In Search of Disorganised Religion

linknotbrokenVia The Spectator:

Theo Hobson attends Grace, an alternative Christian service in west London, and finds it arty, irreverent, postmodern — and full of people seeking a new way to worship

I went to church last weekend. Sort of. It was a Saturday evening service run by a group of laypeople in an Anglican church in Ealing. It’s a monthly event called Grace. What sort of people attend? Quite trendy ones. People who are a bit too trendy for normal church. The sort who know how to link a computer up to sound and visual equipment. No grannies, no kids.

Soft club music pulsed as I entered, and a big screen showed an art installation: furniture made of neon strips. In the middle of the pewless nave were a couple of sofas, a table and chairs, and a fridge; round the edges were some beanbags. I sat on one. This month’s theme was Home.

A youngish man (an ageing youth?) called Johnny welcomed us (there were 30 or 40 of us). He had a laid-back, unchurchy tone, like a bloke among his mates. He explained that the service was centred on the parable of the Prodigal Son. Then there was a brief chanted liturgy, during which a teenager rapped some prayers which I think he had written himself. We then heard a recording of a moody religious song by an Irish singer whose name escaped me.

The distinctive thing about this sort of worship style is that it likes inventing mini-rituals. Ritual is perhaps too strong a word. Some of us, prompted by the website, had brought along photographs that summed up ‘home’ to us. We stuck these on the fridge. Those who had forgotten photos wrote messages. Later on, there were four ‘stations’ to choose from, in each corner of the nave. On a table in one corner there was a bowl of water in which to wash your hands. In another there were sheets of paper printed with the message ‘I’ve f***ed up so many times’ (a line from the moody Irish song): we were invited to take one and put it in a shredding machine.

This sort of thing is easily mocked, and yes it’s a bit hit-and-miss, but the truth is I actually quite enjoy it. As long as it’s carefully organised and confidently presented, as this was, I am up for it. If I’m honest, I’d really rather do this than half-sing a dirgey hymn or sit frowning at a sermon, feeling all conflicted about organised religion and establishment and church schools.

Grace itself admits it’s difficult to define. ‘In some ways who we are and what we are about is best captured in telling our stories. Grace is shaped by the people in it at any given time and as such changes and moves on in response to an interplay between the ideas of the group, the Christian tradition, what we sense God is calling us to at that time, and the shifts in the culture around us.’ OK it’s waffley, but they’re reaching for something interesting, something that makes worship part of normal life. ‘We hope the changes to the life of grace will open up other possibilities for mission — evangelism locally, engaging in justice issues, in art and the media.’

Back to the service: Johnny read Luke’s parable of teenage rebellion forgiven, and then we were invited to offer brief reflections on it, beginning with the phrase ‘I wonder…’. For example: ‘I wonder what the mother thought.’ It worked well: a way of staying with the story for a bit, without being preached at. We were led in this exercise by another man, with a slightly more vicarish air than Johnny.

Then the sofas were moved back, creating a space into which we were all invited. It was a subtly effective bit of symbolism. They had put some thought into all this. Next, a little sketch in which the brothers of the parable tried to make up over the kitchen table. It was quite amusing. Then we stood in a circle for communion, administered by the more vicarish man. Trendy music pulsed and bubbled away in the background. There was a bit of liturgy that to be honest I thought could have been improved on. There was a line about how God ‘reconfigures the world’. I’m no Cranmer fetishist, as you might have gathered, but this jarred a bit.

At the end Johnny stood up and rattled a tin — so even alternative churches take a collection? No, in the tin were old keys, we were to take one away as a sort of sacramental souvenir. Chatting over a drink afterwards, I learned that the more vicarish man was indeed a vicar. ‘We invite him along when we do a communion service,’ said Steve, a long-standing member of the group. ‘We use a church building, so we feel we should respect the rule that says a layperson can’t do communion.’ Does this mean that their group is essentially Anglican? ‘Not really, but it started when a few friends left the normal Sunday service here and wanted to do something new — and the link hasn’t been broken. But we’re free to do what we want in every other respect.’

