Viral Vicars and Roman Restraint

Unless you have been living in monastic seclusion for the past few days, you will know about the excitement generated by a Church of England vicar’s flash mob dance routine. The video has gone viral and sparked discussion of the place of such things in the life of the Church. Vicky Beeching, writing in the Independent yesterday, argued that a more participatory form of worship, making religion ‘interactive’, is exactly what people need to draw them into church-going, and many have blogged in similar vein. I’m therefore going to break my usual rule of never commenting on what goes on in other Churches and offer my own two pennies’ worth of comment.

The Church has always been good at adopting and adapting popular culture, and over the centuries has incorporated many forms of music and drama into its worship. One thinks of the liturgical drama of seeking the Risen Christ in the tenth-century Regularis Concordia, or the strange and beautiful dance performed by the choristers during the singing of the Magnificat at Seville Cathedral, or the popular tunes used as a basis for hymns and carols in later times. These, however, are not quite the same as a whole congregation breaking out into dance during the celebration of a sacrament. That may happen in other countries, but here in Britain?

The difficulty for us, surely, is that here in Britain we Catholics have a rather Roman view of worship. Like a Roman collect, we go for restrained, quiet, understated, an almost monastic spareness and simplicity. We may dress our priests in gorgeous vestments (or what they think of as gorgeous vestments); we may sing and play the most wonderful music (or what the musicians think of as wonderful); but at the centre of our worship is always something that may go almost unnoticed. A morsel of bread, a sip of wine and those tremendous words spoken over them and you have the holy Eucharist; an exchange of promises, a joining of hands and you have holy Matrimony. Because most Catholic congregational worship is linked to a celebration of the sacraments, there is a certain gravity and purposefulness about it, ‘the noble simplicity’ Vatican II aimed at but did not always and everywhere achieve. The inwardness of the sacrament is paramount: the interaction of God with the soul. Thus, the priest saying Mass with a congregation of one is as important as the priest saying Mass with a congregation of thousands: the offering is still perfect because it is the Mass, not because of the numbers who attend or the way in which it is celebrated.

I think it must be hard for those who belong to other Church traditions to see why what I have called the Roman approach to worship is unlikely to be adopting flash mob techniques any time soon. We are not primarily concerned with numbers in pews, with interaction at the human level, but with transcendence. Bringing people to realise the sheer beauty and holiness of God is more the work of silence than of anything else. Yes, we need material things; yes, we need signs and symbols; yes, we need warm and loving community; but most of all, we need that lonely place in the heart where Christ can pray unceasingly to the Father. Otherwise, what is the point?

P.S. Do read Vicky’s article if you haven’t done so. I enjoyed it even though I come to a different conclusion. (Sorry link wasn’t working properly earlier, but perhaps directing you to our email prayerline was one of those mistakes the holy Spirit helps us to make.)


26 thoughts on “Viral Vicars and Roman Restraint”

  1. I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive, Sister. To me the point is love. God is indeed found in the work of silence – I couldn’t do without it. But he is also found in the unbridled joy and love on the faces of the people in that church in Rev Kate Bottley’s video. I loved the fact that she brought the service and congregation back to prayer after the celebration. Jesus met people where they were – did not demand they came looking for him.

  2. I read your post while a report on this wedding was on TV. While I, personally, recoiled from the site of the dancing, I respect what the vicar said about this being a very small part of a much longer, more solemn ceremony. She also explained she wanted to express the joy of the couple. I prefer to express joy in a much quieter way but don’t feel it is my place to say other methods are wrong.

  3. I think most Anglican Priests will agree with all you have written about sacraments but we need to remember that this video shows what happened AFTER the marriage had been solemnised. I think it was a fun way for a young couple to express their joy in addition to, not instead of, the traditional marriage rite. Good on their Vicar for being willing and able to share in both.

  4. I think I agree with you AND fr David Lloyd… That kind of exuberence draws many people who otherwise might not come to or remain in church, but there is also room needed for the beauty of sacred silence, especially within communion

  5. To be fair, the sort of phenomenon you refer to is hardly more typical of the Church of England than it is of Roman Catholicism: I venture to suspect that it will not occur in the average English parish church. This was, after all, an event worthy of reporting in the Daily Mail.

    I am currently in rural France where churchgoing is at least as unpopular as it is in England. The (RC) masses I have attended here have frankly often struggled to convey the “gravity and purposefulness” of the sacrament, while a sense of transcendence has been all but absent. The truth is that, while a sacrament cannot of itself but be valid and efficacious, the mode of its celebration can have a huge effect on the way and extent to which people engage with it. I am not in favour of flash mob dancing; but neither am I keen on joyless, perfunctory celebrations of mass where the principal aim seems to be to get it over and done with, and with as little effort and engagement with the congregation as possible. I suspect that happens more often than dancing down the aisle.

