Steve Collins: Small Fire

July 2001
All-age alternative worship in Bristol
Previous Small Fires

Comment on this column Resonance THIRD SUNDAY SERVICE (TSS) began in the early 90s as... well, it's obvious what it was. It grew to meet on the other Sunday evenings, in a quieter, low-tech form, and every Tuesday in the pub for (ahem) debate.

TSS staged worship at Greenbelt and took part in the Archbishop of Canterbury's 1999 Millennium youth event, "Time of our Lives" in London, supplying liturgy, art and video. Two members run an art tent at Glastonbury festival under the name "Elemental" – a quiet Christian witness in the midst of paganism. And another member, Paul Roberts, used to train Church of England vicars in his job as tutor in worship and doctrine at Trinity College, Bristol. See, we're not all theological amateurs in alternative worship...

JUST OVER A YEAR AGO, Paul changed jobs, becoming vicar of a parish in central Bristol next to TSS's home church. The group moved base with him, changing its name to Resonance. Cotham Parish Church is Anglican, but of liberal catholic persuasion – a bit of a jump from the evangelical background of most alternative worship groups, including Resonance. As Paul explained in an email last October...

"Most people at Cotham had no idea what Third Sunday Service was, but agreed that the move would be interesting. Now six months on, with a new name, significant numbers of long-term Cotham people come to the weekly and monthly services, some to the pub meeting, and some have started to take a part in planning and participation in our services.

"Our age span has changed from being mainly 20s/30s to spanning 9 through 87. We need to put out chairs for people who can't sit on the floor. One of our oldest new members (85) turns out to be a Greenham Common Peace Camp veteran (and Aldermaston) and has a penchant for Tai Chi and a daily eucharist. If we thought we were radical, our newer (older) members have challenged that assumption...

"It would appear that alternative worship has given the established members at Cotham something new in their worshipping experience, but they have given us something else – life experience, and a model of the faith which never capitulated to the values of materialism, or the cosiness of fundamentalism. They are of a radical catholic churchmanship. I guess they had it in them anyway, we just brought along the video projector...

"Numbers currently around 20 for the weeklies, 60-70 for the monthlies.

"Challenging Issues: will such a multi-aged group be able to preserve an appeal for the traditional age of alternative worship (20s/30s) which is painfully absent from most churches? Will all of the longer-standing Resonance people be able to accept that we are now an 'all-age' worshipping community with significant numbers of new members from the host church?"

OUTSIDE THE DOOR, arriving worshippers receive a leaflet which explains what lies inside. The entry path consists of three stations: handwashing for silent confession, leaving your worries with Christ as represented by a huge painted crucifix on the floor, and kneeling before three candles to tune into God. In front of each candle is a biblical quotation about God's love, written respectively in Scrabble letters, cutout letters like a ransom note and in children's plastic spelling letters – a nice touch.

The main worship space centres on a low altar of extraordinary beauty, conjured up from (among other things) a sheet of perspex and two Ikea video racks, all weighted down with candles. After invocation, welcome and chant, a section about love: Bridget Jones and Gabriel Garcia Marquez give alternative insights on the subject, the latter gradually predominating.

Musical punctuation from an 80s greatest hits CD, including Howard Jones (What is love), Bryan Ferry (Slave to...) and Frankie (The Power of...). An elderly woman with a splendid voice then gives a superb, spacious reading of 1 Corinthians 13 (If I have not...).

The call to prayer is given by the recorded voice of a woman singing in Arabic – a Christian of the Melkite church – and a video loop of a swinging incense burner. We perform breathing prayers, some with sung responses: "breathe in hope, breathe out numbness..." Then the eucharist at the perspex altar, with anointing of oil also if wanted.

After the service, there are refreshments in the same space, and many people hang about enjoying the candles and conversation. The age range of the congregation does indeed span from 9 to 87, or thereabouts, and remarkably no age group predominates. There seems to be a completely even spread. All-age alternative worship.

PAUL ROBERTS' EXPERTISE in liturgy has led him to develop a diagram for planning services called a ritual matrix. This sets out the components of the service, starting at the most generic level, such as word, prayer, gift, and working up in progressive detail what each part will contain and how transitions will happen. The matrix also includes columns for music, video and slides so that these become a calculated part of what is happening and not disengaged wallpaper.

This method of planning leads to a further innovation. Liturgies develop through being repeated, which allows people to learn the ropes and get immersed without the attention-snapping worry of "what do I do now?" At the same time, some of the content has to vary from service to service, to prevent numb repetition.

We take it for granted that it will be words that stay the same – that's what we usually mean by liturgy. But in a Resonance ritual service it may be words that change and other elements that stay the same. For instance, the same video loop may play at a particular point in the worship each time, while the words differ. Or the same music may be accompanied by different actions, yet still mark the same transition in the service as a whole.

In a conventional act of worship, we know where we are and how to respond next by the set pattern of words. At Resonance, the fixed clues may be in the imagery or sounds. Liturgically speaking, equal weight is given to all elements, and the congregation has to be attentive to them all in order to navigate. The spreadsheet style of the ritual matrix invites play with the patterns of what changes and what's fixed. Liturgy escapes from the domination of words.

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