Sunday, 30 March 2008

Rockingham Road, stained glass and Edvard Munch

A bright sunny morning, an abundance of daffodils, and James MacMillan's, Vigil:Symphony (the third work in his Triduum, corresponding to Easter Sunday) made up for slight sleep deprivation, as I travelled to Rockingham Road, Kettering for the morning service. There are three Baptist churches in the town, Fuller, named after its famous minister, and two others planted by Fuller, Carey Baptist Church in 1891, and Rockingham Road Baptist Church, in 1945.

Tim Burt, the minister, has done a great job, especially in helping the church to be welcoming, accessible and inclusive of people with learning disabilities. And even though today is a low Sunday, there were a good number of people of all ages and all sorts, and together we continued with the celebration of Easter.

Two things took me by surprise. One was that in a building which is largely functional, attractively so, there is stained glass at the front, depicting Jesus, the Good Shepherd, as a gentle Saviour.

The other was even more unexpected. We went into a room to pray before the service, a room used only by Social Services during the week. In contrast to the usual posters of places of natural beauty with statutory verses of scripture, there was a picture of Edvard Munch's, The Scream, together with some Salvador Dali. This gave me a slight jolt, but as we prayed, and then went into the church for the service, I reflected on how appropriate it was. God embraces us in our entire humanity, in our ecstasy and especially in our agony. Commenting on the visible wounds of the risen Jesus in his appearance to the disciples on the evening of that first Easter Sunday, I quoted Cleverley Ford, 'the sufferings of this world, the cries of the distressed since the world began and until it ends, are echoed in the very heart of God in heaven itself. God suffers because we suffer.'

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Hopeful Imagination

Today I'm posting on the Easter Group blog at Hopeful Imagination on 'The Supper at Emmaus' - you can read it here.

Monday, 24 March 2008


This is a bit late but I blogged on 'CBA Ministers' last week, and it's only just occurred to me to provide a link. You can find it here.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Easter Blessing

He has risen! He is not here!

Happy Easter! And an Easter blessing by Janet Morley:

May the God who shakes heaven and earth,
whom death could not contain,
who lives to disturb and heal us,
bless us with power to go forth
and proclaim the gospel.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Hoy Saturday

'Holy Saturday is the moment when everything stops and waits.'
Tom Wright, in 'The Cross and the Colliery', has been an excellent companion over Holy Week. He manages to write brilliantly at different levels, whether it's in his popular commentaries such as the '... for Today' series, his weightier tomes in the 'Christian Origins and the Questions of God' series, or mid-way in 'Paul: Fresh Perspectives' for example.

'The Cross and the Colliery', a series of sermons given during Holy Week 2007 in Easington, is easily accessible, but reveals the richness and creativity of Tom Wright's mind, as well as a depth of spirituality. Over this last week I have been nourished in mind and soul, and enabled to enter more meaningfully the events of this week.

He writes today, 'Holy Saturday is the sabbath rest after the completion of the work of redemption. Remember how, at the end of the creation account in Genesis, we are told that when God finished all his work on the sixth day he rested on the seventh day. Now John has brought Jesus' redeeming work to its completion, with that great word 'It is finished' as Jesus dies. Hold in your mind all that it means for the Jesus of John's gospel to die: the Word of God, falling silent; the living water, no longer flowing; the bread from heaven, scattered in the long grass; the light of the world, snuffed out; the good shepherd, snatched away from the flock; the grain of wheat, falling into the earth and dying; the Messiah coming to his own people and his own rejecting him. Put them all together, and see them folded in this deep and dark sabbath rest, this seventh day, waiting as we must wait for whatever God will do and bring.'

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Easter Icons 2008

On Tuesday I went to Bunyan Baptist Church, Stevenage, for Easter Icons 2008. This is the fourth year that Bunyan has hosted an Easter space, and its purpose is to provide an aid and inspiration to the preparations for Easter. It's constructed in the church and consists of an interactive, multi-sensory installation which enables you to journey through fourteen stations of the cross. Andy Goodliff is the curator and provided the structure and the words, but this is an event in which a number of the young people with whom he works have made a creative contribution. I found it highly imaginative and effective, employing video loops, music, spoken audio tracks, scripture readings, meditation exercises, prayer actions.