  6. I think what I appreciate most about the catholic mass is that it’s what YOU put in to it that counts. A priest with a good homily is a great bonus, but even with the most unenthusiastic priest you can have a profound encounter with Christ. After a great deepening of my faith the mass has become so sacred and beautiful to me, and I can hardly believe it’s the same mass I have gone to all my life. The only thing that has changed is me!

  7. I am glad you stepped outside your usual self-imposed boundaries, Sister Catherine, because you express so well the voices of those who felt that the disco dancing was out of place.
    I would not want it at my own wedding, and I hope it does not become a regular feature of English weddings. But, my instinctive reaction was one of joy. I think it did tap into a deeply buried, Dionysian form of worship, but one of the strengths of Christianity has always been to incorporate earlier forms of celebrating God.
    But I also think there is another difference between our denominations – whereas you would have a nuptial mass, it would be rare for the Church of England to combine a wedding with a service of Holy Communion. (Similarly, baptisms – also a sacrament – are usually celebrated as part of a service of the word). To me, there is all the difference in the world between disco dancing at Matins and at the Eucharist.

  8. I enjoyed the video and looking at the faces expressing first amazement and then exuberant joy I can only be glad for all those involved….oddly I have married people who have had a nuptial mass as part of the ceremony….it does happen in the Church of England and that silence, that deep joy can be reflected as part of that service. But we are all different, our diversity is built into our genes and should be celebrate I think….what is right for one couple may be anathema to another. The priests role is I think to work with what the couple bring to the service. A marriage should be filled with joy….that’s what I aim at every time! God willing.

  9. I think I agree, although I have seen two bishops and an abbot dancing at the end of Mass once in the 70s (Ah, the 70s, we say, dismissively or wistfully, depending on our p o v).

    From an historical point of view, however, the “flash mob” isn’t a million miles from what liturgy is/can be anyway. We might recoil from the popularist or the plain silly (although I’m not entirely sure why), but actually the concerted use of the body is part of what the liturgy is anyway. A large monastic community may come into their choir much more slowly and their choreography is to a Gregorian introit, but it is a practised and organised use of a redeemed physicality after all. Maybe it’s also true of a smaller one?

    I do know, as I sit on the sofa with the cat to say Office, it’s something I’m missing, and while I may not want to do it Gangnam Style, I can sense that use of the body isn’t to be dismissed out of hand.

  10. ”…A marriage should be filled with joy….”

    a joy at encountering God in the sacred moment of the liturgy and the sharing of this sacrament indeed.

    I found this video of undeniable joy however representative of modern self centered focus on the self rather than expressing a union with the divine, but that is my uptake.

  11. My problem is this: there’s no time or space during the service in the church I attend to connect as you’re describing. While a flash mob probably isn’t the way for most churches, I believe the reason for it is sound. Connecting with God during a church service is not automatic. It takes inner wherewithal. It takes practice. It takes time in the service for personal response. As Prayer Team Coordination, I find myself asking God how to get the attention of our prayer people. What do I need to do to help them connect with God? (Back up a step. How do I get them to come to a prayer meeting?) While I find it easier to connect in the quiet and solitude, others may connect differently. How can we in he church help them do that? We’ve not used a flash mob in our church, but we have a fantastic worship team. Many people come to our church because of the music. Still, connecting with God in church service is not always an easy thing and if we in the church can help, maybe we ought to look at different ways of doing so.

  12. I must say the fear of a conservative backlash was more uppermost in my mind than my honest enjoyment of the flashmob dancing. I could immediately hear the grumbling of those whose every hot button would be pressed by the dancing of a woman priest in a C of E wedding service. A true Vicar of Dibley moment if ever there was one. But wasn’t it joyous?

    I wonder if the man who (rather reluctantly it must be said) turned water to wine at a wedding banquet would have joined in?

