2015: Advent Religion: Wait For It

by on December 15, 2015

Should you find yourself invited for a meal by a group of Evangelicals, you may find that the local table manners are not what you are accustomed to.

The best advice I can give you is not to start eating until everyone else does. Depending on the particular group you are with, the time of day, the habits of the person regarded as seniormost, and so forth, the actual mealtime practice varies. There is an element of display, for instance, which is not easily disentangled from the element of increased formality when eating in company.

I advise this wait-and-see approach to avoid violations in the ritual known as Saying Grace. I think this one is fairly commonly known, and practiced cross-denominationally. In the churches I was raised in it was an absolute rule. Washing your hands before dinner was optional, and kind of fussy to insist upon. Saying grace was required. But only at evening meals and church gatherings.

The Grace, with the definite article, is “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all forever and ever, amen.” We said it sometimes at the end of a service, whilst looking about but trying to avoid making actual eye contact. Saying grace, as in the prayer before meals, was unrelated to that form of words and came with the discomforting expectation of free-form praying. It was generally considered to be the province of the socially seniormost man, who was free to pass the honour on to his offspring – especially in family gatherings – or a protegé – especially in church gatherings. Thinking about it, it was a bit like carving the meat. It was a position of masculine responsibility. Women were allowed to say grace, but it was a bit eccentric to ask them to.

Eating does not commence until grace has been said, which usually happens after the food is on the table. At a barbecue or buffet, the grace amounts to a formal announcement that the food is ready. It is frowned upon to say too extended a grace – you are supposed to be sincere and grateful and godly and all of that, but you are also supposed to finish talking and let everyone eat while the food is hot. You are not supposed to say Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub or Heavenly pa, ta, although you are free to make these comments quietly amongst yourselves whilst waiting for grace to be said.

If you are instructed to “say your own grace”, that means that for reasons of haste, informality or quickly-cooling food, a collective prayer is being forgone. As a child, it was important that I fulfilled the expectation to bow my head and pray briefly over my food; as an adult, if you are encouraged to say your own and you don’t feel like it, you can just tuck in. It would be very rude for anyone to comment.

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