Blah Study Day – London

This is the basic script of the Blah Study Day in which I participated in London last Saturday. It is not the actualy text of what I had to say as (in my usual manner) I made a lot of stuff up on the spot (or was that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, let’s think about that one…). The official title was one of “Catholic and Contemplative Worship with Young People in a Parish Setting” which I summarised as “Sign, Symbol and the Sacred” as I couldn’t fit it on the slide. What was amusing was that my laptop was in for repair (again) of its DVD drive and so I had to write the paper on a PC and run it off a Mac – scary! Thank the Lord for the otherwise useless Mac Mini!!!

The MP3 of this and the much better papers on the day may be ordered from the Mootique for not much at all (well, 8 quid in fact)

I’ve never been conventional: always been in trouble, always been at the back of class irritating the authorities who tell us how it should be done, and why it has to be like it is.

And Blesséd is, I suppose a reflection of this: the loose collection of individuals and their charisms that almost on purpose seeks to take what we know and love and do it differently.

On one level, Blesséd is solidly traditional – deeply sacramental, unashamedly Anglo-Catholic, soaked in gin and the cycle of the daily office, and on another it seeks to blow that world apart – to declare the whole of creation as sacramental, and our approach to God as immersive, multisensory and wildly, rabidly inclusive.

My story is similarly subversive and unconventional: a life of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll transformed by an encounter with the sacred. As God moved within me, and I sensed His calling to the sacred priesthood, I was moved by sign and symbol, by sacrament and order and so I gravitated towards catholic spirituality.

An intense religious experience at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham suggested that rather than turning from a past in IT and Youth Work, I should seek to embrace that within my priestly ministry; and so having begun to engage with Young People and Gen X’s whilst a Youth Leader in Sussex, then at theological college at the College of the Resurrection and as a curate in urban Portsmouth, God pulled the strings to create something new.

Unlike many practitioners in this space, I am a Parish Priest first: a vicar with the cure of 16500 souls in Gosport, and Blesséd has to inhabit the space around that given. Not enough time to do anything properly, not enough resources, Pioneer ministry is just a pipedream: we all know about those pressures.

For me, being catholic is not just about incense and candles (those staple tools of alternative worship), it is more than Gregorian chant and any of the other affectations of faux catholicism, but is about a fundamental way of looking at the incarnation and the world as affected by the incarnation: the unknowable can be made partially known and the sacraments can provide a mechanism to that encounter – we should not be concerned with immediate effect [‘the souls won for Jesus’ requirement, but trust in the power of Christ to capture the spiritual yearning within most people young and old.

The original multisensory worship was the liturgy celebrated in the Basilica of the 8th Century: a place where sight, sound, smell and taste ensured that we seek to engage with God’s wondrous creation and to try to express the inexpressible. By worshipping with more than just our lips and seeking faith without necessarily seeking understanding, we celebrate our humanity as glorified by the incarnation in all its diversity.

In 2002, Blesséd was born – Eucharist with funky backbeats, Gloria with dancing, Sacrament with Attitude. Blesséd was a group which sought to be unconventional, to remain true to its Anglo-Catholic heritage and yet embrace new ways of encountering God through sign and symbol and most especially through the sacraments.

We are surrounded by symbol and sign. We can even at times appear hemmed in by it. But what the proponents of the ‘No Logo’ movement fail to see is that it is we who give a symbol its power, it is we who define sense and meaning.

Fundamentally, I believe that our primary encounter with God in worship is not an intellectual one, but an emotive one. Worship is one of the first ways that seekers of faith encounter Christ, and when asked about their first dip in the worship ocean, they do not reflect on worship in terms of reason or logic: whether they were convinced by the argument, but how it made them feel.

The mountaintop experience of the Transfiguration came about by a wondrous encounter with the divine, not by intellectual engagement. This is where Alpha, bless it, gets it fundamentally wrong, because it is about proving to the ladies and gentlemen of the jury that God exists.

Blesséd sought therefore to replace the rather simplistic approach of evangelism: ‘let me tell you a story about Jesus, kids…’ and replace it with an emotional experience and a glimpse of the divine.

Principally, this focused attention upon the Mass, but not exclusively, for God can be encountered through all nine of his sacraments . Sacraments are ‘an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace’ and are therefore a way for humans to seek to comprehend a facit of God’s nature by something tangible but without limiting God by either physicality or the boundaries of our own intelligence. When originally planned an act of worship, a number of our young people involved all said independently “well, it has to be a mass doesn’t it?” They sought to define themselves in terms of their relationship to the sacrament and yet not to be constrained by the traditions of it. Each element of the mass was seen as being up for grabs, for a radical interpretation and a retelling of the story.

As Pete Ward discussed in his book Mass Culture the mass is an evangelistic opportunity and a missionary tool. It provides a unique opportunity for expressing the salvation story and the joy of the resurrection in word, song, action and ritual. The mass provides both fixed points of reference and an ever-changing cycle of encounter with God, and this mix of the familiar and the challenging provides a framework on which to hang new explorations of worship; rather than being a limit to fresh expressions of worship, it forms a skeleton upon which a new creation is formed.