  13. Well said, Sister Catherine. However, I think that I would go a step further and argue – at the risk of sounding prescriptive and judgmental! – that what you say is not only applicable to the Roman tradition but to all genuine worship. Yes, the Roman rite does – at its best – have a beautiful simplicity that leads into silence. But, as an Orthodox Christian, it has sometimes struck me that while our Liturgy is wordier and in some ways “busier”, the point is also to lead us to a place of silence, to a quieting of our minds and hearts, to the point where we are able to lay aside our cares and encounter and receive God. I have sometimes thought that it mirrors the distinction between so-called kataphatic and apophatic theology – that both, one by an abundance of images and the other by the refusal of images, lead us to the place where language breaks down and we are confronted with the reality of God. And one could say something similar about how Church buildings function – that, when successful, the starkness of the early Cistercian Churches really fulfills the same function as the fully frescoed Byzantine Church… So I think that a key question that I would have of such “contemporary” expressions of worship is whether they do this; all too often it would seem that instead of quieting the mind and the heart, their aim is noise and superficiality. But perhaps I’m getting judgmental…

    Having said that, I do think that Vicky Beeching – and other people who are raising these issues – poses some valid questions, notably about participation and the need for worship that is less cerebral. I’m just not sure that they are looking for solutions in the right places. The idea that Church is something that is done by one or two people at the front is light years away from my experience of Orthodox worship. Too often what people are reacting to is a post-Reformation (and fundamentally modern) understanding in which worship means sitting in a pew and being preached at. I can appreciated their disatisfaction with that, but just wish that, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel and losing the whole plot in the process, they might investigate how things were earlier…

    Excuse the long rant, but I keep coming across these attitudes and they can be really infuriating! FWIW…

  14. This took place after the marriage had been solemnised as someone else pointed out. It was not in a Eucharistic service but sometimes joy as well as solemnity are needed. We often forget the joy of being in God’s presence and our service are not appreciated as joyful for others rather than just peaceful for us. Not every wedding will now have to be like this. We want to help people to see that God enjoys our enthusiasm.

  15. Oh for goodness sake can some of you stop being holier than thou & lighten up a bit.
    These are nice people who got married in Church & have brought a smile to lots of faces.
    Let’s be happy for them.
    Enjoy life, God loves you.

  16. I would point out that both Sister Catherine’s post, and those of us who have reacted to the points made in it, are addressing the arguments put forward by Vicky Beeching rather the actual service. Unfortunately any attempt at a serious discussion of Beeching’s arguments seems to be interpreted as some commentators as holier than thou and lacking joy.

    People can stand on their heads in their churches as far as I’m concerned. But when an argument is made that this is what Churches should be doing, one ought to be able to have a serious discussion about it without knee-jerk accusations about being a kill-joy.

  17. I’ve just watched the video and read the article, following reading your blog this morning. Personally I enjoyed them all and feel that there’s a place for the still small voice and the big loud dance!
    I think Jesus would have joined in..
    Isn’t it all about meeting people where they’re at? Or have I missed something?

  18. There is a reason it’s referred to as “the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass”. We gather together to worship, praise and receive the Body and Blood of our Lord. It’s about connecting with Him and being strengthened to go forth and spread the Gospel message. If we switch our focus in an attempt to attract those who need the stimulation of the extraneous then we’ve lost our sense of the sacred and crossed over into the profane. I’m not referring to the wedding video, but to the author’s pitch to turn worship into entertainment.

  19. Thank you for all your comments. The questions raised by Vicky Beeching are important; the video which sparked off the debate is, in my view, secondary although I appreciate why many may wish to concentrate on that. No one who knows Catholicism from the inside will have any doubt about its ability to appropriate (i.e. make its own) elements of popular culture (see second para) or to be exuberantly joyful in its expression (though, I admit, in Britain the exuberance tends to be rather overcome by British reserve). The form of our public worship is, however, a legitimate topic for discussion and debate and I think we need to bring to it all the skills and insights we possess: theology, pastoral awareness, history, etc. The liturgy, as Pope Benedict XVI often reminded us, should never become subjective — which is why we need to think about the questions Vicky raised and, hopefully, some of those I’ve raised in my turn.

  20. An an Anglican and former Catholic I’m a bit torn about how to interpret Vicky’s piece. I believe that there is space within worship for fun and joy, because that is both a gift of God to us. And there are times and places for different aspects of that.

    I agree that the Sacramental aspect of worship is something that must be at the centre of worship and should be duly observed with respect, quiet and reverence. But given that Holy Communion was instituted at a Social Gathering of the last supper, I’m sure that there was much chatter, laughter, social intercourse, along with the respect which the Jewish people had for their celebration of the Passover. It seems to me that we’ve taken something social and respectful and, in some places, transformed it into an exclusive ritual, that denies the sharing of food and drink with guests which was an essential element of Jewish Society.

    There is wide scope within the church and it’s liturgy for adaption, innovation and trying new things (this is just one example of that) without losing the essential centrality of the sacramental nature of most worship.

    A service of the Word remains sacramental (to me the Gospel is Sacramental) but has sufficient informality available to express those innovative ideas to address the perceived need to widen our mission to those on the fringes and outside the church.

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