Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “liturgy”

Be born in us today

Be Born in Us Today: the Message of the Incarnation TodayBe Born in Us Today: the Message of the Incarnation Today by John Davies
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have known John Davies for 60 years. Back in 1959 he was a parish priest of a somewhat distant, largely rural parish in the Anglican Diocese of Johannesburg, and he came a couple of times to speak to students at Wits Univeresity. On one of those occasions he spoke about Christian art, but I have forgotten the other. A couple of years later he spoke to students from all over South Africa on the topic of Religion versus God, and I remember quite a lot of what he said then, as it had an enormous influence on my theological understanding. It was reinforced seven years later by reading For the life of the world by Father Alexander Schmemann.

That makes it a bit difficult to review a book he has written, since his thinking has influenced my own thinking to such an extent that it is difficult to be objective and critical. So let the reader beware.

This book, as the title suggests, is about Christmas, the Nativity of Jesus Christ, and the meaning of the Incarnation. What do we mean when we say that Jesus Christ is both God and Man, both divine and human? The book is intended to be used by parish study groups, and so is divided into chapters with a scripture passage relating to the birth of Christ, intended to be read aloud by several voices,. a brief meditation on the passage, and suggestions for discussion and activities at the end.

But at the beginning there is an introduction, where John Davies describes his first Christmas as a parish priest, which shaped the understanding that lies behind the book, and is perhaps the most useful part to concentrate on in a review.

The parish was in what is now Mpumalanga, and in it there was a gold mine, and the Christmas service was in the hostel for black miners. They normally held the service in a classroom, but it was locked up with many people being away for Christmas, so they had it in the miners’ common room, which was also occupied by some of the fowls the miners kept. Davies writes:

My most abiding memory of that Christmas is of a candle-lit congregation singing the praises of the coming of Christ in half-a-dozen different languages, accompanied by the intermittent complaints of poultry whose sleep-pattern had been so strangely disturbed,

He notes some of the things that struck him about that service, which helped to shape his understanding of the scriptural texts (I can only give a much abbreviated version here).

  • It happened in a borrowed room, an annexe to a public meeting place.
  • It was a hidden event, not publicized much in advance.
  • It happened in the dark. Few people saw or understood what was happening; most were asleep.
  • It happened in the company of farmyard creatures, humanity’s close companions.
  • It happened among people who were poor and voteless non-citizens. They were not “simple” or “ordinary” people; most of them were people of valuable skill and courage in the gold-mining industry, but they were people of no status within the systems controlled by the political and economic dominances of the day.
  • It was an occasion which affirmed the value of material things; bread and alcoholic drink could both be sources of argument and fighting and killing; but here they were being claimed as ways for God to be present among people.

There are many other parallels that Davies notes. He notes that they are all history, but they are slanted history. They are selective, and were written down forty years after the event, just as the gospel stories of the Nartivity were themselves written down about 40 years after the events themselves. The details he notes are not recorded anywhere else.

There will be no reference to that Christmas gathering in the archives of the mine administration, or in those of the Magisterial District of Bethal in the Transvaal. There are all sorts of assumptions in what I have written… I have recorded the event because of its meaning to me. I cannot be sure that my understanding of the regulations concerning the use of mine property is correct, or that I have remembered accurately the conditions on which non-mine-employees were allowed on the site. I cannot even be sure what sorts of bread and wine were used or what the sermon was about. But my purpose is not to give a specimen of the social history of the mine, but to give an account of what I believe to have been an example of God’s presence in the world. On that basis, and only on that basis, judge my story. Similarly, we do not go to Luke to get details of the Roman taxation system, or to Matthew to get astronomical information. We go to find something concerning the meaning and manner of God’s presence in the world.

And that is what this book is about.

Antioch Abouna: True Hope

People often assume that all Christians understand the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in much the same way. This is true if you only take Roman Catholic and Protestant views into account.

