Last night I was onto my second glass of champagne at a pre-dinner reception when I was asked to say grace at dinner. The dinner itself was a formal affair – black tie and all that – and was being held in what had once been a stately home. It was the annual dinner of the Coroners Society of South East England, and I was there in my role as a’ tag-on’ – supporting Caroline in her role as HM Coroner for Essex. I guess that there were about 25 of us, all seated around one magnificent table.
This then was the setting. And over the years I have often been asked to say grace at such dinners. Normally I am asked ahead of time, and as a result normally I have prepared something appropriate for the occasion. But this time I was given more or less no notice. So what to do? I decided to be short and simple. When the moment came, I prayed: “Father God, for good friends and for good food, we thank you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
Later that evening as we went to bed Caroline expressed her displeasure at the grace. “You should have said a much longer grace!”. In the presence of the Chief Coroner, the national president of the Coroners Society of England and Wales, and of course all the coroners of the South East England, she felt something more elaborate was called for.
Was she right – or was she wrong? Being somewhat cussed, I thought that I would marshal some arguments in my defence:
In the first place, when most of the people at the dinner are not themselves in the habit of saying Grace, I think that there is a lot to be said for brevity. If I were not a Christian, I don’t think that I would appreciate a long-winded prayer. Indeed, even as a Christian, I do not normally appreciate long-winded prayers before a meal.
In the second place, the key issue is surely that God is thanked – whether briefly or at length is surely of less importance. I am fairly certain that had I not been present, there would have been no Grace. But I was present, and therefore I was asked. And in saying Grace, I was directing the attention of everyone to God, the Giver of all Things
In the third place, in spite of the brevity of the prayer, I was also specifically pointing to Jesus – for I consciously ended my prayer “in Jesus’ name”. I remember how at one Rotary dinner I was asked by the President not to refer to Jesus, because people of other faiths or indeed no faith might be present . As a Christian minister I felt duty-bound to ignore that request, and on that occasion – as indeed last night – I prayed in the name of Jesus.
Yes, maybe I could have prayed at greater length. When I said Grace at a Dinner of the National Coroners’ Society of England and Wales, at which a number of Jews were present, I began my prayer with some words from Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits”, and went on:-
Father God – for all the good things of this life, we bless you
For all the friendships in this room, we bless you
For all the stimulation of this conference, we bless you
For tonight’s banquet and all the food & drink we shall enjoy, we bless you
Above all, for your love which never lets us go, we bless you.
In Jesus’ name. Amen
Interestingly, afterwards several coroners asked me what it meant to “bless God”. They had not realised that for Jews to bless God is first and foremost to thank God for his blessing.
So what do you think? How should I say grace at a formal dinner?