Scary Improv (that Makes Community)

[this post builds on the last — so you may want to start there if you missed it]

I’m going to leave the question of how the crowds at St Paul’s chapel responded to the all singing all dancing eucharist open for a while longer, so that I can tell you more about the Music That Makes Community workshop. (though honestly, what more can we say, after Mother Ruth’s ‘eeek’?)

My own ‘eeek’ came when the detailed schedule arrived a few days before the conference, and almost all of Friday was given over to Improvisation and Composition.  I am stunningly bad at improv.  As a teenager, the theatre director made a virtue of a hangup, and made me the stage-manager for the Improv Company.  They said and did funny thing spontaneously.  I muttered curses, as they skipped whole chunks of narrative, and frantically re-jigged light cues.  I can happily adapt a sermon, or weave something unexpected into a liturgy — but pure naked improv? no.

As for composing… well, you can imagine.  So much for learning a few new songs.

But it was a most remarkable day.  Bit by bit, barriers were broken down — flung up again — then once more dismantled.  We began with physical improv:  a mirroring game.  Not too hard, not too scary, though even then I preferred following to leading.  ‘Now add sounds’ made me flinch.  I should have just said ‘Eeek’ and been done with it, but that’s the trouble I have with improv: even the obvious things slip away.

By the end of that first session, it was hard to know who was leading whom.  We worked in pairs — but in our collective creativity and panic, we stole from each other shamelessly.  Someone did something that ‘worked’ and others instinctively mimicked it, until sounds and movements were spiralling round the group, even as we focused intensely on our immediate partners.  Towards the end, even I began to move from panic to enjoyment.  Feeling what the group was doing changed things. It helped me get outside of my own self-consciousness to begin to act more spontaneously.  Don’t misunderstand:  I was still very glad when it was over.  But something had happened, and I wondered what would happen next.

That’s quite a good space to be in liturgy:  ‘something has happened.  I wonder what will happen next.’

What happened next was a psalm — and it took my breath away.  But that is the subject of tomorrow’s post.

music night (diaspora version)

You thought they’d stopped, didn’t you?  But we can do this at a distance.

Tonight’s song — guaranteed to lift gloomy moods, and banish all existential questions about uncontrollable futures — is an Alleluia, taught by Paul Vasile from the All Saints Company.

Vimeo and Firefox don’t always play nicely together, so if you are having trouble, go straight to the Vimeo site rather than trying to sing along here.

take, eat

Kelvin has been throwing cats among pigeons again, asking us to think about the nature of consecration and possibility of virtual communion.   The question begins with an example of bread being consecrated while held in the hands of eucharistic ministers, and ends with the tease of asking us to think about how great the distance might be for this to still be valid (across islands and ferries, for example).  I imagine you’ve all read his post, but do go there first if you haven’t.

My initial reaction was to shudder in horror.  I haven’t got much beyond that in a day.  But this is where I am so far…

Let’s start with degrees of separation.

I don’t like the model of celebrating in which bread or wine is being held by people around the altar rather than resting on the altar and taken up by the priest during the eucharistic prayer.  I don’t like it, and I wouldn’t want to do it, and I would discourage others from doing it, but I would take the bread to be duly consecrated, all else being equal.  I suspect I might feel about it the way I feel in a presbyterian communion service where there are shot glasses and little squares of bread.  I grant intellectual consent to the validity of what is happening and trust God to be present, even though really I don’t like it.

But I can’t get there with the idea of virtual communion, consecration by video link, or other imagined forms of ‘do it yourself’ communion.

The next bit I can’t state very clearly, but it has something to do with the point of disintegration.  Lets try with an analogy.  For written words to have meaning, there are certain limits on the variety of expression that each word can bear.  So, if I’d written ‘bare’ just then, you’d have laughed or groaned or not even noticed, but given the context, meaning would have carried on just fine.  We can cope with variations in spelling, mistakes, and the vowelless shortening of text messages — up to a point.  But there does come a moment when what you have is no longer a word, no longer a carrier of meaning, but just a jumbled mess — no matter how sincere the initiator of the message may have been.

I suppose it’s a slippery slope argument, but not quite — slippery slope assumes things will just get worse and worse, and while I might well argue that virtual communion would too greatly erode our understanding of the eucharist, what I’m saying here is slightly different.  At some point meaning breaks.

(deep breath, and jump…)

Incarnation is embodiment in space and time.  We may well say that Jesus has two natures, but in his human nature, he was located.  In the eucharist, we play games with that.  God who is here, there, and everywhere, is ‘with us now’ in a particular time and place.  Christ, incarnate by nature, but no longer bound by a particular time or space, nonetheless comes to us in fleshy (bready, grapey) form.  And though God is always with us, and Christ can come any time and any way Christ chooses, still we say that in communion there is a real change in the locus of Christ’s presence.  What begins as bread and wine becomes the body and blood of christ.  What begins as ‘ordinary food’ becomes ‘sacramental presence’.  What begins as Christ’s universal presence becomes a specific type of presence in the sacrament. Something happens.  Something changes.  We are changed.

