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Dancing with dandelions

17 May 2024

John Griffiths glimpses the emerging Church, and considers its implications


Historical church ceiling in Iran

Historical church ceiling in Iran

IT WAS “Ghazedakha” that stopped me. I pasted the lyrics into Google Translate, which read “dancing dandelions gave the good news of freedom, laughing lilies gave a joyful message, Maryams were perfumed by this news, roses opened to the joy of this word. Freedom in Christ means life for ever, the cross of Christ frees us from sin.”

I was looking for songs that I could learn with Iranian asylum-seekers in a hotel near by, run by the Home Office. This week, I had a question for my Iranian friends: What is this song about dandelions? Is it a song about the resurrection? Are the Maryams the Marys walking to the empty tomb of Christ? No, I was told. Maryams are also flowers.

I asked: How can you have a worship song about flowers? They spoke to me as if to a child. Dandelions (you know how you blow the seeds) are messengers of good news. The lilies stand for eloquence, the Maryams for purity, and a Maryam is placed next to women when they give birth (following a fable that Mary the mother of Jesus clenched one in her hand during labour). The rose is a symbol of perfection.

Thus I was introduced to a metaphorical language stretching back centuries, of which I was ignorant, but which my friends found natural as a language for worship. And the song was unlike any I had ever sung in an English church.

The weekly music sessions in the hotel have been a revelation. The participants have all been baptised and confirmed in the past year, and attend the parish church near by, where services are prepared in both English and Farsi.

Music was always going to be problematic, because music carries different meanings according to the part of the world you come from. If Iranians were to assimilate with an English congregation, they had to adjust not only to a different language, but to a different sensibility. Songs in major keys here don’t mean the same as they do in the Middle East. The carolSilent Night” was not well received — such a miserable slow song, in a major key; minor keys are better for rejoicing!

So, in our weekly gatherings, the Iranians would translate hymns and songs of the Persian Church from the Farsi into simple English; and, in return, I taught English hymns in English and Farsi, testing how the words sounded and changed when translated between the two languages.

THERE are two extremes that multiculturalism tries to avoid. The first is assimilation, when the identity of those joining is erased, and their culture is discarded. The opposite is segregation, when the newcomers are ghettoised: treated as exotic and separate. When both joiners and hosts have so much to learn from each other, different cultures need to pay deep attention to one another.

Rewind back to the Persian Christmas celebration at the end of last year: a Persian Christmas carol, “Dar Akhori Post” — “In a humble manger”. It is a bossa nova, written by a member of an Armenian family who fled Iran when their father (a pastor) was murdered. As music begins, people start to fill the aisle where they have room to dance. Imagine: a carol service with dancing! A Middle Eastern carol with a Brazilian groove.

But, if you come from a culture that has not had a Reformation or an Enlightenment, attitudes to worship, emotion, and embodiment are entirely different. The challenge of incorporating these new arrivals into the English Church is to allow their different sensibilities to flourish without being erased or ignored by the host culture.
There is nothing “normal” about Anglican worship. It is not superior to other traditions. We love it because we are used to it, but listening to how the sacred is expressed in the words and music reveals quite how repressed worship is in the UK. Our bodies and our senses are rarely engaged.

In our liturgies, our minds, on the other hand, are subject to a deluge of abstraction. One of the strengths of liturgical patterns is to allow familiarity to build spaces where our spirits can grow. But, compared with spiritualities from other parts of the world, the worship of English churches looks unhealthily detached from the rest of life.

A related but equally significant issue is how these new Christians should be tutored in their faith. They live in two worlds. In the countries from which they come, they discover a contemporary experience of Christian martyrs: a strong impulse to persist in faith when faith has proved costly to the point of death. In comparison, in the UK, modern martyrs have been secularised to communal Remembrance rituals. Courses in Christian discipleship reflect the preoccupations of 20th-century British churchmanship.

If our churches become more multicultural, we will discover the influences of theologians and thought-leaders from other parts of the world. It is a fallacy to assume that our own theological and intellectual history is the default to which new Christians will defer. This is not to discount the high value that migrants coming to this country often place on the culture that they have come to join; but we should not neglect the cultures that they bring with them.

THEN there are the parts played by lay people: sidespeople, communion assistants, vergers, and churchwardens — all linked to the maintenance of the local church as an institution, in a particular place, involving bricks and mortar. Many of these Christians have left everything and lost everything. How do we prepare them for these positions, and how do we expect them to exercise these offices?

All of this is to point out that our Church is going through a period of rapid and significant change — changes as significant as those of the Oxford Movement, the inroads of Evangelicalism, or the Charismatic movement; but different, because those were ideological shifts that took place within a single culture, whereas the changes that we are living through reflect the growing contribution of Christians joining the UK Church from all over the world. And they are not coming in as second-class citizens, but as those who have already played a significant part in the countries from which they come.

After a conference in Leicester in March, an Anglican Network of Intercultural Church (ANIC) has been launched, with several regional groupings. It is intended to provide support and sharing of resources for churches working through what it means to become intercultural. Does a congregational gathering treat all cultures equally in its services? Or does the church building host a succession of monocultural events, spread across a Sunday, in which the worshippers rarely, if ever, mingle?

ANIC is also a safe forum for the growing number of ministers of global-majority heritage to reflect on how their own background informs their ministry, and how they might exercise that calling.

It has never been more urgent for us to listen to the new Christians in our midst and the rhythms of worship which speak to them. They are more than just fresh fodder for the pews: they are a gift.

John Griffiths is a Reader in the diocese of St Albans.

Find a map of Persian-friendly churches here, part of a folder of Farsi musical and liturgical resources overseen by the Revd Mohammad Eghtedarian.
More information about ANIC here.

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