Of course, given my background, they tend to be highly technological: deeply based on multimedia and recorded music, video and the sensual, probably to the detriment (and frustration) of the musicians I work with, but the tangible, visceral, community of encounter which Blesséd affords us cannot be under played. Jonathon Barnbrook is an artist whose work at the V&A Museum I value highly:

These are, I believe, the mantra of Blesséd, which is actually concerned less with technology than the point of encounter that the technology can bring us to. This can be further proved when you learn that Blesséd is a completely Mac-free zone, as I can’t ever get a Mac to perform as well as a PC. This is probably another reason why Blesséd is unique in the fresh expressions and alt.worship world.

In order to facilitate this sacramental encounter, all have been welcome to participate and share in the sacrament. Within the Anglican tradition, it is customary for the sacrament to be denied to those who have not undergone sacramental preparation and the administration of another of the nine sacraments: confirmation.

However, a God issues a welcome to all to encounter him; so at a Blesséd mass, the blessed sacrament will be offered to any who come forward for it. Can any of us claim to fully understand these mysteries? Let us administer the sacrament freely and with grace and let God sort it out. The Mass is truely a ‘Divine Liturgy’ in the Orthodox sense, an encounter with God in mechanisms which are not, and should not be, fully understood.

Blesséd took something well loved and cherished and gave it a new slant. Nothing within the mass is not there without purpose or significance, and so it afforded opportunities for new ways of communicating this. By maintaining the shape of the liturgy as described by Dom Gregory Dix and radically at times reinterpreting them, the whole encounter with God is re-explored and new nuances and themes develop: Eucharistic prayers are mimed, Creeds are given a rave feel in a language not spoken by anyone in the audience, the Gloria is tap-danced and the liturgy is shared by all as dough is kneeded, baked and broken across a single act of worship.

The end result is something which is at once both familiar and yet very challenging. The comfort found in ritual and repetition is transformed by new and risky ways of looking at them. The symbolism of a past age is brought crashing into a modern era as the gently tinkling bells of the Eucharistic elevation are replaced by a guitarist’s heavily distorted power chord. All the constituent and legal elements are there, but words authorised by Liturgical Committee or Curia? No, not ever likely!

When asked to lead worship in the crypt of Lambeth Palace, the temptation is to leave a liturgical hand grenade in the fruit bowl rather than conform to neat ‘Catholic’ expectations.

Our greatest delight is our involvement at Walsingham, for so long regarded as a bastion of lemon-sucking Anglo-Catholicism, but which welcomes the radical subversion of the form with open arms: we have put on the Labyrinth (‘Labyrinth Classic’), a multisensory Via Dolorosa using MP3 players and immersive, shocking, challenging Stations of the Cross and this year a new installation of ‘Stations of the Spirit’, examining the Fruits of the Spirit from Ephesians 5.

Like many youth phenomena, the initial phase of Blesséd has passed, and the young people who came together for it have since moved on, to university, to work and at the same time to different expressions of church in which to encounter the sacred. The moment it starts to appear stale it must, like Brookside be discarded and replaced with something new, otherwise it will become just like Spring Harvest or Soul Survivor which have moved from the radical to the establishment; and it will lose its place at the cutting edge of faith.

Blesséd limps from one event to another without funding, too late and too messy for formal Fresh Expressions funding (we have never even ‘done’ Greenbelt), relying on a few quid from one committed individual or other each time we come together. Desperately in need of a new Projection Screen and a helping hand.

Yet, Blesséd in new incarnations also continues, for some time it existed as a sort of roving resource: parachuted into new environments to destabilise and reinvigorate groups of young people without a sacramental direction: to take something familiar like the mass and to give it a shocking new presentation which threatens to transform an individual’s encounter with the mystery of salvation.

Latterly with my move to my own parish, S. Thomas the Apostle, Elson, Blesséd has found a permanent home and is beginning to discover what it might look like as a separate ecclesial community.

I am not even sure what this might look like, but of one thing I am sure, it doesn’t look like the parish structure that I currently operate out of. Increasingly our communities are not united by geography, social networking sites such as Facebook show a marker of new forms of community, and it seems possible that for many, new forms of communication such as text, email and blog form a backbone which supports them between the times of community worship in the same way that House Groups in the Evangelical mould or the daily office said on a damp Tuesday morning would: you cannot deny the authenticity of such a community, even though its form and shape may be quite radically different to what the church has previously used, but the Gospel is such a compelling message, so important, so urgent that we are called to use the most cutting edge tools in order to get that Gospel out there – what was the first book ever printed on movable type – the Scriptures!

I believe in this age of increasing mobility, the loss of geography as the prime marker of community, the fragmentation of interests and the (thankful) death of the scourge of All-Age worship, that the parish is a dead concept. We do all-age worship: it’s called the Mass. If we cannot make the multi-sensory excitement of the Eucharist accessible and enthralling, then it may just be time to hang up our cassocks and head for the hills…

Blesséd continues to be a thorn in the side of the establishment: woefully irritating to all those Bishops who want the catholic wing to stick to authorised texts, to traditionalists who fear the advent of new paradigms of worship in their sacred spaces, to evangelicals who are challenged by the insistence that God meets us not just through the pages of a book but through our encounter with him in everything.

Long may that be so, for although it may not be popular, or funded by the church or even sitting nicely in class with its arms folded, Blesséd will continue to play with liturgy and meet God in his holy sacraments.