| |

Sharing Life

An early-morning ecumenical gathering to lament, learn and imagine.

I’m an early riser. Not because I want to be, but because I’ve trained myself to do so. I’m usually up around 5:30 a.m., stopping in the kitchen to grind the coffee beans while trying not to wake the children, and then off to the gym before the sun is up. Once there, I can exercise in a sort of bubble, not having to communicate with others, slowly waking up in a quiet space. By the time I’m back home, I feel more human and freer to speak to others in the family, as well as to begin my on-going daily conversations with God. And while worshipping first thing in the morning is normal for Christians who live in monastic communities, worked at Christian summer camps or who come from expressions of the church who practise morning prayer (my Korean Presbyterian students put me to shame with their early morning devotions!), many of us have trouble imagining being with others in worship at what some might call an “ungodly hour”!

That’s why almost 20 years ago, when I was wrapping up my theological study at The University of Toronto, I was curious to see posters popping up around campus for something called “Wine Before Breakfast.” These cheeky, clever posters were inviting people to an early morning service of Holy Communion that offered the framework of a recognizable liturgy but content that was flexible and close to the contemporary culture. I remember sliding by the Wycliffe College chapel and finding a diverse crowd of students and locals gathered for worship, followed by breakfast in the chaplain’s office.

This past summer my family was back in Ontario and we visited the U of T campus, forcing the children down an impromptu tour of memory lane. We visited the beautiful Harry Potter-like theological colleges one by one. My kids groaned when I got down on one knee in the Trinity College chapel and re-enacted my proposal to their mother. When we crossed the street to Wycliffe College, an evangelical Anglican grad school that’s part of the Toronto School of Theology, I was pleased to see that Wine Before Breakfast was still happening, the usual posters inviting people to break bread in the silence of the morning.

So when Christian Courier asked me to interview Brian Walsh, CRC chaplain at U of T and one of the founders of Wine Before Breakfast, I was more than happy to chat. I spoke to Brian from Vancouver at his country home – Russet House Farm – in the beautiful Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario. Brian noted that his commuter lifestyle now has him part of the week on the farm and the other sleeping on a couch in the chaplain’s office at Wycliffe. 

I asked Brian to take me back to the origins of Wine Before Breakfast (WBB). He noted how the community formed in the wake of September 11. Brian had been hard at work long before that bringing together folks from various campus ministries to prayerfully imagine a common, ecumenical worship time. Conversation partners early on included a diverse group of Christians on campus: Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Catholic and Mennonite all set within the Anglican context of Trinity and Wycliffe colleges.  

Brian shared that the origins of WBB came from the recognition that as a Christian Reformed Church campus minister, he had long played to the strengths of academic rigour and integration of scholarship and discipleship common to those of us who are descendants of John Calvin’s teaching. Brian was increasingly challenged, however, from the work of Paul Ricœur and Walter Brueggemann, about how Christian community could shape imagination. His desire to gather an ecumenically-minded group of Christians from college and community was to experiment with how imagination was shaped by liturgy. WBB was born out of a focus on a shared life dedicated to deepening Christian discipleship, building community on campus and stoking imagination.

With the first gathering scheduled in wake of the worldview-shifting terrorist attacks of September 11, Brian and the other leaders made the critical decision to launch the new worshipping community in lament. Planted in lament. Not a typical birth story of new churches these days. It is a practice that the WBB community has returned to every September, beginning the new school year with a focus on lament. 

So what is Wine Before Breakfast like? With a focus on imagination and liturgy, WBB gathers every Tuesday morning during the school term at 7:22 a.m. in the Wycliffe College chapel.  Nearly 20 years into the experiment, there is a wide variety of participants from the university community, locals living in high rise towers downtown, local clergy and street pastors – all hungry for Communion with God and one another early in the morning. People are greeted and provided a liturgy for the day, as the band sets the space with a performance piece from contemporary culture yoked to the theme of the day. An acknowledgement of the land and Indigenous peoples is shared, and people are invited to sing. The music selected is often a traditional hymn that the musicians interpret in light of the theme of the day. For example, with a focus on lament participants may find themselves singing a familiar hymn in a minor key. 

