Steve Collins: Small Fire

October 2000
Photocopy your face for Jesus
Previous Small Fires

Comment on this column FOR OVER 10 YEARS, the Greenbelt Christian arts festival has functioned as a central point of contact for alternative worship groups. It has been a place where new forms of worship can be shown to a wider audience, ideas and resources shared, and a few more people encouraged to try something new when they get home.

This year for the first time alternative worship had its own dedicated venue, which was a mighty relief to alt-worshippers tired of spending hours setting up and taking down for each individual service. Given that most groups need the same basic arrangements and media – blackout, large screens, TVs, projectors, sound and vision mixing facilities – it made sense to pool resources and equip a single space that could be tweaked with images or installations to suit particular events.

I'm not sure whether this reveals that alternative worship has become a style, or just that an average church service is absurdly lo-tech for the 21st century. Beneath the technological consensus, however, there are many variations, which I can illustrate with two of this year's Greenbelt services.

Joy JOY, A GROUP FROM OXFORD associated with theologian Pete Ward, ran a service called "The Face of God". After a brief introduction, the music began and team members began singing. The music moved between moody basslines and hard-edged guitar, the lyrics were relatively simple in the manner of evangelical choruses and were projected on a screen for the congregation to join in.

After several songs had been sung continuously people began to wonder what was going on. No further instructions were given, the singing continued without a break, and it gradually became apparent that this was an ambient which you could join in with, or not; and if not, you were free to go and investigate the stations.

The stations all reflected the "face of God" theme – literally in the case of the mirror which captioned your own face as being God's. The pre-event posters had proclaimed, "photocopy your face for Jesus" – and sure enough there in the corner was a small office photocopier. Punters were invited to press their faces on the glass and stick up the resulting images on a hanging screen. At best the results approximated to the cover of With the Beatles. At worst it was a struggle to discover exactly what body part was depicted ("is it always that size, or was the copier glass cold?").

Compared to most alt-worship services, Joy's was simultaneously more conventional – the singing familiar from evangelical worship; and less conventional – the lack of sequence, no break or change of direction in the whole service. Alternative worship services invariably use music as continuous background to other activities – here for the first time in my experience the background music was itself one of the activities. And – a great heresy – no TVs or video!

SANCTUARY, A GROUP FROM BATH, demonstrated more clearly than anyone else at Greenbelt the crossover between alternative worship and installation art. Their second service, entitled "Coming Home", entailed setting up much of the contents of someone's house as a series of installations – kitchen, dining room, bedroom and living room, all in realistic slice-of-life mode, from the toys on the living room floor to the packet of condoms on the bedside table (surely a first in an act of Christian worship!).

Each installation contained small rituals or activities, things waiting to be found. After opening with prayer and song, we were given half an hour to explore and interact. As we did so we became part of the art, making and unmaking it – sitting round the dining table sharing bread and wine by candlelight; on the sofa watching TV; making a family tree of prayer; leafing through recipes that could only be cooked if the results were shared; piecing together the patchwork bedcover, our written confessions on the back of each square.

When artists make public a slice of their life relabelled as art, such as Tracey Emin's unmade bed, they intend to give sharper focus and graspable form to things the rest of us stumble through incoherently, in private. Sanctuary presented domestic settings as places of encounter with God, and the details of everyday life as sites of spiritual meaning. The implication is that God is omnipresent, if only we could see straight; that church could be a place that helps us adjust our focus.

In the context of worship no rival artist dared stage a pillow fight, though I did eat a biscuit from the kitchen installation. The condoms, mercifully, remained untouched.

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