(Greenbelt Festival Communion, Sunday 29th August 2011)
To state the obvious, there is something very particular about joining in worship with 20,000 other people. We gather as for a rock concert, find our friends, find a space on the grass, and find a ‘communion bag’ which we are told is required for the distribution of bread and wine later on. Through all this there is ‘warm up music’ which helps to keep the festive atmosphere but does nothing to indicate that this time and space is any different from whatever we have just come. Whether intentional or not, that of course made a clear theological statement about worship – that the everyday and the sacred are not so separate – and that sets the tone for the whole service.
The music is upbeat black gospel (though with a white, male pastor leading from his electronic keyboard) which is well chosen for it’s capacity to serve as a common musical language through-out the crowd. Printed words aren’t necessary to participate, because you can hum, dance, or make up words to sing if you don’t know the songs. We cheer at the close of the music, which is something we do through-out the service when there is something we like. At some point there was a transition between the warm up music and the opening call to praise songs, but I don’t remember that, I remember the crowd’s applause and the band leaving the stage to be replaced by a lone pastor in grey clergy shirt who leads us into a time of prayer.
The grey-shirted pastor directs us through an activity making paper chains (the material is in our communion bag) which is fun and kind of relief (to me at least) to reconnect with those I came with, re-establishing some relationally after the big sing. However, we are unprepared for the close of the activity when the pastor suggests the meaning of this ritual was to remind us of the broken heart of God and the need to confess our sins. Perhaps it was just an execution shortfall, but I’m not sure anyone in my little group would have managed a heart felt prayer at this point. In contrast, the intercessions followed on from here followed a more standard format and focussing on prayers for the Holy Land. They were led by two pray-ers from the front (who said all the words without responses from the congregation) and differed from my traditional sunday context only in the amount of information contained in the prayers which was a useful adjustment considering this context and did actually help us to pray for the world.
Next came the bible reading which was introduced by another activity, aimed at helping us to pay attention to the text. It strikes me at this point it is the first I hear about the theme of the worship, the first use of the bible that I am aware, and the first directing of my attention to a particular aspect of God to engage with in worship. The reading is the prologue to John’s gospel and we are squeeze a piece of flesh (appropriately) whenever we hear the relevant words read out. It was fun, again helped to establish a more personal connection with my fellow worshippers, and did actually help me to listen closer to the text as it was being read. It was followed by a traditionally formatted 10 minute sermon.
There is an attempt at a creative symbolism following the sermon to reinforce the message of the sermon. However the mechanics are too much in evidence, it’s not close enough to the preacher’s chosen direction of the text, and it is not ‘big’ enough to embrace the entire crowd: so it falls a little flat and has the effect of dumbing down the sermon’s message rather than bringing it home. The uncurling of colourful ribbons is arranged to form a ‘tabernacle’ over the front of the crowd, because Jesus came to tabernacle with us. When creativity doesn’t work like this, it’s disruptive to the experience of inward connection with God and each other.
The communion element of the service was led by a robed priest following a liturgy written down in a colour printed booklet, with responses for the congregation to follow. Haven’t not needed to read up until this point, it clearly marked a transition in the worship. It was another point of disjunction for me however, as it drew my attention downwards rather than upwards, when we had the whole expanse of sky available to resource our prayers and direct our hearts to heaven (an essential movement of eucharistic prayer). What did work very well was the communion packs which contained bread and wine so that as the president raised the elements at the table, the people raised them in the congregation and joined them together. This was a communion where the priest celebrates as a facilitator of the whole people of God giving thanks together, rather than re-enacting the sacrifice on behalf of the people. It was significant to share the bread and wine intimately amongst each other, to make sure strangers and friends all had enough, to be able to join in the blessing of table hospitality together.
The service finished with a song and final blessing and we all dispersed without much sense of having engaged with anything particular. The festival rolled on. The service lacked power. There was no expectation of transformation or transcendence. It was a moment within the Greenbelt program, but not a moment to stop and encounter significance over and above anything else that was going on. It’s difficult to know of course how much of this was intended. In one sense, the idea that ‘worship’ is no more or less special than any other Greenbelt activity would be a common perspective for the congregation. In another sense, I think the lack of effective engagement may have come from the
liturgy trying to hard to connect with the congregation instead of focusing it’s energies connecting with God. A well formed liturgy that has a consistent approach to God has the capacity to draw a congregation’s interest and passion. Whereas a liturgy which is preoccupied with the people, rather than God, cannot possibly hope to please 20,000 all at the same time! Whereas the eternal story of Jesus Christ has the power to draw in people across all time and space. Hence, any liturgy where God is presented has the power to be transformative.