Thank God for people like John Bell. We had an 'optional' IME day today (IME = Initial Ministerial Education, or curate training day) with John Bell of the Iona Community and I'm sure glad I took the option to attend. Bell's easy and authentic way of communicating was warming and inspiring.
The theme was something along the lines of sacred spaces and symbols, and discussion revolved initially around things like church architecture, reordering the space so that it speaks of such important qualities as welcome, gathered community, singing praise, word & table & heavenly kingdom. Some of our churches are a product of their time, architecturally speaking. Individual private worship in rigid pews, austere aesthetics, high distant altar, etc. Bell talked about ways churches can change (eek! change???) to become more meaningful authentic worship spaces that reflect Jesus as being right there among his people. Chairs instead of pews, arranged in the round with a central table seems to be Bell's vision, and this happens in places. I'm quite attracted to the idea. The solid arguments for change must be based on the need to welcome all, for the sake of effective mission and evangelism.
A question was brought up from the audience about projector screens. I think the asker was asking about the screen as a central focal point and Bell's views on this, but his reply was interesting. His concern was the fleeting nature of song lyrics on a screen, as opposed to the permanence of black ink on a service sheet or songbook. People cannot reflect as easily on song lyrics that vanish immediately from sight after being sung as they can when, perhaps during the sermon, they can revisit the text of the lyrics on the sheet or in a book. They can often see who wrote the song or hymn, and when it was written, too. Bell spoke of the ability of the words to minister to us, and asks whether this ministry is as effective if the words just disappear. He suggests if a screen is used to also use books or song sheets as well, and don't worry about the trees in this instance, it is worth it. If you're concerned about the trees, protest against all the junk mail or free 'news' papers everywhere, he said.
In the second half of the day Bell focussed on symbols. First, using the wedding service as an example, he asked us to think about what the actions are really symbolising. If a couple who already have been living together decide to wed in the traditional manner of father 'giving away' the bride, what is this meaning? People do like tradition, though, for its own sake, even if they haven't thought much about the meaning at all. And why do the congregation, who after all are there as 'witnesses', only get to see the backsides of the bride and groom during the ceremony? Apparently this has origins in the days when weddings were much quieter and smaller affairs, often held in the parsonage with only a couple of witnesses.
Music is also a symbolic thing. Our God is a symbolic God - this is shown in the bible when God asks his people, for example, to build rock cairns at places of significance. Jesus gave us the most potent symbols of bread and wine as his body and his blood. Bell cautioned against the use of symbolic actions in worship if it hasn't got relevance - there is a difference between symbolic action and gimmicry.
Finally, Bell demonstrated how the wonderful songs from the Iona Community can be used in a liturgical setting, especially the short songs, which are like chants, really. Prayers or bible readings can be interspersed with these short songs, and we tried out a few and they were lovely. 'Church renewal' is what the Iona Community says its about, and John Bell is a wonderful, inspirational spokesperson. God bless him.