Steve Collins: Small Fire

April 2002
Inside the stained glass window
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Visions VISIONS ARE ONE OF THE original English alternative worship groups, emerging from an event in 1989 as Warehouse, running regular public services since 1992 and changing name to Visions along the way. In recent years they have had a regular pattern of worship on three Sundays each month – a dance service, a more ambient communion service, and a prayer/meditation service that includes a small labyrinth. Recently it seems the "dance" service has taken on a more laid-back character. Visions say, "everyone listens to dance music now but fewer people in our congregation seem to want to dance to it."

Visions are attached to the large evangelical Anglican church of St Michael-le-Belfry in York, made famous by the ministries of David Watson in the 1970s and more recently by Graham Cray. Although Visions differ in theology and church practice, St Michael's have always been supportive, and Visions have been involved in combined church events elsewhere and at York's huge cathedral.

York is an ancient city, founded by the Romans and still possessing its medieval city walls. St Cuthbert's is its oldest church, founded in AD687, and the east wall is mostly reused Roman masonry. Nowadays the centre of the church is occupied by modern offices in a glass and timber pod, leaving the old sanctuary area just the right size for a Visions service.

THE WORSHIP SPACE TONIGHT has chairs round the edge and beanbags in the middle – no front, but definitely a centre in the form of a white altar. Three side of the space are completely covered with video and slide projections, and there is a stepped arrangement of TVs as well.

Visions, appropriately enough, are notable for their spectacular visual effects. The sense of sight is fed magnificently. Typically, all available wallspace will be papered with huge video projections, augmented by slides and TVs which may be showing different sequences to those on the walls. I counted at least three things mixed at once on the TVs, but was later told that there had been up to seven.

Visions' imagery is either nature, such as fish, flowers, landscapes; or medieval religious, icons and stained glass. All is sumptuous in colour and richness, and the combined effect is 21st century psychedelic stained glass, like being inside a stained glass window.

The congregation numbers about 30, and its age runs from 20s to 40s, with a couple of children. We are welcomed by Sue Wallace, in her black leather worship trousers (joke) and wielding a radio mic. This is Easter Saturday night, and the service will follow the trajectory from tomb to resurrection. To one side is a black bier, on which lies a spotlit figure in white bandages.

Worship opens with a hymn, lyrics mixed into the projections over the images. Visions write their own songs in an upbeat but dignified techno-dance idiom, and also recast older hymns in the same style. Sue leads the way with her powerful voice – I am relieved to find that the hymns still work for those with voices two octaves lower. The response of the congregation is better than at many alternative worship services. The clear melodies, strong beat and many verses seem to encourage participation.

Visions THE NEXT SECTION IS ABOUT Mary Magdalene. We sit silently for a while and listen to a sad song. On the TVs, words about her predicament appear. From the back a hooded figure makes her way to the bier and lays red carnations on it. Then sticks of kindling wood and pens are handed out. We are invited to scratch into the wood something for which we grieve.

Then we all troop outside into the churchyard, where there is a blazing fire inside a circle of stones. We cast our sticks with their griefs into the flames. It's a cheerful and beautiful moment as only a fire outdoors at night can be. Someone is carrying the tall Easter candle. While a liturgy is read incense pins are pressed into the side of the candle to represent the wounds of Christ, and then it is lit by lowering it [carefully] to touch the fire. We pass the candle to one another around the circle with the words, "the light of Christ".

Then we follow the candle indoors again to find that the "body" on the bier has gone, replaced by a pile of bandages beside the flowers. We renew our baptismal vows, signing one another on the forehead with water. There follows a Celtic communion liturgy, with several people (one ordained) officiating. Many alternative worship groups have dispensed with the presence of an ordained minister at holy communion, for various theological and practical reasons, but Visions believe in a continuing role for them.

We pass round the bread among us, each taking a small piece, and then the cups are passed around. So much as usual, except that we are supposed to keep our piece of bread and dip it in the wine when it comes. This instruction is contained in the middle of a paragraph projected on the wall; I scan it carelessly, miss the crucial instruction and swallow my bread immediately. Then I realise my error, but resist the temptation to be the only person to take a swig from the chalice! If I'd had my wits about me I could have used a finger...

After the service more wine and nibbles are passed round, and then a meal is served – some hot dishes, rice, pasta. Nice. Bet that doesn't happen every service!

Visions' songs are available from their website, and many of the images and video loops can be downloaded from The Scriptorium, a web-based worship resource library which they were instrumental in setting up. Sue Wallace's book of prayer activities Multi-sensory Prayer is available from Amazon.

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