Antioch Abouna: True Hope: “what is this fundamental commonality between most non-Orthodox traditions and where does Orthodoxy differ? With Pascha (Easter) approaching in the Orthodox Church it is crucial that we acquaint ourselves with these issues because they touch upon the whole meaning of the gospel, its preaching and celebration.”

Psychedelic Christian Worship

Psychedelic Christian Worship — thecages: “But it blows my mind that this state, an explosion of the mind, is what these albums emphasise of the worship experience. What’s important here is not the presence of God, but the worshiper’s own glowing mind.”

This post interested me for two reasons.

One was the title, “psychedelic Christian worship”. That interested me because nearly 40 years ago I was fired by the then Anglican Bishop of Natal, Vernon Inman, for my part in organising what was described as a “psychedelic service” in St Columba’s Anglican Church in Greenwood Park, Durban.

The second reason was that it highlighted the widely divergent meanings of the word “worship” among Christians of different backgrounds and traditions.

I suppose I first became aware of the divergence when I visited one of those new hypermarket consumer churches that have now become so common, Christian City at Elandsfontein near Germiston. After a period of rather loud singing the cheerleader said, “Now THAT’S worship!” And I wondered , “What’s worship”? It didn’t strike me as particularly worshipful. It was just loud singing with an even louder accompaniment.

And the post quoted above in thecages puts a finger on this changed meaning: What’s important here is not the presence of God, but the worshiper’s own glowing mind.

And this meaning has to be taken into account when adherents of hypermarket churches use terms like “worship leader” or “worship service” or “time of worship”. The last one gives the clue, because it exposes the underlying assumption that if there is a “time of worship” there is also a time of non-worship.

The “psychedelic service” at Greenwood Park was a somewhat different thing. It was planned by an ecumenical youth group linked to the Christian Institute, some of whom were members of the parish of Greenwood Park. After firing me the Anglican Bishop of Natal preached in the church the following Sunday, and told the congregation that their church had been “profaned” by what we had done.

What had we done?

As I wrote in my journal for 1 June 1969:

The service started a bit late, because we did not want to start before everyone was in. Martin Goulding and Geoff Moorgas then played “Lead kindly light” as a violin and cello duet, sitting in the vestry, while the church was in darkness. Then I shouted “let there be light” and played “Doctor Do-good” by the Electric Prunes at full volume while Sue Abbott at the back of the church flashed the lights on and off in time to the beat. Then we had lessons and hymns alternating – Genesis 1, the creation and separation of light and darkness, and then sang “Thou whose almighty word”. Then another reading “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light” and we sang “Oh freedom”. Then another lesson, from John’s gospel “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”, and we sang “We shall overcome”. And then from 1 Peter, “… a holy nation, a royal priesthood, led out of darkness into his marvellous light” and then Revelation 21 and 22 – the new Jerusalem, where there is no need for sun or moon, because Christ himself is the light of his people, and sang “Lights above, celestial Salem”. Then we had the offering, and passed round a collection plate filled with half cents and asked people to take some, saying that it was to remind us that we could give nothing to God, because everything we gave to him we first received from him.

Dick Usher read a litany while Martin Goulding projected slides showing light sources. Then Colin Butler, dressed as a night watchman in army greatcoat and Basotho hat, sitting in front of a brazier, about to begin his soliloquy about being all alone in the darkness when the band cut in and all sang “This little light of mine”, while members of the congregation came up and lit tapers or sparklers. Then we began singing “Lord of the dance”, but after three verses Geoff stopped it and said “Come on everybody, don’t just sit there, stand up and sing it with everything you’ve got.” Now they all stood up and sang it, better this time, with Roy Holden and Mervin Josie clapping from the back of the church. We sang it through a couple more times and then stopped. Nobody moved.

I asked “Do you want to sing it again?” “Yes” they all shouted. So we sang it several more times, and this time people moved out of their pews and moved round the church, dancing and singing, until everyone moved out, except for Mitch Lewis, one of the churchwardens, and some aunties at the back. Eventually they all danced out into the street, and it ended there, with people still holding lighted tapers, and all happy and smiling and excited. I have never seen such happy and smiling people coming out of church before.

