Greenbelt: Worship

by
31 August 2012

In Friday's "Singing the Mystery - Hildegard of Bingen", the composer June Boyce-Tillman assumed the character of Hildegard, the 12th-century mystic, composer, writer, and artist, to share her story, blending the musical compositions of both women to demonstrate the relevance of Hildegard's ancient theology and religious practice to the present day.

Hildegard's visual art illuminated skilfully the Greenbelt themes of ecology and the elements. Boyce-Tillman presided with a lightness of touch embodying Hildegard's image of the disciple as a feather on the breath of God.

The audience willingly re-enacted her similarly dramatic concept of God's love as a hug which kisses the world, as they enthusiastically shared the embrace of peace with one another in conclusion.

"Beer and Benediction", in the annexe of the beer tent, "The Upper Room", was disappointing. Liturgical ministers appeared initially like irresponsible children let loose in the vestry, recordings didn't play properly, and loud music from the pub next door intruded, prompting giggles.

The service was heavy on content, but turned out to be much less than the sum of its parts. The ministers stood in a circle at the front moving swiftly from unfamiliar prayer to little-known response, dividing the congregation into those in the know who were clearly revelling in the experience, and those who had no way of working out what was going on.

By contrast, café-style discussion worked exceptionally well in this small venue. Chris Powell and Rachel Melville-Thomas hosted a free flow of contributions about psychology, with Chris Fetch and Richard Larn. The conversations ranged wide and free: conspiracy theory, psychological patterns, control, meaning, conscious and unconscious thought, body shape and behaviour, the process of individual and collective change, peer pressure, medicating mental ill-health, pharmaceutical research, mistrust of institutions. . . It's amazing what a few drinks will do.

Andy Flannagan, a songwriter, worship-leader, and head of the Christian Socialist Movement, started with a filmed monologue of the rich young ruler which flowed seamlessly into an act of confession, asking the audience to take out their phones and wallets, and those things that separated them from God, and leave them on the floor for this worship time.

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The folk-rock worship flowed seamlessly from song to song, with reinterpretations of older songs ("Father God, I wonder") alongside new songs, proving it's how you play the songs, not their age, that can hinder people's walk with God. A second monologue, of the woman at the well, was just as impressive as the first, with a different challenge: to take water to someone you didn't know. A politically motivated credial statement made some of the audience uncomfortable, but this was righted by a powerful prayer by Mother Teresa. This was an act of worship that crossed boundaries and took people in to a new place.

Ikon were at Greenbelt this year. Ikon were not at Greenbelt this year. . . Keen as ever to challenge themselves as well as their audience, all but a couple of Ikon's members stayed in Belfast, and appeared at the Absence/Presence service electronically.

Even when three audience members were needed as "volunteers", they were chosen randomly from those who followed a pre-service instruction to text Ikon, and were given their instructions in a phone call.

The service asked whether we could ever really know other people, however close we were to them, or even whether we could know all of our "other selves".

A repeated refrain was "nothing works". Unfortunately, this was only too literally true of the technology. It may or may not have been deliberate that menus, windows, and cursors could be seen on the projection screens (with Ikon it is hard to tell), but the continual breaks in live Skype transmissions meant that a thought-provoking concept was imperfectly realised.

On Sunday morning, BBC Radio 4's Sunday Worship was broadcast from the festival at 8.10 a.m. Dr Paula Gooder preached; the Revd Richard Coles and John Bell read, and the Revd Dr Kate Coleman said the prayers.

At 10.30 a.m., the Greenbelt Communion service took place on the mainstage. There was a response to criticism that last year's service had not been sufficiently all-age: so there were bubble-blowing, Fischy Music songs, and a specific task for children in the eucharistic groups.

There would have been more participation in processions, had the area immediately in front of the mainstage not been turned into a swamp by the previous day's rain.

Including new songs meant a song practice before the service could start; unlike previous years, though, the songs were so catchy the congregation picked them up quickly and sang with enthusiasm.

Some of that enthusiasm was lost in the wordy bits of the communion, but there was plenty of visual material to enjoy, and the sun was shining. And the now established practice of doing communion in loose groups of 20 worked well.

And the tone was right, helped by a ceilidh atmosphere. So, when sunflower seeds were handed round at the end, the symbolism was undercut by a confession from the celebrant that they were, in fact, roasted and salted, so probably not much good for planting.

When even the sound check sounds divine, you know you are in for a treat. The short turn-round at the Taizé service, on Sunday night, meant that the dozen or so singers, and their accompanying musicians, were not quite ready as Centaur filled up, and we were treated to some soaring unaccompanied solos in place of the normal "testing, 1, 2, 3".

As is traditional for Taizé, the ecumenical community in France, the chants were in several languages: Latin, English, French, and Italian. Asked to join in the Lord's Prayer "in our own language", the congregation responded with a combination of old and new translations.

A group of singers, accompanied by musicians, sung chants, such as "I am sure I shall see", and "Veni Sancte Spiritus" (Come, Holy Spirit). There were readings from Psalm 146 and Luke 4, and ten minutes of silence.

A moment of incongruity came towards the end when the keyboard player accidentally switched on the drum machine for a few seconds. However, this brief moment of levity did little to disrupt the sense of God's presence that permeated the venue.

In "Sacramental charismania", the alternative worship groups Molten Meditation and Soul Circus presented clips from popular films, recorded interviews, adverts, and TV programmes, as snapshots of the Charismatic movement in celebration and crisis.

Images of Christ blurred and crystallised on the screens as Robin, Molten Meditation's long-term minister, summarised his personal struggle accepting valid criticism of the charismatic movement he evidently loves.

Refreshingly simple worship followed with symbols, song and a statement of faith formed of phrases suggested by participants. This service, designed for one group of Christians, animated a much broader audience to wonder about the way forward for worship.

In a Mad Hatter's tea party of their own, the URC's UnReCognised team dressed as characters from Alice in Wonderland, and the words of Lewis Carroll were juxtaposed with the words of John the Evangelist, while scones, cream, and jam were served on the Village Green.

It was made clear that all was a prayer, and a recognition of the presence of Christ - sharing food and drink, conversation, sitting together. So, having said that, it seemed superfluous to bless a separate batch of scones and juice for communion.

Informal, but not inappropriate in a year when the whole country has enjoyed street parties and processions, the atmosphere was convivial, the company pleasant, and the concept intriguing; and the leaders made it work as outdoor community worship.

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