Finding the narrative

Guest blog at Clayfire Curator [March 2011]

For me, as for Jodie-Renee Adams, the heart of curation lies in telling a story and inviting our fellow worshippers to follow, from one place or state of being to another. The curator and the team work to find a narrative path through the material and ideas available, editing and pruning them and discarding even the best material if it no longer fits the emerging story [there will be another time to use it].

The traditional shape of the Christian liturgy has a narrative that takes us from the world and self-interest to encounter and transformation, and back into the world again as God's agents. I suspect that some of our boredom with inherited forms of worship comes from the obscuring or hollowing out of that narrative - parts are no longer legible, parts have been removed. Maybe the long Protestant sermon is a disruption, a part that usurps the whole! But the old journey is still a necessary one for our spiritual health. However, I think other journeys are possible.

My own community, Grace in London, have always used a particular approach - each service has a theme assigned to it, a rough idea that the team for that service will flesh out from scratch when the time comes. They may choose to structure the themed event around the traditional liturgy, as a framework to ensure that we have included the elements of the expected spiritual journey. However themes often create their own structure, out of their own internal logic and narrative, which may bear little or no resemblance to any standard church service. If it seems like a risk to let ideas grow to their own natural shape, it's also a risk to force them into a preconceived notion of liturgical structure.

Sometimes material is resistant to narrative. It's all good stuff, but we can't find the storyline. We've experienced a recurring problem of finding compelling intellectual content that the team have really enjoyed discovering and discussing, that would make a great sermon or lecture. But we're not in the business of sermons or lectures, but of participation and interaction. So we have to go through agonies figuring out how to convey our ideas differently, so that it's not all words, not all done by us. I'm not sure that there's any way to stop this difficulty arising - sometimes congregational activities come tumbling in playful splendour out of the most abstruse themes, and sometimes a really promising theme leaves us at a loss and unwilling or too late to give up our first ideas.

One advantage of an ideas-based approach is that it isn't necessary to cover all the ground in one event - there can be multiple parts so that one part is not overloaded or rushed. That requires people to be open to the idea that they will not have the whole journey in one event. Like a TV series, one service might end in an unresolved or dark place. The strength of community worship is that you can take these collective risks - you're on a long-term journey together, the whole picture will unfold over years. But the visitor may need explanations and reassurance that this fragment or cliffhanger isn't your only liturgy! We always said at Grace, don't judge us on one service, come to three.

As an illustration, our last service combined Walter Brueggemann's understanding of the prophet's task and methods, with the 'hero's journey' or monomyth as used in movies [Star Wars, Lord of the Rings etc]. This is the first service of two, so it ended with a collective reading of Lamentations 5, a flung glass of wine and silence. Hope and forgiveness must wait until the next service and be hard to understand, if we are to take the material seriously.

One of the factors enabling this serial approach is the traditional Christian calendar. We can treat an entire season of the church year as a unit of our spiritual journey, rather than trying to run through the whole cycle at every event. The more neglected celebrations of the church year - neglected in our church backgrounds anyhow - can be put back into an enriched pattern of communal living. Each season has its own narrative, its distinctive plot points, its irregular chapters. Right now it's Lent, which is a season that seems to resonate with Grace. What season resonates with your community? What storyline do you follow through it, collectively and as individuals?