Howard Trumbull shouted “Alleluia! Praise the Lord! It was great”, and several other people came and said similar things to us. I went back into to the church to try and get things straightened out, and then Mitch Lewis and Tom Abrahams, the churchwardens, asked me to go to the Vestry and said they didn’t want to do another service next week because many people had been offended by this one. I doubted very much that many people had been offended, because most of them looked so happy, but said if that was the case, probably the best thing to do would be to arrange a meeting later in the week and try to sort it out, and we could explain what we had been trying to do. Dick Usher was supposed to have come to the morning service to explain to the congregation what was going to happen in the evening, but he had overslept, and I apologized to them for that. Afterwards we went to have tea in the crypt and discussed it with some of the parishioners who were anti. One of them said he thought church services should be quiet, and this one was too loud – after all, Jesus never raised his voice. Martin Goulding muttered that he just overturned a few tables when he wanted to emphasize a point. Later we went to Geoff’s house, but Dick Usher and Sue Abbott didn’t come. Sue was in tears, having been attacked by a subdeacon called Dennis Pennington, who, I gather, is the big wheel of the parish. We thought that the service was great. Geoff said he had had doubts about it before, but the proof of the pudding was in the eating, and it made very good eating indeed.

It wasn’t really “psychedelic”, though in those days anything with bright colours, loud music and flashing lights was often called “psychedelic”. It was also ironic that within a few years the hymn Lord of the dance, which the Bishop of Natal had described as “blasphemy and profanity” became one of the most popular hymns sung at school assemblies in the UK.

Why did we do it?

I can’t speak for the others who took part in the planning and leading of the service, but were several things that had influenced me:

  • An experimental drama festival at Durham University in June 1968
  • Reading the works of Marshall McLuhan
  • A seminar on Orthodox worship for non-Orthodox theological students held at Bossey, Switzerland in April 1968, followed by Holy Week and Easter services at St Sergius in Paris
  • Talking to Walter Hollenweger about liturgy and worship at the World Council of Churches headquarters in Geneva

For me it was an attempt to make worship more “holistic”. Western Protestant worship at that time seemed to me to be too didactic and primarily verbal. Anglican services compiled at the time of the Reformation (and largely still in use) had been designed with the primary purpose of edification.

The drama festival at Durham (where I was then studying) attracted people from all over Britain, and several of them had been influenced by Marshall McLuhan, with his idea of “the medium is the message”. While attending the seminar on Orthodox theology and worship at Bossey, a friend and I had taken the train to Geneva to talk to Walter Hollenweger, then on the staff of the World Council of Churches. He said that if we wanted to learn about liturgy, we should look at journalists.

And Orthodox worship seemed more holistic, and not entirely verbal. The Holy Week and Easter services made a deep impression on my, especially the way that words and actions were integrated, for example in the Easter kiss followed by the reading of the Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom.

So in this so-called “psychedelic service” we were striving for something that would be more symbolic, and less verbally didactic, something more holistic, involving all the senses.

Looking back on it now, I see that we were still quite a long way off the mark. Whatever it was, it still was not really worship. It was more like theatre, and still didactic. The aim of it ultimately boiled down to giving the congregation a learning experience, even if it was a multimedia experience rather than a purely verbal harangue. In that sense, it was still directed at altering the minds of the congregation rather than worshipping God. We were didactic, in that we were trying to teach the congregation about worship, rather than actually worshipping.

The week after the “psychedelic” service most of the Anglicans in our group, annoyed at the reaction of the Bishop of Natal, went to the Divine Liturgy at the local Orthodox Church. The priest welcomed us publicly. He had read all about the controversy in the newspapers, and was sympathetic.

But it still took me a few more years to realise that real worship was liturgy, the work (or service) of the people. It was not primarily theatre, and nor was it primarily didactic. Worship was not to be directed at the minds of the congregation, but at God.

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