I was particularly moved by several of the stations. 'Jesus is anointed at Bethany' involved spraying yourself with some perfume and asking the question, 'What do I want to be remembered for?' Mk. 14.9. 'The House of the High Priest' presented a wall with a hanging orange, 'Guantanamo' jump-suit and a pair of hand-cuffs. Another, 'Peter's Denial' made the bald statement, 'I am Peter.' And the final station, 'Jesus is laid in the tomb', a large painting of the sealed tomb, had the accompanying words, 'All hope is lost. Jesus dies. Jesus is not the Messiah.'

Bunyan, Stevenage will most definitely celebrate Easter, and with baptisms, but in due course. For now, this Easter space helps to stay with the story from the inside, its building tension, its pain, its desolation and hopelessness. For me it was another meaningful and enriching Holy Week experience. Thank you Andy and friends!

Monday, 17 March 2008

Berkhamsted, St John Passion, and 'The Cross and the Colliery'

Holy Week got off to an excellent start on Sunday with an enjoyable morning at Berkhamsted Baptist Church, where I was preaching, and then in the evening at the Church of Christ the Cornerstone, Milton Keynes. On this occasion I wasn't preaching but attending a performance of the Bach, St John Passion, with the Cornerstone Chamber Choir and Orchestra, conducted by Adrian Boynton.

Last year, their performance of the St Matthew Passion was one of the high points of Holy Week, and while my preference remains with the St Matthew Passion, again, Cornerstone was the place to be. The moments that remain with me include the opening of the tense and brooding prologue, with an undercurrent of busy string activity overlaid with long sustained tones from the lower register of the oboes, flute, and bassoon, interrupted by the Chorus which the proclamation, 'Lord and Master' - you're left in no doubt that this is solemn stuff. There was the aria 'It is fulfilled' which had the right balance of majesty and sorrow, capturing John's emphasis upon the 'lifting up' of Jesus, the enthronement of the King, the glorification of the Son. And then there were the two periods of silence. The first, following the words, 'And, bowing His head, He gave up the ghost.' And the second, at the very end. These were silences that were deep and charged, and were meaningful only because of all that had been. Sometime I may say more about silence in music - a key component.
To add to this, I started Tom Wright's 'The Cross and the Colliery' and was thoroughly delighted by his musical framework. He treats the story of Jesus from Palm Sunday to Good Friday as the melody. The bass part - the musical line which grounds the whole thing - is provided by the Old Testament, as in 'Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures', and in particular the Servant Songs of Isaiah. The tenor part - the part that often tells you if the chord is major or minor, happy or sad - is the story of our own world and our own community. And the alto part - sometimes a bit shy, sometimes doesn't seem very exciting but the harmony isn't complete without it, and sometimes has spectacular things to do - is your part, your own personal story, your private bit of the song. Now, is that good or is that good?

So, not a bad day overall!

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Hymns for the People

I was having a chat with some friends about my last blog and learned that Nigel Wright, the Principal of Spurgeon's College 'teaches' a traditional hymn every Wednesday at prayers. Well done Nigel! I guess this says something significant about the music/worship culture. I've always used the basic principle of choosing the best of the new as well as the best of the old - yes, I know that it begs the question of whose 'best', and this in itself requires some careful attention. But I recognise that using the best of the old is becoming a non-issue in many contemporary churches.

One project which never really took off but I thought was fantastic was the publication of 'Hymns for the People'. It was edited by David Peacock and came out of the Jubilate Group which were responsible for 'Hymns for Today's Church' and a host of other creative worship resources. It described itself as 'Much love traditional hymns, with words sensitively revised and music in a contemporary style'. For the purists, some words remained unchanged! It also included some great brand new hymns.

Of course it raised the question of 'what is a hymn?' and in the preface David Peacock defined a hymn as 'a text that develops a theme in logical sequence.' He deliberately avoided it by its musical characteristics.

I value this resource highly, even more so as sadly it's no longer available. While I appreciate shorter songs, whether they come from the new churches, Taizé, Iona, or the World Church, the way that I'm wired up means that certainly towards the beginning of a worship service I need something which says it with substance, and says it well.

In the conversation with friends we spoke about the hymn, 'O God beyond all praising'. The tune is by Gustav Holst and is taken from 'The Planets - Jupiter'; the words are by Michael Perry and include some gems; and the arrangement in 'Hymns for the People', to be played 'with dignity', is by my good friend Chris Norton. What more could you want? Actually, whenever I sing it, I want to sing it again!

In case you don't know it, here are the words:

O God beyond all praising,
We worship You today,
And sing the love amazing
That songs cannot repay;
For we can only wonder
At every gift you send,
At blessings without number
And mercies without end:
We lift our hearts before You
And wait upon Your word,
We honour and adore You,
Our great and mighty Lord.

Then hear, O gracious Saviour,
Accept the love we bring,
That we who know Your favour
May serve You as our King;
And whether our tomorrows
Be filled with good or ill,
We’ll triumph through our sorrows
And rise to bless You still:
To marvel at Your beauty
And glory in Your ways,
And make a joyful duty
Our sacrifice of praise!

Thursday, 13 March 2008

'Atrocious harmlessness' of worship music?

Although I'm a member of a local Baptist Church, because of my role I don't get to worship there very often. Most Sundays I'm likely to be preaching at one of the churches in the Central Baptist Association. Add to this ordinations and inductions as well as association and national gatherings, I think it's fair to say that I have a reasonable exposure to the worship of our churches, and in turn the wider contemporary music/worship culture.

What strikes me is how very narrow it is. It isn't an exaggeration to say that it feels as though the number of hymns/songs that we sing can be counted on two hands. And I confess that I contribute to this to some degree because if I'm invited to lead worship, not knowing what is familiar I opt for the obvious - it requires a settled ministry to effectively introduce and embed new material. Confession over, I remain concerned.

It seems to me that on one hand there is so much new material - Songs of Fellowship Book Four is now available - and yet we use so little, and what we use tends towards the formulaic both in words and music. In relation to the words, for me what is lacking is imagination and poetry. Feeling slightly mischievous I'm tempted now and again to 'write' a song using all of the words and phrases which recur again and again in many of the songs we sing.

In relation to music, to my way of listening some of the songs have no musical merit at all and are barely singable. Others have a hook which initially attracts but then becomes quickly worn with overuse. I'm not making a case here for high-art in worship, nor for a more formal, 'inherited' expression of worship. What I would like to hear is something with more imagination, reflecting the creativity of the Holy Spirit.

Jeremy Begbie, in Resounding Truth, makes this point better than I can, 'It is disappointing to find an intense musical conservatism in much of the contemporary music scene. Granted that simple songs have their place, that accessibility is one of the key merits of this music, and that this is always going to be ncessary to some extent, one would have hoped that a movement that can put such weight on the Holy Spirit's renewal could generate somewhat more adventurous material. Many songs are in standard four- and eight-bar phrases, using only a few chords of a basic and very well-worn folk or folk-rock tradition. The questions need to be pressed: Is the church prepared to give its musicians room to experiment (and fail), to juxtapose different styles, to educate themselves in music history, to resist the tendency to rely on formulas that "work" with minimum effort and can quickly guarantee seats filled in church - and all this in order that congregational worship can become more theologically responsible, more true to the God who has given us such abundant potential for developing fresh musical sounds?'

He extends this in speaking of worship music that reflects an attitude of escape from the reality of this broken world that God in Christ gave himself for, rather than an engagement with it, 'We probably need to reckon with the fact that much music that goes under the label "Christian" has been "atrociously harmless" - and I am thinking of a wide variety of styles here - with a relatively small repertoire of easy-to-listen-to chords, with so little sense of the world's dissonance, of the clanking distortions and contradictions of human rebellion, of the clashing and grinding of evil, in short, of the realities that pervade the lives of so many people and that God came to engage directly at Golgotha.'

I'm wondering if this counts as my first rant on blog-world! Maybe, but I think this is an important issue and it would be good to hear other thoughts.

Saturday, 8 March 2008


Just prior to Holy Week I engage in a pleasurable ritual: I compile a collection of CD’s for the season. They include Haydn’s string quartet 'The Seven Last Words of Jesus Christ', The Messiah, The St Matthew Passion, and The St John Passion, Arvo Pärt’s Passio, and Schubert’s String Quintet in C major – the slow movement of which has a Good Friday connection for me thanks to Jim Cotter. Another piece which has particular significance is James MacMillan’s, Seven Last Words from the Cross – a brilliant work!

This year, in anticipation, and inspired by Jeremy Begbie, I’ve acquired James MacMillan’s Triduum. This consists of three interrelated works which form a triptych, and correspond to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. They’re distinct works and different in make-up. The first has the title, 'The World’s Ransoming', and is a concerto for cor anglais and orchestra; the second, a Cello Concerto, written for Mtislav Rostropovich; and the third, Symphony: Vigil, a large symphonic work.

MacMillan is a deeply committed Roman Catholic, whose faith is central to his music. In contrast to the 'new simplicity' of the 'holy minimalists' (John Tavener and Arvo Pärt), MacMillan’s music explores and expresses vividly the pain and ugliness of the world, as well as its beauty and hope. This is music with massive tension (as well as resolution in due course) and not the sort of thing to listen to if you want a bit of quasi spiritual chilling! In particular, the Triduum provides a powerful means to somhow enter into the experience from the inside, to feel the pain of Good Friday and the despair of Saturday before the joy of Easter Sunday. But it requires time, putting ourselves within a time frame and resisting the pull to cut to the chase, to get there because we already know the outcome, to prematurely proclaim, 'Christ is risen, he is risen indeed. Alleluia!' And this is no small challenge for some of us!

I’m becoming acquainted with the Triduum before Holy Week, because it’s music which isn't immediately accessible, it makes demands. MacMillan himself says, 'Music needs us to sacrifice something of ourselves to meet it, and it’s very difficult sometimes to do that, especially in the whole culture we’re in.' And again, this seems wholly appropriate if we are to enter more meaningfully into this life-defining story.

Canterbury and York on Blog-world

Interesting and wise responses - would you expect anything else? - from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York when Maggie asked them about blog-world.

Archbishop of Canterbury, 'perhaps the more worrying issue is that it can in some ways encourage unreflective expression – it’s possible simply to think it, and say it, without any thought. When that happens in personal conversation, there is a humanising effect. But on the screen, it’s less human.'

Archbishop of York, 'when people write without thinking, it can get very difficult; it can be offensive and troublesome. The best of what’s there on the blogs is from those who take a little time to reflect before they publish.' He went on to say, 'But there is no choice about whether we engage with this new media. It’s the world we are in – the Church has to engage with it!'

I have to say that in my experience I’ve only been drawn to those who say it with thought, reflectively, rather than those who don’t! Thank you to those who have given me regular nourishment in what they say.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Itzhak Perlman: Lessons from a maestro

Just read this inspiring article on Itzhak Perlman in The Independent. This is a human being who has a massive love of life. There are a number of gems but I particularly like this one:

'Making music is a bit like cooking. If you follow a recipe for a certain cake, it will, if the ingredients and the oven temperature are correct, turn out more or less the same each time you do it. So maybe one day you put in a few almonds or a squeeze of lemon, perhaps you do something else a bit different – imperceptible changes that can make a great cake into an amazing cake. In music, you don't always follow the same recipe. It depends how you feel in the moment – you might want to make a tiny right turn instead of a left. Surprising things can happen if you don't always pick the same direction.'
The YouTube link isn't available any longer, so try here and enjoy, as Itzhak so obviously does!

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

National Settlement Team, orange marmalade bread and butter pudding, and the rhythm of Jesus

I’ve just returned from National Settlement Team (NST) and Team Leaders’ meetings. They take place over three days at the beginning of most months and we stay at Charney Manor, an old Quaker meeting house in Charney Bassett, Oxfordshire.

NST is the occasion when the Regional Minister Team Leaders meet from the different Associations throughout the country to help churches find ministers and ministers find churches. It’s both prayerful and careful and there is an appropriate seriousness, but also it has its moments of fun. This then runs into the Team Leaders’ meeting on Tuesday afternoon.

It’s something we look forward to: the task is a privilege, the company is excellent, the setting is picturesque, the food is exceptional, (especially the deserts: orange marmalade bread and butter pudding, syrup sponge pudding, creamy rice pudding with skin), and the village pub serves good beer and wine as well as providing a venue for live folk music on a Tuesday evening.

Over the three days we pray together and on Wednesday one of my colleagues, Phil, led us in a characteristically creative and inspired reflection. We thought about John 11 and the death and resurrection of Lazarus, and went on to explore together the strong sense that Jesus consistently seems to be moving to a different rhythm. Jairus pleads with Jesus to come to his house because his twelve year old daughter is dying, and yet Jesus takes his time with a woman who touches his cloak. And here in John 11 Jesus knows that his friend Lazarus has died yet he stays where he is for two more days.

We thought about our lives and ministries, especially in the crises, noting the difference in the rhythm that we find ourselves so often adopting. Phil went on to say a prayer that he had written which summed it up helfpully. It can be found on the Industrial Christian Fellowship web-site here:

Timeless God, at the dawn of our existence
you set the rhythms of the universe in motion,
day follows night as the earth spins her course,
heralding each new season as year follows year.

The mountain streams flow into rivers
that fill the oceans,
whose vapours are caught up in the clouds
to be poured out again
on the misty mountain peaks.

And the rhythms that we so often follow
seem so puny when compared:
the nine to five and morning rush,
the nightshift, day shift and working time directive,
timetables, tachographs and meeting plans,
the TV listings and appointments at the gym.

When you send us sunshine
we turn up the air conditioning
and the golden tones of autumn
make their apology as leaves on the line.

Help us loving Father
in the busyness of schedules of our own creating,
to seek out your rhythm
and live lives that pulsate to the beat
set by the one who holds this world together. Amen.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Music in Worship - the event

Thank you to those who posted on 'What's the one thing you want to say to musicians in worship?' I appreciated your comments and integrated them into the session I took this morning on 'Music in Worship' as part of the CBA Barnabas Weekend.

And it went really well! I used to do music and worship stuff a lot but it's been a long time since I've done one of these sessions and I had such a good time that I'm wondering whether to extend this across the association. We had a larger number than expected who were fun and responsive, sharing good practice and airing frustrations, as well as being open and receptive to what I had to say.

I reminded them that worship has the potential to be hijacked not only by tyrannical organists but by oppressive music groups and they took the point! (They also proffered some remarks about ministers!) Much of it was highly practical, about playing within your competence, keeping things simple, keeping a strong melody, singing sing-able material, providing clear introductions, links, and definite endings. We thought about the need to be predictable as well as looking for ways to 'violate expectation' creatively and productively. I encouraged them to use the full musical pallet that God has given us and not just one colour. And I think I only got on my soap box once when I said, 'If you sing, sing, don't moan and groan.'

What was really well received was John Bell's brilliant 'Ten Golden Rules for enabling the least confident of people to teach new songs to the most cynical of congregations'. I love rule 5 with his comment, 'Always introduce a new song with enthusiasm; never with an apology. To tell a group of people that they ''have'' to learn a new song the that they ''might'' pick it up is as appropriate as a tickling stick at a funeral.'

So a positive experience and one probably worth repeating and developing.