Bring back the pews (not)

September 2001 'Small Fire' column for Ship of Fools

So you'll be wanting to know my thoughts on Greenbelt 2001. The Festival continues its climb back into success and profitability. The dedicated alternative worship venue, New Forms, seems established now as part of the programme. This year it spawned New Forms 2 as a venue for installations by alt worship groups outside the boundaries of an act of worship. Some snapshots:

Resonance began the alt worship programme with stations so beautiful that Grace asked to keep two of them for their own service later the same night. We even discussed whether to keep a station from each service so that they accumulated - it didn't happen, but might be worth trying another year.

I probably shouldn't write about Grace's services. 'Breaking the Ice' gave the rather perverse spectacle of a huge block of ice suspended in chains above a symbolic desert. Illuminated by coloured spotlights, it looked strangely like a campfire. People wrote their prayers in the sand around it. Elsewhere in the room twenty people endured their own modern desert by listening to CD Walkmans while watching a film of the car journey from Ealing to Neasden Ikea.

Sanctuary's 'Come Home', presented as a service last year, returned as actual installation art in New Forms 2. Apparently my review in this column last September gave them the idea. Before Greenbelt it had already been exhibited in this year's Bath Festival. It has undergone a very impressive development - the glasses and plates with Biblical quotations handwritten in black and gold are so covetable that people keep suggesting that they put them into production. I'd buy.

Holy Joes set up rather playful installations in a tent for four hours every night, a different theme each time but using the same stations tweaked to suit. These included bubble machines, UV lights, a tent for personal reflection, a map to stick pins in, graffiti pads, and a candle-defined prayer space. The gentleness and being able to wander in and out at will worked well.

Still The Rhythm, in their first Greenbelt appearance, staged a rather frightening service suitable for Good Friday, in which accounts of atrocities committed by or upon Christians through the ages were intercut cleverly with the Crucifixion narratives, complete with denials and gunshots. At each stage bread and wine were set on a large white bier and then covered with white cloths. The end result looked like a corpse laid out under a shroud. When this was complete the congregation were dismissed in silence. I suspect that if this had been Good Friday we might have returned to consume the bread and wine on Easter Sunday.

Epicentre, in collaboration with Cathy Kirkpatrick [Prodigal Project], presented rituals of grieving for personal losses and hurts, and then a symbolic burial followed by red roses for the congregation. It was rather Gothic. The grieving was real, and one hopes that the tears were prompted by decisions to use the stations that way rather than by the triggering of unwanted memories.

All the events were well attended; indeed Vaux's Urban Mass suffered from overcrowding - the team had to clear spaces to perform their parts. If I haven't mentioned a service it doesn't mean it wasn't good - the standard was high. And I missed a few things.

In the car on the way home, we were discussing how the basic vocabulary of alt worship services is now similar across even widely spread groups. Some would see this as a weakness, but I'm inclined to see it as a sign of strength. For the first decade of alternative worship the big question was, how do we reframe Christian worship in the idioms of contemporary culture? And nobody knew what was possible. But now there is a general confidence that almost any aspect of contemporary life, from political issues to random domestic appliances, can be incorporated seamlessly, even casually, into an act of worship.

Vocabularies have been developed, good-enough solutions are possible and problems of communication and representation can be approached in a more relaxed manner. Why is now more pressing than how. To say that alternative worship services now look similar is to say that they have fairly successfully solved the problem of how to create a church environment that mirrors the wider culture. This was borne in on me when I visited a nightclub the week after Greenbelt. Same equipment. Same music only louder. Same visuals only louder. Same fabric screens and projections. Same type of people. Same cultural language, used to different ends. Quite reassuring really.

So now that we know we can achieve, stylistically, almost anything, can the underlying methodologies take centre stage [not that there is any such thing in alternative worship]? These have always been of major concern for those in the movement, of course, but the stylistic debate has had equal billing and to many outsiders style has been the defining feature, because it's easy to grasp. It seemed like the crucial symptom of whether Christians had re-examined their methods. And for much of the 90s this held true as a litmus test, since even forward-looking evangelical worship continued to revolve around a worship band leading from the front plus preacher. But as more and more such organisations take up the trappings of dance culture, candles and icons it becomes important for alternative worship to articulate its real theological and missiological difference in terms of methods rather than style.

Discussion in the car turned to how to do an alt worship service without any of the stylistic trappings usually associated - no video or background music - possibly even taking a standard service-book service and rearranging it so that it became 'alternative worship' not by what was done but by how it was done. To those who say, couldn't you have done that a long time ago? Wouldn't it have been more helpful? I reply that the stylistic games gave us the understanding of how an act of worship fits together and how it is contexted. Now bring back the pews. Only joking.

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