Saturday, 26 April 2014

Being Authentic doesn't necessarily mean being Contemporary

After all the deep reflection of Lent and Holy Week, and the joy of our Easter celebrations, it's time for us to return to the question of what it means for us to be an 'Authentic Church'.  But before exploring today's theme, let me quickly remind you of where we have been exploring together up until now.

  • We've thought about how we need to reflect Jesus' priority for the poor and the sick.  

  • We've explored how wide and generous is God's grace to us. 

  • We've mused about how to understand sin as the absence of Love, and 

  • how Christians need to be producers not consumers.  

  • In Lent, we considered how we can have an intelligent understanding of Scripture; 

  • and then Fr James invited us to think about how to blend the scientific with the mystical.

  • Our last theme was about being tolerant and open to all - and you might remember me telling you about my relationship with Christians in Ghana, with whom I disagree on all sorts of theological levels, but with whom I remain a brother and fellow-Christian.

  • These week's topic takes up that last theme again.  This week, I would like us to think about how we can embrace tradition while being open to modern trends in our culture.  Or to put it another way, I want to suggest that 'being authentic doesn't necessarily mean being contemporary'.

    When I go to Ghana, on Friday, I will take part in a number of significant services.  I shall be present at the retirement of the Bishop of Cape Coast, and then at the enthronement of his successor.  I shall also be installed as a Canon of St George's Cathedral in Ho.  I know from previous experience that all these services will be conducted in sweltering heat.  They will each last up to four or five hours, and I will have sweat running out of every pore!  But I also know, from previous experience, that they will be services that will blend traditional church practices with modern Ghanaian culture in a quite unique way. 

    There is much about their worship which the highest of high church worshippers in England would find very comfortable.  There are lots of smells, and bells!  There's acres of lacy fabric shrouding the Altars and priests.  There are, it seems, dozens of acolytes with candles which are moved around the service in complex choreographed movements. And much of the English language portions of the service are said in what we would consider very old fashioned English...essentially straight out of the old book of Common Prayer.

    However, having embraced so much of traditional Anglo-Catholic worship, the Ghanaian church has also learned how to incorporate modern culture into its worship.  So, whilst there is a traditional robed choir and organist at Cape Coast Cathedral, there is also a worship band with guitars, brass instruments, and drums of immense size.  And therefore, at various points in the service, the mood changes significantly to one of sometimes ear-splitting proportions!  This particularly happens during the sometimes two or three collections which take place during the service - during which the whole congregation dances to the front of the church, and deposits their gifts in a large collecting box.  Suddenly, the mood shifts from somber traditional Anglo-Catholic to something loud and joyful.  Hands are raised or clapped.  Handkerchiefs are waved like little flags, people dance and sing their hearts out. 

    Somehow, the Church in Ghana, has managed to combine joy and reverence in their worship, in quite a unique way.  I think we could learn quite a lot from them.  The English churches tend to be either one or the other.  We either attend worship that is loud and modern, or something more traditional.  We tend to be, as a nation, quite set in our individual ways, and we can easily feel very uncomfortable about doing anything that is new, or different.  

    I've experienced that here, as much as anywhere else.  I've welcomed new people to our worship here at St Mark's - who have then told me, on leaving, that they find our use of bells during the Eucharist just a bit too Catholic for their taste.  I've spoken to others who have said that they find our tradition of singing hymns with a robed choir just a bit too old fashioned...and that they would like to have more worship-songs and choruses.  On the other hand, I know people in this congregation who consider that any music written after 1750 is 'dangerously modern'!  I've found that when I've attempted to introduce a bit of hand-clapping into more up-beat worship songs, that most people steadfastly cling to their hymn-books, and refuse to join in!  

    But do you know what?  Statistics that are gathered by the church every year tell us that there is a return to tradition happening all around the country.  We've seen lots of new initiatives springing up all around the church, including 'Messy Church' and 'Cafe Church' and many other very useful tools of outreach.  But did you know where the most significant growth is taking place in the English churches at the present time?  It's actually in our cathedrals!

