Salvation Army officer Major Paul Hilditch, member of the Society for Ecumenical Studies, shares his Reflection of the Month for May.

I am not an enthusiastic ecumenist. I am too focused on the disagreements and challenges to fully enjoy the wonder of mixing across denominational boundaries. I am also overly insular in my experience of my denomination. Yes, I know this may be a strange way to write in this context, so I now need to say what I am convinced is true and which I do relish.

Just over 100 years ago, two girls were neighbours, they became friends and this relationship lasted until one was called home. They were both deeply spiritual and had extremely strong faiths. Both were evangelical Protestants but from very different traditions. They were able to enjoy a strong fellowship which was based on their mutual love for Bible reading, prayer, and worship. Having said this, they seldom went to organised worship in each other’s traditions. Even when on holiday with family and friends the two groups would go their separate ways on a Sunday.

I witnessed this from childhood and assumed it to be normal. I also witnessed the sharing around clothes shopping, hairdos, new recipes, and the sharing of news of ever-wider family networks.

The highlight of this networking was often around the meal table. One of them came from a farmer background and was an excellent baker, while the other loved making cakes. A meal was an opportunity to gather many people around the table. This was seldom an overtly religious experience but was one that was marked out with animated chatter, great food, happy reminiscences, and planning for the future.

It became apparent to me, that although the denominational loyalty was strong, there was often a greater loyalty to friendship and fellowship. This loyalty brought people together for family weddings and funerals, along with the celebration of new births and tangible successes.

At the centre of this network was the enduring friendship between two women. It saw them through serious health concerns, challenging situations in the surrounding society (this being Northern Ireland), and the less enjoyable aspects of life in general.

These lessons are an ongoing lesson to me, that meeting around the meal table is a sacred thing. The opportunity to have conversation in this intimate setting should not be overlooked and needs to be multiplied. The demonstrations of hospitality, the natural breaks in the conversation to eat and drink, were all real moments of joy, even if punctuated with the profound and challenging. Bringing others to the table can be an experience of sharing to understand each other more fully in the non-threatening atmosphere of the home.

The multiple examples of this in Scripture are reminders of these lessons. Jesus welcoming the participation of people who may be rejected in the more religious context, and his easy raising of concerns prompts us to continue this pattern. O to be present at that supper in Emmaus (Luke 24), or to even work on the food preparation when three visitors come to call on Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18), or to be among the elders of Israel who are permitted to eat and drink in the presence of God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24).

I write passionately about this fellowshipping at the meal table as a Salvationist, along with the pleasure of meeting other people in the home situation of varied Christian, non-Christian faith and of little or no faith. I also write with passion because one of these women is my mother, while the other is enjoying the real presence of God in Glory.

Major Paul Hilditch has been a lifelong Salvationist and an officer in The Salvation Army since 1989. He has been in ministry in North East England, the Isle of Man, his native Northern Ireland, and for the last 20 years in London. He is now on the staff of William Booth College in Denmark Hill, in South London, where he fronts the degree in Christian Theology and Practice.