Straying from the path

March 2001 'Small Fire' column for Ship of Fools

Nottingham's many red-brick churches are all disfigured by crude dayglo posters. While purporting to announce next week's sermon topic, they seem more to announce a closing-down sale on Christianity. You wouldn't expect to find anything of value in a shop with those kinds of posters. The Central Methodist Mission is as off-putting as the rest. But inside the doors a different environment awaits.

The cool white minimalist bar [non-alcoholic, being Methodist] looks through full-height glass onto the dancefloor below. On the dancefloor is a labyrinth, one night only. It has been created by a student youth leader who experienced the St. Paul's Cathedral Labyrinth at a Youth for Christ training conference last year, and was inspired to make her own. The labyrinth is not marked on the floor - it has been made by hanging white cloth from the nightclub lighting rig. The participants inside can't be seen. Amiable young people amble around and play kid's games while waiting their turn. This labyrinth, like the St. Paul's version, has all its words and music on CD, one track for each section of the path, to be listened to on headphones while walking. The organisers made their own CDs, combining tracks from St. Paul's with material of their own.

To begin with there were few surprises. The stations followed the St. Paul's format - 'Noise', 'Letting Go', 'Hurts', 'Holy Space', 'Self' - but then departed radically. Instead of 'Planet', there was a fountain - and the soundtrack on the headphones was 'The Vision' from '24-7 Prayer' in a ranting style [check out the '24-7 Prayer' website if you want to see the words]. There followed a more meditative talk under the shadow of a cross, and then not a 'visitor's book' but a graffiti wall for responses.

The fountain was delightful, and the mirror of the 'Self' station was cleverly augmented with video cameras relaying one's image back onto monitors. The hanging-sheet walls were something that had to be tried, but they caused a paradox of privacy. On a 'standard' labyrinth everybody is in plain view - which allows people to keep their distance from one another. In an enclosed labyrinth, you are alone, but others might burst in on you at any moment - which is rather inhibiting. And the graffiti wall encourages 'on-message' public responses rather than personal and private reaction.

A labyrinth is primarily a meditative prayer walk. It is about journey - journey into the presence of God, and then journey out into the world, and the physical journey reflects the inner journey. This labyrinth had departed far enough from the usual nature of labyrinths as to be almost a different beast. The path had become little more than a clever way to get from station to station. It resembled a church service along a path - which is an interesting notion, but not a labyrinth in terms of process.

The journeying and relational aspects of the St. Paul's version had been downplayed or lost, in favour of something more individualistic, just you and God. I found the in-yer-face evangelicalism of the latter parts, and the abandonment of ecology and prayer for others, disturbing. It implied that the theology of the labyrinth had not been understood, or had been discarded and the form used to dress up something alien. One member of the St. Paul's team was quite angry at what she felt was a misuse of the work to dress up a form of Christianity to which it was intended to offer an alternative.

Which raises the question, how to protect the integrity of something which has been made publicly available for creative adaptation? How to encourage creative use, while discouraging the kind of co-option that subverts the core intentions of the work? How to do this without becoming as controlling as the traditions we wish to leave behind?

To the students, I was encouraging. I want to see their creativity flourishing, not crushed by being told they had 'got it wrong'. They belong to a Vineyard church and the upbeat evangelical 'youth church' flavour reflected that spirituality. Their intention was to prepare Christian students for a forthcoming mission in Nottingham, hence the nature of the second half of the labyrinth - it was to fire them up for outreach after opening up to God. I didn't hide my concern at the changes they had made, but still encouraged them to experiment further. Since the labyrinth represents a major departure for their kind of church, it's hardly surprising that they hadn't gone the whole way.

Had the adaptation of the labyrinth been made by church leaders, I would have been more forthright in disapproval. If you think I'm being harsh, consider these two responses from churches in Nottingham. One wanted to make an evangelistic labyrinth. I pointed out that this would pressurize both team and participants [if any could be persuaded into the trap] to deliver 'results' - which pressure would in itself prevent the desired result by stopping people from opening up to God! Another had suggested an 'Alpha course' labyrinth - using it to explain the Christian faith. Each participant would be partnered on their walk by a 'mentor'. Which again would prevent honest response or openness. In both cases the labyrinth would become a coercive selling tool.

It's an unfortunate Christian trait, especially pronounced among evangelicals, that each new idea that comes along is grabbed and used as window dressing for the church forms that already exist, rather than being allowed to exist as a new form in its own right. Is church a fixed entity, which has to dress up so that people can relate to it? Or is it the outworking of relationship with God, as variable as the cultures we live in?

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