flags, founders, and blessed floundering

This is the first of a set of posts on Music that Makes Community

Overhead, light was dancing. Morning sun, and bright bulbs tossed by old crystal.
‘Just breathe…’ she said, willing us all to calm.
‘Breathe’ I repeated to myself, wishing I’d taken off my shoes.
Above: red, whilte & blue flags and crystal chandeliers. Beyond: George Washington’s plush chair, in an old box pew. Below: the rumble of trains– and of founding fathers, rolling in their graves.

Somehow I think the founders never planned on this: 40 people, stretched out on the floor: breath, then sigh. sigh, then hiss. hiss, then breath, then sing. But however strange it felt for me, St Paul’s Chapel had seen it all before: pews filled with sleeping firefighters, then pews giving way to beds. This was the place where the saints of New York slept as they searched for survivors, bodies, some tangible memory of those who were lost when the towers fell. So, a bit of morning warm-up was nothing, however odd it was for me.

I had gone to New York for a Music that Makes Community worship, run by All Saints Company. All Saints are probably better known in Britain as ‘the people who founded St Gregory of Nyssa’ or ‘you know: the crazy place that dances?’ I’d been reading about them for years, and finally it was my chance to see.

The idea behind Music that Makes Community is that community forms better when we are all able to participate fully — whether we read music or not, whether we grew up on the hymnal or have never been to church before in our lives. The idea, also, is that community forms better when we are willing to take risks: when the leaders and the congregation are dependent each other, when we create something together and trust the liturgy to hold the uncertainties that risk and creativity bring.

Now, you know I believe the theory. Indeed, a lot of the conference felt like an articulation of things I’d been working towards for many years. But I am as risk averse as the next person — and lying on the floor, hissing next to George Washington’s pew pushes me well out of my comfort zone.

But that was the point. For three days, we were pushed so far beyond what we thought we could (or would) do, that anything became possible. One woman said (after composing her first piece — a glorious riff on Marx, with a Christian addendum) “in the past two days, I have done so many things for the first time, I figured ‘why not?’ ”

‘Why not’ indeed.
But St Paul’s added another dimension. It’s one thing to ask a group of 40 people who have signed up for a music conference to sigh and hiss and sing. But what happens when that same group is imrovising a chant around the euchastic prayer — or being taught a call and response Hosanna — and passers by are invited to join in?

I want to write more about this over the next few weeks, but for now, I leave you with this question:

If you had come to St Paul’s to look at the 9/11 memorial — if you had come, perhaps, not even realising that it was ‘still a church’ — what would you do if you found an all singing, all dancing eucharist in your midst… and were asked to join in… and were shown the way how?

4 thoughts on “flags, founders, and blessed floundering”

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