Coming to a pub near you?

511px William Hogarth   Beer Street 01 I don't know about you, but out here in the Philadelphia exurbs we are in the grip of the kind of crisis that brings the area to its knees-- about four more inches of snow than apparently anyone expected.

Surely that means it's time for another "church that meets in a pub" story courtesy of correspondent Katie Liesener of the Boston Globe.

This frothy brew also raises some of the same questions as did Tmatt's "open communion" post of a few weeks ago.

Prepare to have your mind boggled -- particularly if it's a few years since you sat in a classroom.

A group of Boston University theology students were gathered at the Crossroads Irish Pub for their usual fish and chips last year when, caught up in theological discussion, someone suddenly asked: Why can't church be more like this?

It was one of those wild propositions typically forgotten by morning. Except they followed through, designing a new kind of church to capture the authenticity they had felt. They welcome all to their services, but with a friendly word of advice: "Feel free to bring your own shot glass for communion."

They're not kidding.

This is the Pub Church: a weekly service held in a pub. Since April, the group has met every Saturday at 5 p.m. to celebrate the divine in a dive, welcoming Christians and non-Christians alike in a setting where notions of God flow as freely as the beer.

What does Leisener mean by "new kind of church"? Or, put another way, in what ways does the "Pub Church" resemble in any significant way a traditional church?

Liesener attempts to answer these questions later in the article, when she quotes Mark DeVine from Samford University.

It's here that the story goes off the rails.

But whether Boston's Pub Church can help spark a newly liberated era, like the American Revolution that simmered in the city's taverns so long ago, is another question. Mark DeVine, an associate professor of divinity at Samford University in Alabama, identifies two strains of emerging churches, or congregations departing from institutional religion. One is evangelical, attracting outsiders to a particular faith; the other exists contentedly without dogma. He believes the latter, which includes the Pub Church, may fall victim to its own openness.

"To the extent that they refuse to define themselves, they may fade away," DeVine said. "People don't invest their time, treasure and talents in something that has no goal, no mission, that's reducible to just a safe place to talk. It's a wonderful idea, but not the basis for a church."

Can we count the assumptions here?

Liesener doesn't quote any students who want to start a revolution beyond one which occurs in a good conversation.

What is "institutional religion?" It's one of those blanket, lowest-common-denominator terms that means nothing.

Since Liesener doesn't quote any emergent leaders, let me suggest that many would assert that they aren't departing from "institutional religion" but moving to renew it.

It isn't until near the article's end that readers find out that the congregation that apparently uses Sam Adams and cheese pizza (no olives?) as sacraments is applying for membership in a Christian denomination.

Still, the Pub Church mirrors some aspects of traditional worship. It is applying for membership with the Disciples of Christ and adopt recognizable Christian rituals, such as communion. Also, though they hoped to rotate pubs every week, they have found themselves as cozy at the Dugout as an evangelical in a favorite pew.

We could probably spend a lot of time on the word "recognizable" -- but let's not.

That being said, the whole issue of what constitutes "communion" is a serious, and to my mind, undercovered issue in the religious media. I've been in nondenominational, conservative churches where congregants were invited to walk up to a side table and have a sip of grape juice and a bite of white bread at the end of the service.

There's the Anglican diocese of Sydney, where the idea of "lay presidency" has long been debated -- and then, of course, there are the many variations on the theme of open communion in Protestant denominations.

Does calling a meal communion make it a sacrament? Imagine the scholars who would like to address that question in a story like this one.

OK. It's unreasonable to expect one article to sum topics theologians have been debating for millenia. But the "meet cute" factor in this story obscures the substantial issues that simmer underneath, and deserve a lot more attention.

Picture: "Beer Street" by Wiliam Hogarth from Wikimedia

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