LIKE many, I sat down on Sunday evening expecting to share in a collective moment. I expected that the One Love Manchester charity concert in aid of the victims of last month’s suicide bombing (News, 26 May) might be something like Live Aid. What took me by surprise, and challenged me, was the joyful, resilient seriousness of what took place.
It has become quite commonplace to liken pop concerts to religious worship. Several commentators have already spoken about One Love Manchester in just these terms. Some have noted the Christian roots of many of the artists who performed, including Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Will.i.am, and Marcus Mumford.
Building on this, it is possible to trace the theme of love, starting with the title chosen for the event, which is reminiscent of the Rastafarian idea made popular by Bob Marley. Marley sang about “One Love” as a call to come together and “feel alright”. At the start of the concert, Mumford told the crowd: “Love casts out fear.” The Black Eyed Peas picked up the theme with the wistful lament “Where is the Love?”. The song speaks of the presence of war and death, and calls on the “Father” for guidance from above, and asks where is the love? Then there was Bieber’s affirmation that God is in the midst of darkness.
THE tracing of religious references and themes in popular culture is a familiar exercise. In this kind of analysis, One Love Manchester can be read much like films, television shows, or adverts for religious ideas.
But what if something more was happening here than the scattering of religious imagery and language in cultural expression? What if what we were witnessing was an answer to the prayer “Thy Kingdom Come”, in the form of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York’s Pentecost prayer initiative (News, 2 June)?
One thing to say theologically about the Kingdom is that it is not identical or bounded by the Church. The Kingdom extends beyond the Christian community. The Kingdom is therefore something of a mystery, an unexpected reality, even as it is longed for.
The Kingdom is a work of the Holy Spirit, in the Church and in the world. Signs of the Kingdom are therefore to be expected in the Church, and they are also to be found in the wider culture and society if we are willing to look for them. All of this means that, when we pray, our attention should not be only on the Christian community — we should also be prayerfully attending to ways in which God might be bringing in the Kingdom elsewhere.
I am drawn to the image of performers and members of the audience using their thumbs and first fingers to form the shape of a heart. It is an indication of a possible resonance between the message of love and the sensibilities of the crowd.
So when Bieber asked: “What an amazing thing we’re doing tonight: would you agree that love always wins?” he was tapping into a spirit that was already there, and held by both fans and musicians. He went on to say: “What a better way [than] to fight evil with evil is to fight evil with good? Would you guys agree with that?”
These words — like those of Mumford, Bono from U2, and, indeed, the title “One Love” — draw on Christian scriptures. But this was not an appeal for people to buy in to a theological vision. There was something participatory taking place. These words summed up what was already there.
This is a generation that has embraced diversity. Young people, for the most part, are fierce in their affirmation of the value of difference. In this context, this was not preaching, or even a liturgy, but a prophetic enactment of the spirit of the age — and that spirit is summed up by the word “love”. Of course, the 1960s generation has been here before, but this was different. Love here was enacted as a response to murderous attacks and hatred on our own streets. It was love as resistance and an assertion of the right to enjoy life in the face of those who seek to deny that pleasure.
SO, WHAT would it mean if One Love Manchester really was part of God’s answer to the movement that Archbishops Welby and Sentamu have set in motion?
One thing that it might mean is that God has chosen to work outside and beyond the confines of our congregations to effect reconciliation. It might mean that a version of our faith is more widespread than Christians have been accustomed to assume was the case. It might also mean that the task of the Church is not so much to try to connect people to its own life, but to find a way to catch up with the life that is beyond its doors.
The Church has prayed “Thy Kingdom come,” and God answered in an unexpected place. Love, it seems, will find a way.
Dr Pete Ward is Professorial Fellow in Ecclesiology and Ethnography in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.