You’ll probably know two things about a ceilidh: 1) its hard to spell if you aren’t familiar with Scottish Gaelic; 2) modern versions involve some pretty energetic dancing which requires vigour. Contrast it with ‘Scottish Country Dancing’ – which is more of a ‘Royal Family at Balmoral’ gentile affair than a real good ceilidh.
The word ceilidh means something much broader than its more modern usage as a Scottish dance night. It means ‘gathering’, and ceilidhs have been a part of Scottish, Irish and even Northumbrian and Anglo-Saxon history for a long time. Ceilidhs were at the centre of the community – gatherings for story, song, a tune, food, conversation, warmth and community…and maybe the odd dance if there was room.
Fast forward to the late 20th century growing up in Scotland, whilst we didn’t call them ceilidhs, they were part of my upbringing. Extended family and friends gathering on a Saturday night – food, drink, songs, uncle on the accordion, lively conversation and just generally being family. It died out along with some of the elder members of the family and they rarely happen in the same way now.
I think, looking back, I’ve always been trying to see if the ceilidh can be replicated in the the context of the church. Here’s why I think the model lends itself:
- Multi-voiced – everyone brings something or contributes something, whether that’s food, drink, music, story, song or [insert your own]. The church at its fullest in scripture, I believe, in its open participatory nature. We see this in 1 Corinthians where everyone has something prepared to bring to the gathering, in partnership with spiritual gifts, teaching, worship and the Lord’s supper in the context of the agape (love) meal.
- Informal – order is important for gatherings, but they’d never have worked if everyone was sat in rows watching granny at the front. The gatherings had a dynamism and such a warmth and spirit. They were in the round, everyone seated in the front room, spilling into the kitchen or the hall. If you’ve ever sat in church and wondered ‘what on earth’, then you know what I mean. I’ve had the privilege over the years of seeing and encouraging glimpses of this emerge in churches I’ve been a part of. It looks nothing like a church service…but should that really be the normative experience of the people of God? I’m just not sure it’s what Jesus had in mind.
- Relational – I grew up in a community where I had close relationships with great-aunts and uncles, first cousins once and twice removed, across all generations, and where that extended to neighbours and friends. A really close knit community where, even now, I can go home and still be surrounded by family but people in the community we knew really, really well. That did spill into the churches that existed in my home town, and those folks became family too. Relationships are where it’s at. And it is relationships that pull people together. It is the quality of the relationships that make the party. You’ll never build an authentically attractive church community without a deeper camaraderie. My granny built a closer community than any parish church could.
- Hospitable – you just always get fed and watered. I was once part of a church where we had the policy of ‘no eat, no meet’ – eating together was at the centre. This was especially important when including people who maybe, because of social circumstances, never ate with their families. Food is a great leveller, and it is key for church. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is either at a meal, leaving a meal, or heading to a meal. It’s biblical to eat… and it’s missional!
So – who knows? I’d like to explore and maybe plant a ceilidh church. Maybe each surrounding village could have one. Jesus loved a party, and I’m sure he’d come.