by Andrew Pratt.
Early in January this year I watched a programme in which Gareth Malone (of Military Wives fame) went into a prison to draw together young men to form a choir. No one wanted to sing anything except ‘Drill’. Its themes were angry and violent. This music was new to me. It is an extreme example, but illustrates just how far I am culturally from many young people. Some years ago I read that there is no language that can be used in worship that can be understood by those outside the church. Such a change, it was suggested, would reduce worship to such an extent that it would no longer carry any value or make any sense.
I believe that that is a nonsense. But how can we enable worship to be understood? And is it worth it? Liberation theologians, pioneer ministers and progressive theologians have explored this. In every case there has been resistance. It will not be ‘authentic’, ‘it’s not like church’, that is ‘not like Our church’. At worst the theology is ‘faulty’.
Gareth Malone offers a lesson for us all. Working with the men in prison he had individual conversations with them. It took time, effort and a lot of listening. What happened was that the men began putting their life stories, reflections and feelings into poetic rhythm. Many of these were aggressive and violent. Malone encouraged them to wish and hope, to express in the same sort of verse their future expectations. Then he asked how they might want these expectations to change. He encouraged them to sing their own hopes in their own context with their own language. This was not translation of something foreign, but SELF expression. Malone had to move out of his comfort zone. There was something incarnational going on here. The musical tenor of the accompaniment changed. There was negotiation of the texts and music that the men were writing. The end product was still something that the men could own. They were not forced into a normative belief that they would find hard to accept.
So how could this affect our approach to our worship, hymns, liturgy? First, it starts outside the church. If people don’t come to our churches in droves then we shouldn’t be surprised. We don’t sing or speak their language and, too often, we haven’t listened, let alone learned from this. In fact we live in an alternative culture, but as Mark Kermode might say, ‘not in a good way’.
Worship asks us to answer existential questions and to express fundamental beliefs. If others are to join our worship they will need language which will express their deepest feelings, deepest fears. Our theological language may not work. It is no good saying that they will have to learn. Part of the message of the resurrection appearances of Jesus is that each person, be it Mary or Peter, Thomas or those on the road to Emmaus, was met where they were, grieving or in guilt, doubting or not understanding. No one was forced to accept something that they couldn’t. In our context that may well mean putting to one side some beliefs that we have accepted as fundamental. Much of our theology will be criticised as implausible, incredible. The crucifixion may resonate as divine child abuse to some people. Virgin birth may raise questions in relation to male power and the father-hood of God. But our fundamental question ought not to be do we believe this or that theological proposition, but can God love this person? If we believe in such a love then nothing ought to stand in the way of our communicating it. C.S. Lewis stressed that we must know the language of our audience. We must communicate in ways that our hearers understand, not what we think they ought to understand. He went on to imply that if we couldn’t do that it was not the fault of our hearers, but we who were confused. It is the difference between that image of God watching ‘from a distance’ and the presence of Jesus, born, living and dying in our midst as one of us.
Of course getting folk in inherited church to support a mission that won’t fill pews isn’t easy. But the bottom line is, do we value others enough to enable them to know that God loves them without forcing them to be like us? If we do, are we willing to allow them to teach us how to be church? All too often, it seems to me, our precious buildings, practices and creeds matter more.