(Greenbelt Festival, Big Top, 5.30pm Friday 26th August 2011)
A Big Top filled with smoke doesn’t usually have a sacred connatation to it, but the distinctive smell of insense was unmistakable from the tent entrance and beckoned me in towards the up beat welcomers handing out bottles of bubbles and then further in towards the formally robed attendants swinging insence and hoisting a tall cross. There is correct liturgical terminology for these things but somehow the fact that I can’t bring those words to mind is appropriate.
Up on stage a rock band (complete with long haired, head banging guitarist) signals the start of the procession with enthusiastic rigour. It’s a song I know from the radio and have often sung doing my own translation to put Jesus as lover of my soul. The table is crowded with robed priests who move along to the music freely and enthusiasticly – but totally unforced. As a member of the congregation on the Big Top grass I can make myself completely at home and I engage my body in worship freely. Others around me are clearly more familiar with the ‘correct’ movements and do their own thing but in no way do I feel a need to conform. As I wrote this reflection in the Greenbelt fields after the service I watched some of the Blessed team trapesing through Cheltenham Racecourse with liturgical gear by the armfull. It should feel like a circus, but somehow it doesn’t.
There is music and moving image to every aspect of the liturgy but the words are a straight Catholic Mass. Often the exact wording is tweeked slightly to form a different metre to the poetry, but the content is dissernably unchanged. The congregation is enaged through song, spoken prayers and liturgical action. You’d be a bit lost if you couldn’t read, because the images on the screen added meaning to the words rather than indicated them directly.
The theme of the service was ‘home’ (as it is for the whole of the Greenbelt festival) and each element of the liturgy is linked to the home image somehow. Confession is in the bathroom, cleaning up after communion is in the kitchen! We are encouraged to compare a wordly view of home with a heavenly one, which is of course, a very powerful image when it gets to the Lord’s Supper and images of a slick magazine home are contrasted with the radical hospitality of the Lord’s table. A highlight for me was the confession where the priest’s used the image of washing away the dirt and glorying in the soap bubbles of forgiveness. Every priest and attendant around the alter have a bubble machine and a cloud of bubbles quickly engulf the stage and drift out to the congregation. The congregation themselves pull out their own bubbles (interestingly needing no instruction to do so) and joined in the declaration of forgiveness. It was a joy to blow bubbles over strangers sharing the grace of the gospel.
The obvious question for worship such as this is: Did the gross disjunture between ancient and contemporary styles jar? My answer: yeah, a little. I wasn’t totally convinced by the authenticity of the traditional elements. There were moments which bordered on entertainment, perhaps because the technology necessitated attention from the presiding priest and therefore required him to have substantial spiritual skill to inhabit the prayers selflessly. However, I loved having music I listen to at home bring the prayers to life which meant that my whole self was engaged in the liturgy.
The important theological question for worship such as this is: How did the changed style effect the theology of the liturgy? This worship was quite an individual experience: I was there doing my own thing, the priests and people in robes were up the front doing their thing and the congregation could not have been there as far as I was concerned. However, I think this was a function of it’s context at a festival with transient congregation and if it were a weekly occurance a sense of shared journey through the liturgy would evolve.
As a participant, I found the theology expressed in the liturgy strongly correlated to a traditionally expressed Catholic Mass. I am conscious of this largely because the aspects of the liturgy that I usally find difficult as a Protestant, I still found difficult in this mass. The Roman understanding of the ‘sacrafice of communion’ being done by the priests on behalf of the people was clear. Similarly, bread and wine was distribed in stations by those robed and it felt a little like the robed ones were in control and were controlling the movements of God. Anglican Bishops Mary Gray-Greeves and Michael Perham have written a theological reflection of fresh expressions in the Anglican Sacramental tradition in their book The Hospitality of God. They write about an “’indigenous authenticity’, as a descriptor of the way authority works in emergent communities and its impact on worship and communal life.” (p. 29) In that case, the lived experience of the community begins to influence and rearrange the liturgy of the people (a version of lex credendi re-forms lex orandi). This was not happening in the Blessed Eucharist. This was a clear attempt to faithfully transfer the inherited tradition into a new context.