    People all over the country are being drawn back to the traditions that some of the previous generation abandoned rather too easily.  This is particularly true of those whom theologian  Dr April Love-Fordham calls "Non-conservatives" by which she refers to the kinds of Christians who embrace the ideas about grace, inclusion, the intelligent reading of Scripture, the priority on community that I think we also embrace here at St Marks.  Love-Fordham says this: that "Non-Conservatives are not generally drawn to contemporary Christian rock and loud screaming guitars on Sunday mornings.  This kind of worship music feels laughable at times to them and they’d rather flee than attend a church with a praise band leader standing on stage fussing at them to clap their hands with more gusto and to sing louder.  Non-conservatives are returning to high church with smells and bells – and lots of contemplative silence, prayer books, and the Eucharist generously practiced.  They want to learn spiritual disciplines and to worship in an atmosphere that lets the heart experience God.  Who would have predicted that?  But they aren’t into making church look and sound like a rock concert."

    I think that Love-Fordham has a point! And I say that despite the fact that, as most of you know, I am a keen fan of jazz, blues, and rock 'n' roll.  When I listen to music privately, in my car or at home, it's often full of screaming guitars, and cranked up as loud as my speakers will go!  But when I worship, I have learned to value the traditions that the church has evolved over 2000 years.  There is immense depth in the words of our ancient hymns; the wisdom of the ages can be found there, whereas many modern worship songs lack anything theological at all.  There is enormous benefit in the profound gift of silent contemplation; the gift of being able to draw back from the noise of modern life, and draw from the well of the presence of God's still, small voice.  And as we shall explore in a few more weeks (as this sermon series comes to an end) the traditional practice of the Eucharist has a way of drawing a whole congregation together into the presence of God like none other.

    The challenge that all churches face today - which is the very challenge that the church in Ghana is grappling with - is how to maintain a balance.  How shall we offer the gift of our traditions to a world which constantly seeks the new and the innovative, and which so quickly rejects what it thinks of as old-fashioned?  We serve a population which embraces every new fad of technology or fashion without ever asking whether any of it adds anything significant to the sum of human experience.  We serve a population which has been lulled into believing that a new smart-phone, or a flatter-screen TV is the answer to all human angst.  Or that the latest album from a fly-by-night band of one-hit wonders will answer all the emotional needs of life.

    To such a population, we need to find ways of saying that we hear their cry for the modern and the new.  We hear it, and to some extent we share it.  We are all victims of a consumer culture that searches out the latest gadget, or longs to buy the latest fashion. And it is healthy and right that we should incorporate something of modernity into what we do together in worship. The use of modern English, understandable by everyone, is vital.  Modern instruments and modern beats are valuable in communicating that God loves modern people just as much as previous generations.

    But for them, and for ourselves, we need to continue looking backwards as well.  We need to learn what we can from the practice of the Ancients...practices that sustained them, and which still have immense power to sustain us today.  Sustained silence, meditation on wisdom in word and song, the repeated mantras of the Lord's Prayer, the Creed and the Eucharist...these are the practices which sustained our fore-fathers and mothers.  And if we will let them, they still have the power to sustain us today.


    Sermons in this series:

    1) Introduction

    1a) Reflecting Jesus' priority for the poor and the sick.

    2) Having a wide and generous understanding of God's grace - Jesus poured out grace and forgiveness to everyone he met.  Are we the same?

    3) Understanding Sin as the absence of Love - How should we understand Sin?  Breaking Rules?  Who decides what is Sin anyway?

    4) Encouraging Christ-ians to be producers, not consumers - We live in a consumer society. Is there a danger that some of us ‘consume’ Christianity?

    5) Having an intelligent understanding of Scripture - How do we approach the Bible?  A hand-written text from God?

    6) Blending the scientific with the mystical - Was the world created in six days?  How did Noah get all those animals onto the Ark?!

    7) Being tolerant and open to all - How do we connect with other human beings?

    8) Embracing tradition while being open to the contemporary - How can we honour the old and embrace the new?

    9) Understanding that forgiveness is How the World is Set Right - Is forgiveness the answer to the World’s problems?

    10) Being a Eucharistic Community - How does taking Jesus into ourselves help us?

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