© St Ninians Episcopal Church, Glasgow which is a charity registered under no.SC010966
Rector writes  The argument as to what makes for a “good” liturgical experience on a Sunday has raged for many a year. Arguments have crystallised down to two camps each criticising the other. On one side the ‘high’ churches say the ‘low’ churches are vapid and noisy. On the other, the low churches say that the high churches are stuffy and boring. It was with much interest, then, that my ever-helpful warden drew my attention to a recent article in a daily newspaper with this arresting title – “Raving Success! Worship numbers soar as vicar pumps up the volume”. My, how interesting! Could this be the way forward for St Ninian’s? According to the article, St Matthias Church in Plymouth had a dwindling congregation but has seen its weekly attendance swell from 50 to 400 after the new vicar added DJs, dance music and confetti cannons to its Sunday services. The vicar, the Rev Olly Ryder, has cranked up the volume and added rappers and musicians to the experience. The vicar thinks that the afterlife will be just like a rave and he wants his church to be a slice of heaven on earth. “God isn’t dead, God might well be a DJ,” he was quoted as saying. He went on to say – “I was brought up going to church and it was lovely in many ways. But the world has changed and Church is no different – it’s the same message, just a different delivery.” Now, my first reaction to all of this was, to say the least, sceptical. On further reflection, however, there is an important matter of principle to be explored. We are told constantly that we live in a world where there are no longer any fixed truths and that a person’s experience of reality is the only valid reality, which may or may coincide with the experiences of others. It seems to me logical that, as the Church is composed of people and people change, this must have an effect on how we perceive the nature and role of the Church. The notion of change is tricky because we tend to resist change and we desire routine as a way of making everyday life workable. It is no different for the life of the Church. We tend to want what we do on a Sunday to remain exactly as it was in the days of our parents and grandparents. A moment of reflection rapidly leads to the realisation that this is, of course, nonsense. If your grandparents were to reappear at St Ninian’s on a Sunday they would notice, to their eyes, great changes. What they would be witnessing is an example of what the Plymouth vicar said in the newspaper article that “it’s the same message, just a different delivery”. That little quote sums up most eloquently the tension at the heart of this argument. The message of the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ remains the same. The desire to know and worship God through scripture, prayer and fellowship remains the same. The tension comes when individual churches attempt the ‘delivery’ bit and then all the arguments I characterised at the beginning of my pastoral letter are unleashed. The vicar in Plymouth has touched a nerve and has discovered that his delivery must be in the form of DJs, dance music and confetti cannons. It says a great deal about what the expectations of that congregation might be. He must have attracted members who had absolutely no expectations of what they thought church ought to be. My generation grew up in a collective understanding that there was a particular way a church should look, should sound, should smell and how people should behave when attending church. Any deviation brought distinct unease and I suspect that, if they were transported to St Matthias, they would think of the “delivery” as verging on the blasphemous. Now, confetti cannons might not be the thing for St Ninian’s (although I suspect it would go down a storm with the St Ninian Kids!) but the attempt to express the idea that “God is not dead” is entirely laudable. The challenge is how we express that idea in what we do and say on a Sunday. Worship that is satisfying is a very difficult thing to pin down. It’s true the liturgy books set out what we have to say and the things we have to do in a set way at a set time. What is the difference between that and reading out aloud the items from a shopping list? I believe that the Holy Spirit acts in a special way to lift the saying and the doing to an entirely different plane. Without this working of the Holy Spirit what you would get is liturgy being delivered as though one were reciting the items from that shopping list. However, when the Spirit is with us then we taste a slice of heaven on earth. The Rector
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