And the physicality of that is important.  There is an intimacy in communion that is lost when the person who is holding and focusing the community’s prayers doesn’t take the bread and wine in their hands.  I can cope better with a silent eucharist (assuming all who are gathered know the story and are praying it) than I can with words-no-actions.  So maybe that is why I can’t see anything desirable or right in different people taking up bread and wine in different places while a priest transmits the eucharistic prayer through cyber-space.

As a celebrant, I find I can’t get started till everyone is there.  I will wait and wait and wait for the children if Young Church has been delayed, rather than knowingly start with part of the community absent.  What I am doing changes — in ways that I can neither articulate or defend– depending on what is going on in the gathering:  mood, feelings, hunch… Different bits of the prayer live differently each week, and while it is all the same eucharist, the same presence, the same Christ, each celebration is different.

And I don’t think you can celebrate in two places at once.  I don’t think you can celebrate with people whom you have not seen, and engaged with, and shared space with during the eucharist.

So, that’s as far as I am with this.  Not very coherent.

On the white elephant: I don’t think that communion from the Reserved Sacrament is in any way adequate as a main service of worship.  I think that that does indeed erode our sense of what we are doing when we celebrate, and that we should be developing better patterns of non-eucharistic worship for small isolated congregations that do not gather with a priest each week.  Perhaps we need to take advantage of the small scale, too, to encourage regular table fellowship: real meals together that emerge out of worship, and provide a context for the sacramental meal which happens more rarely.

And I know, that’s easy for me to say:  I don’t have to live with it.  But there have been times in my life where I have had to make difficult choices about worship.  I chose to drive 75 miles to church fortnightly to share in the eucharist.  I thought about where I would live, and thus where I would apply for jobs, in relation to where I could worship.  And there will come a time in my life when I do that again.  We choose.   And if daily or weekly communion is essential for us, then that may limit certain other choices we can make.

Well, Kelvin, see what you’ve started?  (but I suppose that was the point)


There was quite a long time between the building starting to hum, and my realising what it was.  Even longer before I chose to break the spell and find the source of the drumming.

What I experienced in the mean time was an extraordinary freedom.

This is fundamentally my trouble — with life, with church, with who it is I am called to be as a priest:  I think that York Minster is of an appropriate scale.

And that is just not realistic.

But it is glorious for time of standing there, still, while the whole nave hums.

I feel endlessly frustrated by the ways we domesticate God.

Yes:  I can sense the presence of Jesus in a child’s laugh, or a meal shared.  But when I do, those things become bigger — rather than God scaling down to size.

The reality of God is too intricate, beautiful, complex, vast to be held on a domestic scale.   I need something less manageable, less predictable.

Thus the resonance of the cry across the plains, the cry across the nave, the hollow sound of voice-meets-wind echoing through the stones.

But I long for that sense of vast freedom to be embodied, realised, expressed.

When I finally broke from the blazing cross, and left the nave for the transept I could tell the drum was near.  And oddly, the nearer I got, the smaller it sounded.

All that sound was in fact the result of two men, sitting amidst a clutter of instruments:  large drums and flutes, grand piano and sound board.  They were playing for —


a group of people dancing.

a group of people preparing to dance.

a group of people doing T’ai chi?

a group of people embodying prayer, freedom, longing, peace, joy.

I had never seen anything like it.

It was most like T’ai chi.  But they were dancers.  I say ‘they’.  In fact, I stood watching only one woman, whose every movement was un-self-conscious beauty.

I later learned that what I was watching was their warm up.  There would be a more choreographed performance later on.  With costumes, I suspect.  And it would have been good to see the leader looking less odd.  But I just ignored him, and watched the embodied elegance of woman in front — flowing through ballet-meets-martial-arts-meets-prayer.

I cannot explain it.

The rhythm, the repetitiveness, the stretching and flow and shift of tempo — they spoke most clearly of prayer.

I had been thinking (amidst the wildness; against the memory of more common domestication.  amidst the flashing of cameras and the crashing of scaffolding.) — what we do to God is terrible.   How can we learn to express God’s freedom? order? beauty?  grace?

And then, there she was.

being all that I wish the church could be.

But I can’t create that for you here. Maybe you’ve seen her?

What I saw today was something called Moving Visions —  part of Rambert’s cathedral dance research.  But don’t follow the link, because it won’t show you.  It will look like other dance performances you’ve seen; or worse, stir your prejudices against liturgical dance.  And that’s not what it was at all.  (though if you do look, the one I couldn’t stop watching is the one who flies.  the one who was utterly grounded.)

I’m glad I got lost on the ring-road and that I fell into the minster’s pull.

I’m glad I fought through the crowds at the door and the terrible ticket desk that tries as hard as it can to tell you that you are a tourist, and that God will be back on Sunday.

I’m glad that the building knows otherwise, and the drummers, and the dance.

But I still don’t know how to do it here.