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.)

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Religion and the Internet

This coming Sunday, BBC Radio 4’s ‘Sunday’ programme will be devoted to the subject of religion and the internet. Bishop Alan Wilson, Vicky Beeching and I will be grilled by presenter William Crawley on a number of topics. The programme outline has already sent my head into a spin, it is so searching and extensive, but I’m wondering whether we shall address one topic that has surfaced twice in the past few days: sacrilege. It’s an old-fashioned word, expressing an old-fashioned concept, clearly meaningless to many in the west, yet to many in the east far from meaningless. It is, in fact, a driver of action: something that calls for immediate and severe response.

My last post was on the act that led to the Pussy Riot trial in Russia. Note the words: the act that led to. The trial itself led to an explosion of comment in the media. Twitter and Facebook were awash with opinion, much of it condemning the sentence on the grounds that the band’s protest was aimed at President Putin. Yesterday the BBC published a report that a Pakistani girl had been charged under the country’s blasphemy laws for desecrating the Koran. There was some comment in the media, especially when it emerged that the girl was allegedly only 11 and suffering from Down’s syndrome, but nothing to equal the response to the Pussy Riot trial. My Twitterstream was virtually silent on the subject.

Someone carrying pages of the Koran in a bin bag or burning them is committing an act of desecration according to Pakistani law, and although I assume that most of us are outraged at the thought of a child being arrested for such an offence, we mainly seem to accept that that is ‘how it is’ in Pakistan. Judging by our response on the internet and in social media, it is much less troubling than the trial of a Russian punk band. There may be many factors at work here, not least the uncertain nature of the information coming from Pakistan (though I have to say, Twitter never seems to be too much concerned whether a rumour is true or not), but it has reminded me of something it is easy to forget: there is a morality involved in our use of the internet and social media.

The internet is a powerful shaper of opinion. In the past, blogging was a prime way of disseminating opinion and allowed a writer to nuance statements in a thoughtful way and invite similarly thoughtful responses on difficult and complex subjects. Today, I think microblogging is more important. We seem to like short, snappy answers to short, snappy questions — and that is where the danger lies. Not every subject is susceptible of brief treatment. Twitter, in particular, enables an opinion to gain momentum very quickly, but it is rarely possible to advance a detailed argument. It’s for soundbites rather than syllogisms, perfect for jokes and links. When we address serious topics, however, we have to think how we are to tweet responsibly. It is easy to tweet and retweet without thinking. Even silence, our not tweeting, can be significant. Think before you tweet? A good idea. Even better, if it is a good work you are about, pray. Odd though it may seem to some, I think of the internet as a sacred space where what we do and the way in which we do it matters. There is a closer relationship between religion and the internet than may at first appear.

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