Monday, 22 December 2008

Carols X 2

Thought I’d sign off for Christmas with a whinge. It’s traditional.

Went to a carols by candlelight service last night at one of our local Anglican churches. On the surface it was very impressive. Up on the stage the professionals and their acolytes were quite a sight in their ecclesiastical Christmas finery. The choir was one of the best parish choirs I’ve ever heard. The organ was played with great skill and sensitivity. The readers were nigh-on word perfect. Even the token child reader spoke with a clarity of diction and a confidence that was remarkable. The setting was beautiful. The sense of Christmas hung heavy in the air. And everyone in the congregation was reduced to the status of near passive observers. I did a count, eight pieces where the choir did their thing and seven where we were allowed to join in. Even when given the chance to sing most did so very hesitantly. “We can’t compete with singing like that! What if we sing a bum note?”

C’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas l'eglise. If this was an act of worship, then I’m an altar boy.

Contrast our own morning service, “Nativity Activity”. Amateurism at its best. Unlike the evening carol concert, sorry service, no one would have paid a penny to see it. But to be there and to participate was wonderful, richly human and genuinely worshipful. Anyone arriving in time for the start at 10.00 (and many didn’t … no problem) would have found a building taken over by toddlers and their parents gluing, dressing up and spraying glitter in all directions. This was a D.I.Y nativity. Get stuck in. Get messy. No lines to learn. "Anyone want to be the donkey?" "Now I need three kings." It worked wonderfully. The combination of carols lite, and doctored nursery rhymes (Twinkle, Twinkle Christmas star) was exactly what was called for. Here was a church creatively connecting with its toddler group and baby club in a way that had “unchurched” parents joining in with enthusiasm, building a sense of belonging and worshiping all at the same time.

Church is what we do, not something done to us. No matter how professionally.


Geoff Colmer said...

Thanks for this Glen. I read it just before I went to a Festival of Lessons and Carols and so it made the event even more of an experience. I've just blogged on it and in doing so respond to your stimulating blog.

Glen Marshall said...

Thanks Geoff, just read your's.

I agree with lots of what you say. Spot on. Our mystery-strangling rationalism and pragmatism diminish us hugely as does our tendency to scorn any concern for the aesthetic. Preaching as performance? Yes. Would that more preachers would own that reality and embrace it while remembering of course that preaching must be far more than MERE performance.

My main issue with the carol service was the way in which it effectively disabled the congregation as participants in what purported to be a corporate act of worship. This and the unavoidable hierarchical (literally hier-archical) subtext that goes with clerical garb and the rest of the rigmarole. We even had the vicar sitting on the dais throughout the entire service despite the fact that he didn't have anything at all to do or say. Minister as pater familias? Minister as totem? Minister as Christmas decoration?

Is our own worship tending to become more and more of a performance? Dead right it is. It's a tragic irony that the charismatic movement which began by democratising worship, encouraging participation and adopting an accessible truly "folk" style of music has now turned into an overly complex band-dominated affair with often unsingable songs.

None of which is to deny that witnessing performance or encountering art can be an act of worship. Of course it can. Thank God thank God thank God. No it's all about context. If the service had been advertised as a carol concert it wouldn't have got to me the way it did.

My fear is that the consumerism of much contemporary church life is fostering a damaging medieval mentality towards spirituality. The kind of mentality where we distinguish between the truly holy ones (whether priests or band members) who do the religious stuff and the rest of us (them) who simply sit back and allow the wake of spiritual performance to wash over us (them).

So: aesthetics - yes; mystery - yes; performance - yes ... as long as it encourages hearty participation and corporate ownership of worship.

Catriona said...

I think there's a lot of truth in what both of you say. High church worship done well can be incredibly powerful (the most profound Good Friday service I ever attended was at an RC church, full of dressing up (and down)symbol and ritual) and low church Baptist song-fests can be as much a spectator sport as the cathedral experience.

'Minister as totem' - well 'minister as icon' (in its proper cultic/religious sense)is certainly an element of RC/Catholic/Orthodox understanding, so maybe, yes (The public removal of the priest's bejewelled robes leaving him in his plain black cassock on Maundy Thursday is powerful incarnate iconography). I understand (and agree with) what you are saying about people sitting on 'stage' and doing nothing but guess that theologically maybe he was doing/being something, even if it wouldn't suit our low church theology.

'If that was worship then I'm an altar boy' - well then you'd get to dress up in a frilly surplice and sit on the stage holding a candle or a book and feeling part of it all! ;-)

Now I'm just wondering what Catriona leading worship wearing Santa hat might have said to my congregation last Sunday.... (the Methodist looked like he'd just strolled in from walking the dog and the Anglican as if she'd hot-footed it from a funeral in black from head to foot...)

Geoff Colmer said...

(I've posted this on my blog but in the event that you don't pick it up, wanted to post here.)

It would be so good to chat sometime! I share your concerns about hierarchy; and as someone who was deeply impacted in my early Christian life by Fisherfolk and St Michael-le-Belfrey, pine for the simplicity and accessibility of that experience of worship (somehow they managed to do mystery, aesthetics and performance as well).

I think that these issues are increasingly important for us and I wonder where the present trajectory will take us.

I hope that Christmas for you will contain some mystery and aesthetics, and that at least some of that might be experienced through Laphroaig and Charlie Parker/Jan Gabarek and company!

Phil B said...

Did you hear the Gospel at either "service"?

Glen Marshall said...

Phil - neither service had preaching but both told the story of the incarnation so, for me, yes. Whether others heard the gospel is another matter.

andy goodliff said...

(posted this also on geoff's post)

I want to hold on to something of the priest/minister as representative ... to not completely strip them of everything to see them just as the paid member of the church ...

I think worship can be worship even when we're not singing or saying anything ... there's something about a good carol service and hopefully the tenenbrae service i did last year and repeating this year, that people are drawn into, engage with, without overtly doing anything ... i miss a good carol service with a choir not singing twee ballards ... but actual choral music

Glen Marshall said...

Andy - no problem with minister as representative and deffinitely not just a paid functionary. But that doesn't have to entail peculiar status, elevation and special frocks or titles or dog collars. Representatives in with and among but not over and above.

I'm now going to do what I'm supposed to be doing before she gets back. Have a good 'un.

Neil said...

How about Ministers as Icon in the sense that they are called by God to point people to God and to participate in life with God?

As someone who will, by tomorrow lunchtime, have participated in 5 Christmas / Carol events, and a couple of advent themed ones over the previous couple of weeks, all I can say is balancing these various issues is hard work.

Personally I tend not to preach at carol services but use the links between carols as opportunities to make helpful (I hope) comments.

But balancing doing something to the best of our ability, involving the whole congregation in worship and in a style that is appropriate for the people of God and those who are seeking isn't entirely straightforward.

Thanks for the thought provoking question though.

Anonymous said...

Andy Jones said:

Just found this, so sorry to comment so long after you wrapped the last present and finally got round to icing the cake. Hope the discussion hasn't gone stale!

I was struck by the service our young people (20-somethings and the odd 30 year old) put together just before Christmas. Words for the songs and projected images on a screen, music on CD, a Nooma DVD and a short message delivered in darkness/candle light so the preacher (not me) was virtually anonymous. The Grace at the end was projected on the screen but not said.

The over 40s who attended did their hand waving, kneeling, demonstrative, semi-participative bit. Everyone under 40 watched, made hot chocolate, went to the loo, sang quietly if at all, but still seemed to be engaged.

Worship or performance?