So tonight, foolishly, instead of going to bed or even finishing my book, I let a quick glance at last night’s Tony awards lead me to YouTube and Sondheim and Bernadette Peters.

What a strange childhood I remember.  I never spoke much, as I recall (and my parents say I’ve been making up for it ever since). That meant that very little of what was going on in my head came out to the light of day to be noticed or commented on.

So I find myself wondering:  would anyone have  thought it odd that at 6, my favourite song was by Sondheim?  (Send in the Clowns — the only one popular enough to get past mother’s screening, amidst all the Rogers and Hammerstein)

Next glance at Sondheim came at school:  Side by Side by Sondheim — which offered in one evening a taste of a world opening up.  My dominant memory?  months of tension building between the soprano (who was used to being the star) and the alto (who knew she had more talent and the harder line) that was transformed into the performance of ‘A boy like that’ — hissing and spitting across the stage.

Then, it was time for Into the Woods.

I remember it distinctly.  Mother and I went down to New York, as we were wont to do.  We had orchestra seats, seven rows back to the right.  ‘A sort of fairy tale’ she said — no doubt forgetting how dark fairy tales really are.  And the curtain went up. I was nonplussed by the giant, then the witch arrived, and my world my never quite the same again.

I don’t remember liking the show, so much as being transfixed by it.

By her, really.

I had seen Bernadette Peters once before in Song and Dance — a show I hated and a character I disliked, with one wonderful song, and a performer who took my breath away despite the general dislike.

But with Into the Woods, it was different.  Song and Dance bored me.  Into the Woods bewildered me.

You must understand the context:  my parents were undergraduates in the late forties and early fifties.  My life was not far from a world that most of my contemporaries know only as farce:  set hair and satin skirts, tea parties and layered finger sandwiches.  Behind that rustled my grandmother’s memories of an Edwardian childhood, the flapper’s hopes, and the great depression.

Not the world of the Witch.

well, not officially, any way.

And into that world broke a voice of rebellion.  Into that world came the permission to turn it all upside down.  ‘Honour their mistakes, everybody makes, one another’s terrible mistakes.  Witches can be right, giants can be good. You decide what’s right.  You decide what’s good.’

Mother hated it.  It’s the only time she threatened to walk out at intermission.  But I feigned embarrassment, and forced her to stay.

Later that day, when I’d had time to process it and could draw breath again, I decided that she hadn’t understood it.  Now, I realise that she probably understood it all too well.

Often in church, there is tension between what I expect of liturgy and what others seem to want.  I don’t just mean here, in this congregation, but more generally.  I blame it on the ‘Comfortable Words’  — a sense that the liturgy is there to soothe, to lap familiarly as water against the shore.

And I suppose I want that sometimes.  But more often, I want the witch to come onto the stage and shatter my world.  I want the words, the image, the space to see something that I have always known and never known before.  I want catharsis, and healing, and a way to begin again.  And always, always the promise:  ‘You are not alone, truly not alone.  No one is alone.’

And as I say it, I realise that Bernadette Peters is probably not a likely liturgical guide.  Yet I suspect that a lot of my friends, a lot of the people who share my sense of church will ‘get it’ immediately — share the space I seek, even if choosing a different catalyst.

Bed time now, but I must give the witch the last word.   Another song of formation for me.  A sort of creed, that I am still working out.  Pain and truth and hope and grace all at once — in the search for redemption.

15 thoughts on “remember”

  1. Much as I loathe 1970, it remains a liturgy in the sense of a poetic framework from which one can go day-dream one’s own thoughts.

    But `comfortable words’ doesn’t come into it. That would be too much like narrow-mindedness, as though “these are the only words that need said” – not so much a drill-down as a whittling-down from all faiths to “one true faith” to “that’s us” to “our book” and “our pamphlet” and “this eucharistic prayer only”…

    So continue to fly 🙂

  2. Tim, right now I’m an advocate of the 1970. It’s the ‘comfortable words’ of the 1662 that I struggle with.

    Ruth — yes. I suspect she started the line of thought a few weeks back.

  3. Is 1662 the one where you’re still grovelling and supplicating like a middle-age peasant even *after* coming back down the aisle?
    If so, the word `efficacy’ comes to mind.

  4. Maybe BP isn’t a likely liturgical guide, but there’s a lot of good theology in there – not to mention sound advice on preaching!

  5. Liturgy as a comfort blanket: I need the structure and familiarity of the words and rituals to feel at home enough to relax and engage with God. The Scripture and the sermon (or other exposition of the word) are where I want the challenge and the new sight. That said well planned and thought through “new” rites (hand washing rather than feet washing followed by anointing for service for example) can engage me and provoke me in the right and +ve sense of the word. What I know now is that that isn’t me being a theological reactionary or unreasoning old stylist – it’s part and parcel of my Asperger’s and I need feel guilty or defensive about saying that to innovators.

  6. Fr Dougal, don’t worry: I’m not advocating for lack of structure. I’m pretty insistent on playing within the basic shape, and if I tweak words or structure at all, it is only in one bit. The flexibility is more about attitude, image, music, preaching, silence, use of senses…

    I guess it’s that I want the bones of the liturgy to act like the frame of a trapeze rather than the bars of a prison cell.

  7. Some folks in my previous church used to grumble when we used an alternative (standard Phil.2 passage) Creed even within the 1982 liturgy… And the one time I went for the 1662 service a chap adjacent afterwards waxed positively lyrical about “the words”, to a very polite but non-comprehending expression from me.
    There’ll always be some, I guess.

    At an (evo-CoE) church I attended whilst stuck down south, they used to throw external influences such as Taizé into the mix at semi-random intervals; that was unquestioned and valued as the Church being *open* to “other”.

    Out of interest, to what extent (if at all) might you be allowed to use a liturgy from another Province? Could you declare a special “focus on one-world-awareness/diversity sunday” in much the same way as one celebrates any given saint or seasonal sunday, say?

  8. If it were solely up to me, I’d stick with the blue book. But at least the 1970 has a complete eucharistic prayer and a a clear structure and sense of offering.

    So, 1982 over 1970; 1970 over prayer book. Waiting eagerly for a more inclusive liturgy to choose over the 1982 — but have a serious concern that we need to find a poet before we start drafting it.

  9. I agree on the need for a poet for the drafting of a new liturgy: 1977 was “liturgically correct” thanks to Gian Tellini but linguistically awful (English not being his 1st language). The rescue package that was 1982 had the guiding hand of published poet and Austin Farrer protege +Michael Hare-Duke redeeming it. And it worked!

  10. 1966 was the best (1970 was a revision of it). Amazing though it may seem, I’ve never been able to attend a Blue Book liturgy without a book. If I try, disasters happen – such as when my voice rang through a cathedral “one baptism for the remission – BLAST IT!”

  11. Oh, Robin — I regular profess variations of the creed (often slipping into American versions, too)

    Not that I’ve ever used the exact line you quote…

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