While worship leadership comes in a variety of forms from within the gathered community, Brian is clear on a couple of non-negotiables:  First, no screens. He argues that our lives are mediated by screens and this early morning worship liberates us from that addiction (perhaps even idolatry?). It may be helpful for us to pause here and consider how many of us check social media as the first action in our daily routine. Second, there is a prohibition on songs that Brian describes as “Jesus is my boyfriend” praise music with a focus on living eternally in heaven. Brian sighed, and you could hear echoes of N.T. Wright as he said, “I’ve spent too much of my ministry fighting a heaven-centric theology.”

The community continues in worship of the Triune God through the reading of God’s Word.  One text only is shared. The leadership team create their own lectionary for the year. Often it is a book of the Bible or a theme-based approached exploring such topics as “Hope before Breakfast – Jeremiah” or “Love before Breakfast – Gospel of John in the Upper Room.” The weekly preacher emerges from the gathered community, having been selected by the leadership team in advance for their particular gifts and skills to interpret a certain text. No random sign-up sheet here; rather, it is a careful, prayerful discernment of who God has called in the community to speak on that text, on that particular day. The community also takes responsibility for the prayers of the people, with worship participants signing up in advance to write prayers. Recognizing the challenge of writing prayers on behalf of others, Brian offers workshops at certain times throughout the year to help people in the crafting of prayers for the community.

From praise, Word and prayer, the community passes the peace and transitions into Communion. Recognizing that the gathering is hosted in an Anglican worship space, WBB has been careful to use Anglican or Lutheran Eucharistic liturgies rather than writing their own. When I inquired about the theology of sacraments at play, Brian suggested that they have developed “a high sacramental theology with a low ecclesiology.” They function with an open table with the main criteria for access being the question, “Are you hungry?” And if so, do those who come forward think and feel this bread and cup will touch that hunger? If yes, they are welcome to come and eat.

After closing prayer, the band performs a reflective piece that aims not for relevance but resonance. Perhaps it’s just my inner Presbyterian, but I had to ask about money. After all, John Wesley was once quoted as saying, “the last part of a person to be converted is their wallet!”  Brian shared that once a semester there is an Offering Tuesday and that many support the ministry regularly through pre-authorized remittance.  This enables the ministry to flourish and to support an “emerging leader” every year – someone from within the community who demonstrates Christian leadership potential and offers those gifts more intentionally for a year within the WBB context.

From the chapel, worship participants flow downstairs to the chaplain’s office for a time of conversation and breakfast together with home baking, fresh preserves, juice and organic coffee. A little more substantial than the usual church “coffee hour,” and yet it prompted me to ask the question, does WBB understand itself to be church or para-church? Brian responded that in the beginning, his pastoral approach was that WBB was a special community gathered on Tuesday mornings with the expressed encouragement that participants would also find a Christian worshipping community on Sundays. Over the years, however, participants have pushed back (gently!) and told Brian, “No, this is my church. Stop telling me it’s not church.”  While most WBB participants also gather in local churches on Sundays, for those who call WBB their church, the community has the marks of a church according to John Calvin, “Whenever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists,” including for WBB the celebration of the Sacrament of Baptism upon occasion.  

As a missiologist, I’m always interested in exploring the link between a worshipping community and a witnessing community as a further mark of the church. To that end, Brian had many stories of how WBB, in both its gathered and scattered state, is a witnessing community. When gathered, the non-hierarchical, participant-driven worship has come to have a surprising additional element over the years – inter-generational. Originally designed for university students, WBB has become a community with a mix of ages. Brian calls these older participants the “grandparents” of the community. He also points to the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in many different relationships within the community over the years as a witness, as well as the commitment of WBB participants to a large number of street ministries in the downtown core of Toronto. In fact, often there are people in worship at 7:22 am setting up the table who have been out late at night serving drug addicts in pop-up safe injection sites. Wine before breakfast after a night of diaconal-like service.

Brian assures me that WBB is a safe space, even for folks like me who want to be in a bubble first thing in the morning. Some come with joy to praise the Lord. Others come longing for the freedom to lament. Some sit quietly, soaking in the service as their tears fall on the pews that have soaked up prayers over the years. WBB has become a community where people’s real struggles find voice and space. Brian calls it a “no B.S.” community, but it is also clear that it is an “H.S.” community. A place nurtured across two decades through the power, presence and purpose of the Holy Spirit as a place of worship, witness and work for the kingdom. Now that’s something worth getting up early for. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *