Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Festival of Lessons and Carols at St Albans

On Monday evening, we went as a family to St Alban's Cathedral for the Festival of Lessons and Carols. Interestingly, I'd just read nah then, which was sort of appreciative of this sort of thing, but asked the question, is it really an act of worship? 

For me, this event is a high point in the journey towards Christmas. The overall impact is so very different from what we as Baptists do, even accepting our diversity. We don't do buildings that are huge and seriously old. We don't do robed choirs made up predominantly of boys. We don't do ceremonial clerical dress and carefully choreographed movements, nor do we use such a structured liturgy which is followed to the letter. We do candles in some of our churches, but not in the number or with the same effect. We do organs, though far less frequently these days, and overall not very well.

Last night, all of this was done spectacularly. The readings, eight of them, were constructed around John chapter one. We sang seven carols. As the bell struck at eight o'clock, and the cathedral was plunged into darkness save for candlelight, the choir sang from a far distance as they progressed in, a gorgeous arrangement of 'Silent night'.  They also sang a new work by Simon Johnson, 'O Magnum Mysterium', and pieces by Herbert Howells, John Taverner, and Poulenc, all superbly. And we prayed. It was undoubtedly performance, and our participation added something to the performance. So, to answer Glen's question, was it worship? 

Certainly it wasn't like any worship experience I've had in a Baptist church. For me, it was an occasion which impacted my senses with overwhelming beauty (to my way of perceiving) and reinforced something of the mystery of the incarnation. In the process I encountered God. And I think it did the same sort of thing for the rest of the family although they might not express it that way. 

Would I want to do this every Sunday? No.  

If I was to be critical of our way of doing Christmas, often we don't let the story speak for itself, and stifle it with our preaching. And in our preaching we don't engage seriously with the incarnation and use Christmas as a stepping stone to get to the cross as quickly as possible - I heard yesterday of a worship leader berating the congregation for having their eyes on the cradle rather than the cross.

We ourselves have our own way of performance which includes our preaching, but also increasingly our worship style.

And generally we don't do mystery. We tend more to be pragmatists who have it sorted.

But then, we certainly do the participative which can be 'richly human and genuinely worshipful', and Glen's experience shows us in relationship at our best, doing church rather than church being done to us. And that's in part why I am what I am, and why I wouldn't want the glorious experience of Monday evening all the time.


Glen Marshall said...

(Hi Geoff - I'm sticking this here even though I've already added it as an additional comment on my original post.)

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.

Geoff Colmer said...

Hi Glen!

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!

andy goodliff said...

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...

Cheers Geoff - think it's going to be Thelonius Monk and a gorgeous cask strength Caol Ila this year.

As a bassoonist (you that is not me) I hope that the recent death Oliver Postgate doesn't take the edge of Christmas too much for you!