Steve Collins: Small Fire

November 2000
A little child will lead them
Previous Small Fires

Comment on this column FOR THE UNINITIATED, Vaux is pronounced "vox" not "voh" – being short for Vauxhall, a district of mixed fortunes just south of the Thames in central London. St Peter's is an unprepossessing brick barn, so outwardly dirty and grim that it appears derelict. But follow the paper signs through the crack in the door and you step into a cave of Gothic golden glitter for High Victorian masses (although this is a C of E church). Sensitively modernised, St Peter's has no pews, but a good new carpet which encourages lying on the floor and gazing at the brick and stone vault.

The theme of the evening is "The Great Reversal" – the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. The congregation numbers about 35, aged 20s-40s, with a few small children. We begin with some gentle breathing and stretching exercises on the floor. I wonder what we all look like with our knees in the air, but I can't see without getting up.

Then we line up across the church facing the rear, to be asked a series of questions. If our answer is yes, we are to take a step forward; if our answer is no, we are to take a step back; if we are unsure or unwilling to make a statement, we are to remain where we are. The questions begin. "Have you had a holiday this year? Do you have a loving family? Do you have a rewarding love life? (most people step back). Do you feel you have a special gift?" And so on.

By the end, after 12 questions, the line has become a spread pattern of spiritual states, the fortunate out in front, the less fortunate left behind. And now the coup. Everybody turn around to face the altar. For God has decreed the great reversal – and suddenly, the fortunate first are at the back, and the last are out in front. We stand several minutes, while a song plays and we absorb the message of the moment.

THE ALTAR END of the church is closed off by a huge screen for video projection. But instead of the usual maelstrom, Vaux have placed a clear plastic water container on top of a lightbox, arranged a device to drip into it like a tap, and pointed a camcorder to convey the resulting ripples through a projector to the screen.

The image of clear water is almost not there, except for the periodic disturbance of sudden ripple and lingering bubble. The reference point is video art, where things tend to happen slowly, rather than the manic activity of TV. The words of the Lord's Prayer move, phrase by phrase, across the image of water. The scale of the words, and the slowness of their passage, gives us time to absorb – a welcome change from the usual parrot-fashion prayer pace.

And so to communion. The bread and wine have been placed in front of the screen during the eucharistic prayers. Now, a little girl comes forward and picks up the bread. Encouraged by stage whispers, she breaks it beneath her chin, with all the coy charm that only a little girl can muster before an audience – and the first person goes to kneel before her and receive. It is a breathtaking moment. Only feet away, I want to reach for my camera, and dare not, for fear of breaking the spell. The best pictures are the ones that get away. The wine we help ourselves, or each other, to. When all have been served the girl gathers bread, wine and bottle and carts them off.

The congregation feel too mellow and sociable to depart early, and have to be chucked out eventually. At least half of them go with the team to a nearby pub – as invariably ends an evening at Vaux.

VAUX ARE SEEKING an urban spirituality. The inherited forms of Christianity come from an agricultural world, and Vaux believe there is an urgent need to reframe the faith for an urban technological culture. One place they look to for clues is contemporary art – their worship installations would look good in any modern gallery. There is a sophisticated use of computer-generated video and graphics. They are possessors of the best-designed website in alternative worship.

And yet the worship feels as ad hoc, homely, unslick, as if it were all taking place in someone's living room. Church treated as living room – no sense of leaders and led, team and congregation – just a bunch of friends at a mate's house, some of whom have prepared something. Be yourself, relax. But there is an underlying seriousness – God taken seriously, the Bible taken seriously, looked at hard as an instrument of liberation and social justice. New forms are being sought to punch home old truths, still relevant. This is a place to get your head straight, find new resources for the battles of urban faithfulness.

Vaux is two years old. It seems a sign of maturity that it can pull off a service so profound and relaxed with little dependence on technology or appearances, and without the least compromise of flavour or values. A sign, maybe, that the methods of alternative worship might survive without the media of their usual expression.

Steve Collins was at Vaux, "The Great Reversal" (15 October, 8.00pm) at St Peter's, Kennington Lane, London.

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