24.11.14

Calling the church to 'festival'

I am hoping the church I lead will participate to some degree in one of the Christian festivals.

There are a number of reasons why I hope this will be so. It will grow our bonds and bring us back renewed and energised. God encounters people in new ways when they focus in a concentrated way on him and in company.

I have been reading the Grove booklet
 R 23 Christian Festivals: Reclaiming a Biblical Theology

In this booklet the author, Mark Fraser describes how attending his first Christian festival had 'produced a mind-blowing sense of being part of something ‘bigger’ and something ‘real.’ Worshipping with over five hundred .. who were excited about their faith and expecting to encounter God remains a major milestone in my Christian journey.'

It is also important though that the local church can minister appropriately to those who return from the festival environment. The author of the booklet explains how 'it is often possible to trace the inverse relationship between dissipating enthusiasm and increased frustration as it slowly dawns that, like real ale, festival does not travel very well!' 

Mark Fraser wonders whether it could be that the 'church has forgotten how to party at home!' He explores ways in which the local church might intentionally follow-up and meet people spiritually as they return to the smaller and local context from the gathered and numerically exceptional conference week/festival/holiday. 

My church experience of a now traditional church has become sacramental and patterned after Common Worship but with the accompaniment of the theatrical: acolytes and gospel processions, organ flourishes, candles and vestments. The Gloria is sung, as is the Agnes Dei and I preside at the Eucharist twice a Sunday. I enjoy the quietness of rising at 6:40am, preparing myself for the first offering of that sacrifice of body and soul, our right and bounden duty with the Book of Common Prayer and then I breakfast and swap language of Ghost for Spirit, say the Creed after, rather than before, the sermon, and the Gloria after confession rather than at the end of the service. Once or twice the language of the Book of Common Prayer has leaked out where the language of Common Worship should have and I realise I am absorbing these liturgies through osmosis, something I had shared as a desire at Bishops Advisory Panel.

I also realise now how this is always something I have deeply desired, this wordiness, this richness, this sense of sign and symbol. During curacy, I was often curious about what they did down the road at the other Anglican Parish, prostrating during Lent and filling their church with holy smoke. I had watched some ordinations once in which priests lay down on the carpet in an act of reverence and I loved their obvious and somehow wild submission, this prophetic statement of dependence with their bodies. 

Mark Fraser describes how 'Though looked on with suspicion by some, ritual is simply the commonly
understood and anticipated modes of expression and behaviour by which a community seeks to engage with God.'

I have become more aware that all ends of the church engage in ritual.

I am equally as comfortable at the other end of the church but there I find ritual too - blocks of worship music followed by an opening up of the word and then the call to stand and receive further empowering from the Holy Spirit, to gather around one another in prayer and invoke God - 'Spirit come down and fill this near empty vessel again.' 

There is such a richness to our breadth as Anglicans. I have become more aware that during the Book of Common Prayer Eucharist there really is no moment of epiclesis, it is more obviously there with Common Worship.

I wonder now whether Common Worship cites the Gloria at a more appropriate moment after confession or so it seems to me because with the Book of Common Prayer we return more obviously again to our sinful state just as we leave to go out into the world and I am not always sure how helpful this is. These are just some observations I am making as I travel the breadth of services.

I enjoy singing the Common Worship services's Agnes Dei as I consume the Eucharist. I encounter the Spirit as I walk behind those candles to read the gospel and I wonder if I might just keel over sometimes in the Spirit so I wear more sensible shoes these days. Mark Fraser explores how the human soul craves exuberance in worship as we connect with the Holy in other-worldly ways, how this has always characterised the people of God.

The people of God maximally sought the presence of God at 'the three annual pilgrimage feasts ... [which] were undoubtedly the highlights of the nation’s worshipping life. Psalm 122 expresses the eager anticipation of pilgrims setting off to Jerusalem for the festival.'

I am praying that in setting off to New Wine this summer, as we always do, there is in anticipation of God meeting us there.  

The Festival of booths has often captured my imagination, seven whole days of celebrating God and retreating under canvas (booths) temporary accommodation much like the New Wine tent or caravan. As Mark Fraser explains: 'The Jewish festivals were more than an annual event; they formed a liturgical calendar that shaped the worshipping life of the people throughout the entire year. For Israel the festival represented God’s presence at the conjunction of sacred time, sacred space and sanctified community.'

I am hoping that we sense the tradition that is pilgrimage and are inspired to act in a way characteristic to Christians down the centuries: 'There are clear affinities between contemporary festival and pilgrimage. Both are motivated by a desire to encounter God on holy ground and involve stepping outside regular existence, and into a place invested with expectation, hope and anticipation of such experience.' Mark Fraser. 

Fraser looks at the Psalms for evidence of the worship experience that the Jewish festivals evoked. I have often been asked if emotionalism plays a part at these gatherings of Christians on mass but the original festivals were probably far more exuberant: 'Worshippers were deeply involved physically, in washing, dancing, shouting, prostration, clapping, singing and feasting.'

Remembering, reading and renewing is the model and Fraser finds in contemporary worship environments a simple repetition of this pattern. It is all as simple as that, I guess, no need for clever strategies or programs just worship, scriptures and responding to the God we find there. 

Fraser calls us, as worship leaders, to renew that sense of the 'worship experience which seeks to touch the spirit by engaging the body through colour, aroma, sound, flavour and physical movement, and the imagination with drama and symbol.'

There is something healthy about the church that learns to festival together, they 'glimpse God’s vision for the world and are energized to work to reveal what is already there, waiting to be uncovered within the home context.' People come back with ideas that they then carefully translate and adapt together to the environment God has placed them in. 

Fraser explores what it is that holds people back from all that God would have for them at the festival gathering. Perhaps, he wonders, there is something at work in the Church acting as an inhibitor to worship, a cap on joy, because the weight of the world presses in on us and needs lifting up in intercession and requires a certain gravity. This can render joy seemingly indulgent or guilt-inducing as if our energies might be better employed elsewhere but there is a right joy in God and perhaps there is the need for its liberation. He goes so far to say, 'To deny a corporeal dimension to holy joy is to deny both our humanity and God’s gracious and abundant provision. It is also to deny the nature of Jesus’ character and ministry.'

With a capacity for joy comes too a greater development of other emotions, most importantly the Christ-like compassion and sense of call that often accompanies those who engage in festival together. God's face and will is sought and as the presence brings joy so does the nearness of God pull in the one worshipping to what is on the heart of God. 

'Just as for the apostles on the mount of transfiguration, festival offers glimpses of glory not as an escape from real life but as a revelation of the ‘really, real,’ empowering us to discover the wonder of the kingdom amidst the ordinariness that awaits us at the foot of the mountain.' Mark Fraser.

My prayers over the next few weeks will be that God calls the new community that he has placed me in to festival together. 

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