Nicholas Leggett explains why theology is best discussed over a pint
‘Pub Theology’ was born out of two ideas: one was my thinking about setting up a social group based around the pub which was mainly aimed at men who were on the edge of the church; the other idea was from a member of the church called Peter who had been part of a house group which closed when the lady who was hosting it stopped. He asked if we could do something more ‘meaty’ than a normal house group. So, by joining up these two ideas we had the birth of ‘Pub Theology.’ However, I needed to answer some questions: ‘where, what and how?’
Like so many Anglo-Catholic parishes, St Oswald’s church is based in the middle of a 1950s council estate on the western edge of the city of Coventry. The area has three Anglican and two Roman Catholic churches, and a few small free churches, a good number of shops and six (either rubbish or too large) pubs covering a population of 20,000 souls who, like so many areas of the country, saw large changes from the 1980s on. Coventry has moved from being a car-manufacturing city to a university city and this has seen the loss of local pubs and community social clubs including a very large one across the road from the church which has resulted in the community retreating inwards.
So how do I answer the questions of ‘where, what and how?’ First was the question of where. Being a beer drinker myself I knew all six local pubs, which were either large buildings or in need of a clean-up. Now, one thing I need to point out is that my idea of a good pub is not everyone’s idea of a good pub, but it’s the most important thing for this type of group. So here is my list of what a good ‘Pub Theology’ pub needs. First, good beer. By that I mean local real ale and a good choice. The pub I picked has six good local or national real ales. Secondly, no DJ or music aimed at kids and also no pool table. Next, somewhere where a group of around ten can meet in the main body of the pub. Fourthly, and very importantly, is the support of the landlady/landlord and, lastly, a way to get home afterwards—so a nearby bus stop with a late running bus. Looking at this list, it suggests a local community pub rather than a big city centre Wetherspoon’s, so I picked a pub called the Nursery Tavern which was outside of the city centre and outside of the parish by around two miles.
The next questions were, ‘what and how.’ The idea was to do theology, and we do just that by asking the evening’s leader to take us into an area, which can be anything from a talk on a book of the Bible (we had one on Revelation and another on Jonah) to medical ethics or Messianic Judaism. The leaders are given no time limit, but we find that about an hour or so will cover most subjects without being overwhelming.
We started by having an occasional guest but did most of the sessions ourselves, and I found that having a guest worked better for two reasons: the guest would bring their own subject, which gave the group an excellent variety of material, and the group members really liked having someone new each month—it gave the meeting a better feel. A good range of speakers is as important to the group as a good range of ales and mixing it up and keeping it fresh has helped to grow the group. Over the three years we have welcomed both the Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Dr Christopher Cocksworth, who gave a talk on ‘Mary, Giver of Life’ and the Archdeacon Missioner, Ven Morris Rodham. Revd Dr Mark Bratton, Vicar of Berkswell, has come to us three times and talked on Thomas Merton, Rene Girard and medical ethics. Fr Tom Wintle did a talk on how the Oxford Movement transformed the worship of the Church of England, and Fr Robert Wright looked at the Charismatic Movement. We have also heard from local Lay Readers, our Diocesan Mission Advisor and a local Rabbi, as well as the likes of Fr Darren Smith and Fr Damian Feeney. We have also given the group its own page on our website which led one young student to join our group who has now gone to read Theology at Oxford. After three years the group has around ten members, mostly men, and has really helped in cementing them into the wider church family. I would recommend this approach for any group looking to go deeper than a Bible study house group.
Father Nicholas Leggett is Vicar of St Oswald’s, Tile Hill