Monday, 30 July 2007

Wedding Rites

One of the challenges of putting this particular wedding together must have been the different stances that the bride and groom take towards Jesus. She is a dedicated follower of Christ, the kind that gives Christians a good name; he is a number of steps removed from the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy but the kind of bloke who contributes far more to the richness and rightness of life than many a full blown true believer. The service had to reflect this difference. Clearly a lot of thought went into this and I think it worked really well … but I’m not sure.

Take the songs for instance. They were neither the all-stops-out, full-blooded organ type nor the worship-band, isn’t-Jesus-lovely type. Alongside the overtly Christian Day by Day and Go Peaceful we had Carole King’s You’ve Got A Friend (listen to the soloist and all join in on the chorus) and Bill Withers’ Lean On Me (again cantor and congregational participation). At one level all of this made perfect sense. The groom is a pretty nifty musician, in fact he accompanied the singing on what, from where I was standing, looked like a ukulele, which is also why, alongside the Bible readings, we had snippets of lyrics from classic pop songs.

As I say this made sense but it also felt a bit weird. I’m not used to belting out folk/rock anthems together with a congregation of people in two piece suits or fancy hats. No doubt though it would have been just as weird and slightly less honest for some of the guests to have had to sing full on Songs of Fellowship love songs to Jesus. I’m still trying to get my head and my gut to line upon this one. It does raise an some interesting questions though, questions that many engaged in missional thinking, doing and being would do well to address.

How far do we go in making the Christian faith accessible and amenable to those whom we would like to step inside? How many of the things we do can we strip away while still being true to ourselves? Is this approach genuinely hospitable or does it smack of trying just a bit too hard? Is there a sense in which if we translate our ways of addressing and speaking about God into another language we will no longer be able to speak authentically about God – or at least about our God?

The momentum behind much contemporary mission thinking is undoubtedly towards translating the faith and making it accessible. There are good reasons why this is right and proper, not least the incarnation. But there is a problem with this kind of move: Christian truth is not just distinctively true it is also a distinctive kind of truth and as such depends for its articulation and appropriation on a distinctive kind of language and a peculiar set of practices. To translate is to change and while such change can enrich our appreciation of truth it also runs the risk of irretrievable loss. No doubt unnecessary jargon can get in the way but we just can’t do without our own technical, insider-language.

While it behoves us to reflect on what we mean by terms such as redemption, salvation, sin, discipleship and church but I think we would be wise not to ditch them entirely. Explaining what we mean when we speak and why we do what we do is important but abandoning our native tongue and ditching practices that have always shaped us is not a smart move. We will end up with an accessible but drearily thin form of the faith that may well be instantly palatable but ultimately not very nourishing. Perhaps we ought to give more attention to teaching those who are interested how to speak our language and carefully initiating them into our distinctive ways. But, I hear you say, all this is a long way from the wedding, so to conclude, ladies and gentlemen, I give you … the best man.

On this occasion the groom’s side-kick performed his major part in the British wedding rite with great aplomb. The speech was a cracker - definitely one of the top five I’ve ever heard. (There’s an idea for my side bar.) What made it interesting was that he was - I think - from the none-church going bunch. I don’t know if the bride was at all nervous about the tone of the speech. Some best man speeches I’ve heard would definitely make a vicar blush. This guy got away with it though (at least this particular “vicar” didn’t blush). No doubt some were offended by one of the gags – the funniest of all. He might have got away with even this joke if he’d used the word Onanism instead. But then only the Bible readers in the audience would have got it – and it wouldn't have been nearly as funny. Thing is he was careful enough with his language but not so careful that it became flat or inauthentic.


Kez said...

Mmm. I totally agree with needing discipleship to be distinctive. There is radical call and so radical distinctive following is demanded if you take up the challenge of Jesus and the cross.

But that was what I found in the ceremony. Most of the 'Christian' songs and practices we have don't hold this radical distinctive edge. At least if they do they haven't had much effect given that most of us church folk are middleclass conformists who show little true embodiment of the call Jesus gives (I speak for myself).

In the way there was a fusion of popular and Christian music there was a way for people to access and understand the gravitas and celebration in God.

I am tired of lists of 'the top 50 Christian films' for eg. There are some brilliant films which can contribute to Christian theological discussion without labeling themselves in the category Christian. We can use without threat to ourselves a whole wealth of art and music beyond Mat Redman and see and be blessed by God’s word in it. God is evident and thriving in all our creativity not just church stuff. In fact, sadly, I find creativity often stunted and deformed within traditional church settings, where we do things without thought, cost or understanding of the theology and hope behind them.

So liturgies which speak of God's inclusivity and grace alongside a celebration of God evident outside the artificial walls of church seem really effective to me.

People seemed to get that this was a ceremony that sought to understand the couple committing themselves to each other before God. They didn't go through the motions but took seriously where God is at work in their lives and the lives of their communities.

What I saw was not about making faith acceptable or accessible. That is what was so brilliant about it. It was about looking at the world and seeing the face of Christ.

Discipleship is not distinctive because we sing worship songs or talk the language of Christian generations. It is distinctive when we will give our all for Jesus, because we submit to each other in community in the way of deep friendship the like of which you describe in your next post, because Christ is so central we will work for and be of the least. I reckon if we manage that kind of distinctive (and the Bride and Groom are on their way to this) our language and worship will embody Christ and there will be an increasing freedom for things of the world to be celebrated not mistrusted. It will be our embodiment of the faith that marks us out not our language and church practice. It will be our love for the poor which will shock and separate, not the songs we sing.

By eck this is a long comment. My Appologies

andy amoss said...

'ello Glen,
One of my reflections on the day was simply 'why can't more wedding ceremonies be like this?' This is both in terms of its accessibilty, but also with particular reference to the couple's dealings with the concept of love.

There wasn't a scouring of the Bible to find a single passage that can somehow be twisted to read as though it's about romantic love or the Holy union of marriage(classically 1 Cor 13.4-8a). That particular passage was included, though it was alongside, yes the pop songs you've mentioned, but also three other readings from the Bible about love, thus presenting a well rounded image of what love is and what God requires of us. For me, most noticibly included was Isaiah 58.6-8. I won't put it all in here, go look yourself; but this rooted the whole service in a much truer notion of being married before God and in his love than the type of service i've described above.

ps. Mary T. says hello.

Minnie said...

Interesting to know.