I find this a bit odd. If you’re going to do something riskily new, why not go the whole hog? It’s a bit like starting a punk band, but feeling obliged to include your dad on the trumpet. The other arty-alternative Christian groups that I know of follow this pattern. There is a group in Brighton called Beyond that stages Grace-like worship, and also puts on public art — it had the bright idea of turning beach-huts into an advent calendar (a new door opened for every day). There is also a group in Liverpool called Dream that has experimented with outdoor ‘guerrilla’ worship: it staged a flash-mob worship event in a shopping centre last Easter.

A lot of people dismiss this scene as marginal trendiness, a very minor sideshow. I don’t. I think their time might be coming. In the same way as people are crying out for a ‘new’ politics, there’s a definite longing for a new church. The Catholics are mired in paedophile scandals, the Anglican communion has lost its way — perhaps it’s time for Grace instead?

What groups like Grace grasp is that though some people are turned off by organised religion, they still feel basically Christian: what they want is a new, disorganised style of religion, a postmodern shook-up version, full of irreverence and irony, and arty events. They want a new style of sacramentalism, that isn’t steeped in authority. Now that the internet’s here to stay, it’s difficult to accept hierarchy any more — religion must become open-source.

For the moment, the pioneers tread carefully — the stylistic reinvention of an ancient religion is a slow and difficult process, with huge pitfalls — but my hunch is that we should watch this space. God reconfigures his church in mysterious ways.

Read the original article here.

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9 Comments on "In Search of Disorganised Religion"

  1. Hadrian999 | May 15, 2013 at 5:33 pm |

    If you want disorganized go Asatru

  2. Evan Camomile | May 15, 2013 at 8:06 pm |

    This seems like some sort of pastel version of chaos magic. Destroying paper with some self-identifying remark you wish to be rid of, now where did I hear about something like that before?

  3. Had a Beale Street sound lady turn me onto Unity Church. It was pretty cool. Non-denominational and they meditated during the service. Minister was a woman and helped addicted people. It was pretty unorganized, I thought.

    • It looks a little bit like Vedanta. I think that sort of pantheistic element is how I myself slid from Christianity to Hinduism and back again.

      • And back again? Hmm. I chose Buddhism, but don’t see any desire to revert yet. Unity was actually Christian, but relaxed. It was nice, at that point in my life.

        Grew up Catholic and had the whole parochial school thing inflicted on me. Still, it was a better education.

        • Sorry guess I was a bit slapdash with my communication there. I’m not really a one-at-a-time sort of person. *smirk* But that’s been the general sort of flow.

          That’s interesting to note the differences tho, could maybe the fact you had a stricter religious upbringing have something to do with your being drawn to Buddhism with it’s fairly stringent moral codes?

          • It’s probably a combination of that and the fact that my father was a USMC DI and impressed on me some strict values himself.

            My sister had the same upbringing and she has left the Catholic Church behind as well, except on special occasions when she attends with our 91 year old mother. At 91, if I was home I would go with her as well.

  4. After hearing that Korean Christians interpret the infilling of the Holy Spirit as ch’i energy, and considering the sheer sense makes of ancestor veneration and the worship of Saints or other great people who may not even be Saints.. I wish that Christianity could be as syncretic and open to other religious ideas as the way in which those foreign oriental cultures adopt Christianity. Why cant ‘white’ Christians learn from oriental thought to expand their own notions of Christianity? or others not just orientalism. For this reason until Christianity starts thinking this way as a populist trend in North America within more than one church I won’t be Christian ever. Monotheistic God created everything, if that is what you believe, there are other parts of the Bible that suggest, “documentary hypothesis”, that elohists believed in multiple Gods, the numinous.. angels etc.. Where do they come from? Well they didn’t come from monotheism. Impossible. That said, there should be an option for people in Christian thought to disbelieve in one all-powerful God. and there should be a way to interpret the Bible in a more liberal way.

    • The Well Dressed Man | May 17, 2013 at 2:09 am |

      It seems that Christianity has quite a syncretic past. Much of the older European mysticism was apparently absorbed as the tribes were converted. The festival days match up. Cathedrals are supposedly built on sites of older temples. In Latin America, the Catholic saints personify older entities, especially the Virgin. The notion of the Trinity is certainly an unusual monotheism!

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