Greenbelt Communion

(Greenbelt Festival Communion, Sunday 29th August 2011)

greenbelt communion

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.

Eucharist by Blessed

(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.

I have a short video to attach but a few technical difficulties standing in the way before you can see it.  Stay tuned.