Writing is a funny thing. Black marks on a white page. The scribbles and the spaces between them. Writing reveals and yet conceals simultaneously; for every word inscribed there is an accompanying silence sitting beside it. It is complex.
That complexity probably accounts for why I haven’t written much for the past year or two. The fear of being mis-interpreted; that what I express will be taken out of context, or shouted down. However long we’ve been writing, some part of us is still a worried six year old waiting to see what the teacher makes of the story we’ve neatly scrawled in our exercise book. But I am choosing to re-commit to writing regularly.
This week I wrote a piece for the Independent that sparked a high response of spin-off blogs and animated twitter debate. The vast majority was positive. But some was negative – a handful of people felt somehow I was attacking traditional forms of church and diminishing hard-working clergy who are already attempting to experiment in worship; that I want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and turn all services into a giant flash-mob; that I feel all traditional liturgy is non-participative and that I think gimmicks are the answer to filling our pews.
// Doctrine or Disco?
Anyone who knows me a little knows this could not be further from the truth. In highlighting the brilliance of “Viral Vicar” Rev Kate Bottley’s flash-mob, neither she nor I create a binary reality where we ditch doctrine for disco dancing. She has a very high regard for sacraments and liturgy, as do I. That was a ‘given’ to most who read my piece; that I comment as a friend of the church, and someone who both researches and teaches on the high value of liturgy.
I believe that traditional liturgy is deeply participative. Anyone who’s been to one of my seminars will know most of my material is drawn from the mystics who argued that even the simple act of ‘being’ is a profound form of participative worship. As are all the elements of kneeling, praying, crossing ourselves and occupying silence. I thought that to be so foundational that in a 600 word piece it didn’t seem like it needed to be said. But for those who did need that to be said, there we go :-)
Those aware of my background know that worship is incredibly important to me. The ‘theology of participation’ has occupied my mind for the past decade and I’ve taught on Anglican liturgy on both sides of the Pond. [Sidenote: For anyone wanting to study the basics of liturgy, I'd recommend Worship and Liturgy in Context by Forrester, Dix's Shape of The Liturgy, or The Use of Symbols in Worship by Irvine, as a starter. Also, Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History by Berger.]
Personally my experience of worship has been very varied, as a conscious choice. High church, low church, alternative, ancient or modern, I’ve dived into exploring them, honouring each and reading voraciously around all traditions. I grew up in a ‘high church’ with less than thirty members. I’ve spent time in many denominations and in huge ‘mega-churches’ but my favourite style of worship is monastic and contemplative. So I spend several weeks on silent retreat every year. I love to pray the liturgy of the hours at home. In Durham I worshipped at the cathedral, loving the incense, choir and grandeur. In London, Southwark cathedral is one of the places I most love to attend.
I’ve been part of the ‘modern worship’ movement for a chunk of my life – a genre which I feel does have great value and beauty in it, as well as a major need for theological analysis & reformation. But I decided to gradually retreat from the world of drums and guitars a few years ago, and have now returned to my love of more traditional contemplative silence and ancient liturgy in churchmanship.
So ‘participation’ in worship for me is simply being. And kneeling. And praying. And silence. These are gifted to us through church history. But I’ve talked to countless folks outside and inside church for whom those elements don’t seem participatory at all. They may need something added into the mix that is a little more accessible and culture-current to break the ice. Like countless theologians in church history have advocated, we can take elements of our culture and use them creatively in church. Which is what the flash-mob made me ponder.
Clearly our goal is not to reinvent church to meet the whims of other people; but it is crucial their voices are heard. Issues such as ‘classroom style’ seating can be assessed to see if there’s a better model. I’m interested in seeing whether preaching could move from monologue to dialogue, and I do believe that is possible in a large setting as I’ve seen it work. Also the possibilities of digital participation in worship through social media are interesting and remain open to our imaginative questioning. In essence, culture should not drive theology, but simultaneously it can inform and assist us.
So my use of the phrase “Church 2.0″ simply represents a hope that we’ll engage in even more of that imaginative questioning. Clearly much has already been done as churches everywhere are experimenting in numerous ways. From Goth Eucharist to Beat Liturgy, Jazz Mass to Messy Church, Ancient-Modern blends of the monastic and everything in between.
Many people outside the church are interested in Christian faith, yet struggle with the ways we approach our gatherings. I don’t think the issue is about Jesus. After all, in his earthly life the most unlikely people flocked to hang out with him – so the bias of those outside the faith community seemed to be attraction to him, not repulsion. It was those who thought themselves to already be religious (e.g. Pharisees) who were repelled.
So my hunch is that it’s the walls we build, rather than the lack of raw desire for God, that often dissuades people from attending church. We should not change the core aspects, yet other elements may be flexible. How do we identify which are which? By having the ongoing discussion!
My use of the “Web 2.0″ metaphor illustrates this process. Web 2.0 does not inherently condemn Web 1.0. It’s a building upon 1.0, with gratitude for all the foundations it gave. Likewise Church 2.0 does not condemn Church 1.0; the metaphor simply means we are always building on the past – to keep developing on our great foundations. With the Web there was no distinct moment when 1.0 became 2.0 – it’s a gradual scale of development. Likewise as we occupy our unique moment in church history we naturally play our role in the ongoing story of the church’s development from strength to strength.
// Minefields of Writing
I’m enjoying writing comment pieces for papers. But I’m also aware of the vast difference between those and writing a blog post. When writing a comment piece, much control is surrendered – with a small, restricted word count, a sub-editor, the piece often getting a major overhaul and a different title. These are the ways that we surrender our art in order to carry it to a wider audience. It’s a challenging way to write and I salute the columnists who manage to communicate so clearly in such minimal column inches. It’s an art form, and it’s darn difficult!
Blogging is far safer, so I can see why many choose only to blog. There is no limitation on word-count and no external editorial control. In that sense, to read someone’s comment piece in a paper, then write a blog post to criticise it isn’t really a fair playing field. A blog is like accessing a vast palette of paints, whereas the comment writer had the equivalent of only one colour on their brush. Not a comparable exercise.
I will keep writing these pieces for papers, but would ask those reading them to be aware they are limited in word count and are often edited, so they will never fully convey a topic in its entirety! There will always be questions left hanging in the air. The reader then gets to make the decision whether they fill in the blanks with positive or negative assumptions. I hope for the former.
I’m grateful for all those cheering me on as I discuss religious and ethical issues within current affairs. Theologically I’m unlikely to always say things that everyone will agree with, mainly because I occupy a place on the spectrum that fails to fit neatly into one ‘tribe’. I hate labels, but would describe myself as somewhere between Open Evangelical and Post-Evangelical in theology, which makes me too liberal for conservatives and a bit too conservative for the most liberal folks. So it’s a bit of a lose-lose, with friendly fire from both sides. But I’m living in that tension and will take on the challenge of writing from within it!
// Final thoughts
I love reading other’s reflections on life, regardless of whether I agree with them or not. To all the writers out there who inspire me, whether you’re just getting started or whether you’ve been writing for years, I thank you for your vulnerable words and commitment to your craft.
I believe the ‘scribbles and spaces’ that we put on a page can make a huge difference to the world – so please, never stop. If the pen really is mightier than the sword, then every nervously scrawled message of hope brings with it the powerful roar of thunderous potential. So, let’s write.