topics- “Agitation Hill Lectures”. For instance this year on the influence of 18th C women in spreading Newtonian physics, “Sex, gender and public space’, the future of universities. These, evensong and some other events conclude with wine, savouries, discussion at back of church. i admit at request of rector wine disappears during Lent.

    • That it seems trivial to you may be fine in your context, Brian. That there are so many comments may be a sign that it is not trivial in other contexts. Blessings.

  14. I keep reading about sacred space. Is not all space sacred?

    In the ideas i hear expressed about sacred space I get the sense that God is separated from ordinary life an all too prevalent idea .

    • There are allusions to this, Brian, in this thread; the way we point to some things as sacred as a means to grow into the sacredness of all – as you suggest. Are you suggesting that we stop consecrating buildings (bread, wine, etc)? Blessings.

  15. Good luck with this bosco the tikunga Maori point about not eating in church is not putting food where the mate (body) has lain. So this also applies to funeral directors chapels ie that the food is not served where the body lies. To partially answer George crump,s post, to overlook the other tikunga a cultural practise is to dislocate community. I am generally pretty uncomfortable eating in the nave and prefer to eat and drink in the narthex if it has to happen at church.
    Finally, sorry if this is disjointed I’m in bed with the flu using my iPad which is better for playing scrabble on, the question about chancel/sanctuary, multifaith book launches and devaluing lay people has rather to many perspectives to answer easily but everyone has their role/place in the church and each role/place cannot be carried out without the other, thinking here of lay and ordained. So to with areas of the church. A cup of tea on the altar is a bridge to far though!
    19 hours ago via mobile · Like · 1

  16. Para 77 of Redemptionis Sacramentum (CDW & DE Cardinal Arinze 25 Mar 2004) touches on this and echoes para 9 of Liturgicae Instaurationes. My interpreation is “no Mass where food is present and, if out of grave necessity Mass must be celebrated where ordinary food will be eaten, there must be “a clear interval of time” between the conclusion of the Mass and the beginning of the meal. So, by and large, no food in Church. A previous Bishop of Christchurch prohibited serving a cup of tea at the back of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.

    • Thanks a lot, Ralph. It’s good to have some formal statements like this to “bounce off” (whether or not individuals agree or disagree with the points made). People can find these documents online here and here. Blessings.

  17. Bosco, re your question about blessing buildings I have no problem with blessing as such and a space for divine worship almost implies blessing. yet some of the most significant masses I have assisted at have been in hospital rooms and private houses. As the eucharistic meal is significant to me- to the surprise of many acquaintances- naturally I expect them to be blessed, although I prefer consecrated.. But what the consecrated elements become I leave as a mystery. I note that “bless” originally probably meant mark or consecrate with blood which takes us into a wider sense of religion than just Christianity. As blood could well have meant the essence of life this makes significant sense. Of course being used to translate “Benedicare” it rather narrowed even down to give thanks

  18. I’m back of deck, well sort of, and a bit embarrassed about the punctuation in my last post…sorry. it is awful, but the topic really fired my imagination. I wanted to add one more thing to this discussion…I think there is a huge conversation to have about what ‘sacred’ is and what this means in terms of setting apart our churches and parts within our churches.
    In some places the altar and small sanctuary are enclosed in a cupboard like affair and only opened when church occurs. the nave is used as a hall, community centre, bowling alley and so on for the rest of the week.

    I wish I were a fly on the wall in Christchurch as these things are sorted out, because they are very interesting.

    You may not know that as a result of earthquake inspections, all the Catholic churches in the Wairarapa, except St Pats in Masterton are closed.
    I offered the use of St Mark’s (which the preliminary report says has a 67% or more of bulding code rating) to the local Catholic congregation offering to move our service times to accommodate, but was firmly and politely declined. Sad but true.
    So ‘sacred gathering space’ has another facet.
    Best wishes,

  19. I have found all these comments fascinating and as far as I can ascertain mostly from people who belong to churches that have a narthex, nave, chancel etc. For us at our ‘one room in a paddock’ the realities make a lot of decisions easier. The room was originally used as a school room as was very common in those early days, and a sanctuary is built on at one end. How the people regard the sanctuary appears to be that it is a physical sacred space from which they receive the sacraments and as that it symbolizes respect for each others faith journeys – not all participate in the Eucharistic meal but there is a tacit understanding that this space is important even as a cuppa is being enjoyed on the other side of the communion rail.
    For weddings I always ask anyone entering the sanctuary to acknowledge before they enter and they respond in a very positive way to that. Are they glad to be able to experience the sacred through the rituals of others? I suspect so.
    We tend to have candles for Africa on occasions and maybe other objects on the altar BUT never cups of tea! Need to figure why I feel so strongly about that as presiding at a small table in the body of the church is often done for communion in the round.

    • Thanks, Liz, for your concrete examples. I mentioned the situation you describe, as I have been a vicar of a parish with one of its church buildings (it had six) just as you describe. Blessings.

  20. No, it’s not trivial, as a definition of that word. I need not give here an explanation of the medieval ‘trivium’…

    It is the everyday things as sacred which are sometimes the most difficult: we struggle to both separate and connect what is meaningful spiritually.

    In Mark’s gospel, the oldest, is written

    “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

    Yet the eucharist is still so important to so many.

    People need somehow to translate their spiritual experience into human experience, or else search for spirituality in the everyday.

    That is what the thread here represents.

    We all are inhabited by God and Jesus and the Holy Ghost as we are called, in our culture, in our time.

    Food is one of the most precious human activities, in most cultures an intimate sharing amongst relationships and demonstration of compassion to strangers.

    ‘There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread’ Ghandi said in defense of his nation’s poverty: so that maybe should be the Jesus food in church?

    “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

    I like that.

  21. Jenny makes a good point that there is a huge conversation yet to begin about the concept of ‘sacred’ in our culture. And where food fits onto it – Christians of course have eat/drink built into the centre of our understanding of sacredness, but how does that connect with ordinary/non-ritual eating? Apparently that is suddenly very different when it’s a biscuit in the nave rather than a wafer in the sanctuary ten minutes before!

    It seems all contributors think it’s unacceptable to suck on coffee during the Eucharist, or indeed to bring coffee into contact with the eucharistic space itself after the service, but why do we feel this way? What aspects of our cultural background has fed into this for Pakeha christians? And without knowing quite where the unease comes from, can we judge if it’s a healthy impulse or otherwise? What does it say about our attitude to our bodies?

    What an interesting Lenten study that could make.

    • I’m rather late to this party, but I agree with Marnie.

      Has the Gospel not made all eating and drinking sacred, and indeed, the entire process that ensues from it? We worship the Incarnate God who exalted that extra-ordinary ecosystem which is the body and in his person dignified digestion!

      For me, celebrating communion as a remembered >meal< is the high point of worship, speaking (among many other things) of Jesus' embeddedness in the mass and energy fluxes of this world and his fleshly physicality – as carpenter, with saw-sinewed forearms; as sign-giver, offering bread and wine; as risen Lord, eating fish. It points to the One who 'transgressed' the line between tapu and noa for our sake, accepting the cost of 'breaching containment'.

      When that deep Communion celebration ends without a clear connection to the communion of tea-sipping and biscuits that typically follows (after suitable delay), it brings to me a sense of deflation. A lost theological learning opportunity.




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