To Tea and Be, or Not to Tea and Be?

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In The Book of Tea (1906), written by Japan’s Kakuzō Okakura and later published in English in the United States as a guidebook to be read in the lounge rooms of New York socialites, Okakura says of tea: ‘(I)t has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa’. He doesn’t give a succinct description of tea (the book is 116 pages long) but the title alone is enough for us to know he was seriously committed to his tea.

Perhaps if I was to extend Okakura’s comment to include tea I might say it has the ‘calm presence of a negotiator, and the quiet confidence of a healing balm’. Tea was used by the suppressed Japanese Church as a subversive Communion drink, to end wars, and to bring reconciliation.

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I am a lightweight theologian and a heavyweight practitioner of the worship arts. As a pastor and curator of worship, my commitment is to the local communities of Christians who gather for worship from week-to-week or from time-to-time, more or less regularly; to those followers of Jesus, or those not yet, who gather at festivals and conferences.

These are the people I want to help sustain in their following of Jesus in their worlds; or introduce them to that possibility. My purpose is always to design space and liturgy that will offer the potential for liminal moments in which they might engage heart, soul, mind, strength with the Trinitarian community of God.

My most recent projects have been iterations of a tea ceremony. Originally designed to be one chapel of a dozen or so at the annual Festival One held outside of Auckland in Aotearoa-New Zealand, ‘Tea & Be’ brought together my enjoyment of tea drinking and my belief that God primarily calls us to being – in relationship with the Godhead – rather than to doing. My generalised overstatement of this to my community is to say that God doesn’t care about anything you do, only about who you are becoming and being, in relationship with God.

‘Tea & Be’ invited people to pre-register in groups of 14 (with no more than 3 people known to you) for a 45-minute session of tea and conversation. Places at the long narrow table were set out with high-quality teaware, and a placemat that described the six teas on offer suggested some conversation starters and offered a place to journal responses. A small block placed on the placemat allowed each participant to display ‘Talk’ or ‘Be’ sides and so control their active participation in one or the other mode.

After a 10-minute introduction to the history of tea, its use as Communion when Christianity was suppressed in Japan, how to use the teaware, slurping, and other aspects of the session, people were invited to observe the texture and smell of the high-quality loose-leaf tea they had chosen; then, following a Prayer for Tea, to drink and converse with those around them. The style of teaware made it possible to also try teas chosen by others.

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In the week before the festival, I wondered if the concept was crazy and if anyone would turn up. Others felt similarly! By one third of the way into the festival, all 23 sessions were fully signed up and people not registered turned up hoping to take the place of aregistered non-starter. More than 300 people were served.

All used tea leaves and dregs were poured into a tall glass phial and stood as a visual reminder of the conversations that had taken place around the table. Placemats were hung on the exterior fence of the chapel for anyone to read the journal notes and tea choices made by participants. Written and verbal responses were very moving. People found something going on beyond the individual elements of a cup of tea and a conversation with someone they didn’t know. God was present, and for many people that encounter with the other and the Other was very significant.

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Why? I am not sure, but wonder if it was the mixture of informal ritual, permission given to slow down and just be during a busy and noisy festival, opportunity for deeper connection with another person/people (or perhaps the opportunity of a connection for some), hints at eucharistic/table re-imagining, being served, and it all offered in a safe space.

My tea crew was keen to maintain the concept, and since festival we have reframed it to work in several worship services, conferences and gatherings with numbers up to 110. The ritual continues to evolve and be shaped by our experience of it.

My answer to the title question is an unequivocal “yes!” to Tea & Be.

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Mark Pierson is a reject from the Baptist denomination and has pastored/curated the Rhythms of Grace community under the independent Upper Room Church in Newmarket, Auckland, for the last four and a half years. He is author of The Art of Curating Worship: Reshaping the Role of Worship Leader. He very ocassionally posts something on his website, where an expanded account of ‘Tea & Be’ can also be found. In January 2020, ‘Tea & Be’ sessions in a range of styles will be offered at Festival One, and in July 2020 at a gathering of pastoral leaders exploring ways to understand and sustain artists in the congregations.

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