A Non-Realist looks at Art-Religion

Our creativity is what makes us human, with languages and symbols and memory, and these we ritualise in worship. At best, worship is a kind of theatre of forms and words with a function of assisting our life direction, rather like our dream world but more planned and formed. When many people are gathered together it must also be formed in a dialogue between the participants, to some degree at least.

The collective dialogue of symbols and forms usually gains legitimacy through a history, e.g. in the evolving Unitarian-Presbyterian continuum, or in Buddhist schools, or in the Prayer Book tradition of Anglicanism, or even through invented histories such as in Anglo Catholicism or neo-Paganism. The individual plugs into a community memory, however old or new, and this helps sort out his or her own life direction.

But now, more than ever, we have lost any sense of one communal religious memory. Instead worship languages focus on sub-groups or sub-cultures to whom these languages have a meaning and spiritual resonance.

Some months have passed since the Church of England hit the headlines with all the controversy surrounding the 'Nine O'Clock Service' in Sheffield but I want to refer to this for the broader issues of special interest to a liberal movement like ours.

To say that the sexual scandal was integral to the form of the so-called 'rave' service and therefore it should be stopped, must be applied across the board. What then about the barely concealed sexual homo-eroticism of Roman and Anglo-Catholicism, or the frustrated sexual avoidance of non-conformity, or indeed - as recently seen - the murkiness within the Buddhist monastic system ? In any case, sexual misbehaviour arises whatever the religion. The only real difference between the Sheffield scandal and most others is that the religious bureaucracy invested much in the promoted leader and his creative ideas for attracting the young, and so when he let them down with his behaviour, they publicly isolated and blamed him. Usually such people get shuffled off to one side within the bureaucracy and disappear out of public view.

The other reason for the media interest in this was that here was a church; a national institution associated with sedateness, garden parties, jumble sales and the upper age range, displaying instead young people in reduced clothes, worshipping in the context of a thumping beat, lights, lasers, video and highly repetitive minimalist music - a form of music specifically referred to in the Criminal Justice Act!

Of course, even the media knew about the existence of charismatic services consisting of simple repeated lyrics and a generated exuberance, but Sheffield's Nine O'Clock Service was a world away with its 'Planetary Mass'. It was technological and rave orientated; openly sexualised as is the dance culture to which it related. The charismatics and biblical selfstyled 'Purists' disowned this kind of service, not only because of scandal but because it has become divergent in theology.

The new style services, though born out of the Charismatic Movement, take mainly young and intelligent people and (on a more Catholic principle than the charismatics) deal with them where they are, using the cultural forms they know; making a spirituality out of dance music and modern media. Added to this, the Catholic principle and the planetary concerns of the people brought in 'Green', secular and multi-faith theologies all rolled into one.

The Incarnational principle and the variety of theologies naturally led to questioning being part and parcel of the religious fellowship. In fact it was critical feminism and its questioning that overcame the leader's personal inability to handle the sexuality of what had been created. In a globally orientated approach to worship, Buddhist, Hindu and even indeed Pagan ideas had moved in.

It was no wonder that the religious bureaucracy, constrained by conservatism, liked what they saw (and still do). When decline is all around, this movement offered an unexpectedly broader, more tolerant future for the church with that missing generation who usually ignored churches. With a loud explosion the new services had broken through the dominant church and chapel sub-culture, which, I believe, throttles so many places of worship today in terms of cutting off knowing insiders from outsiders and in terms of trapping religious expression into narrow forms. These new groups make churches look like museums and, as the word get around, the young do join in. Although they may be secular in their outlook this worship gives meaning; it becomes precious to them and they form communities.

But, of course, if that was all there was, it would exclude people like me, and this is the very point made by people pushed out of churches that go charismatic.

Yet I can admire the creativity that these new movements have shown. I like the fact that freshness and even a new sectional appeal can be broad and tolerant. I support tolerance wherever I find it. I retain an appreciation of liberal Catholic Christianity, as I do more so with Western Buddhism, and there is a world of creativity in neo-Paganism.

Matthew Fox, ex-Roman Catholic now Anglo-Catholic priest, who works with the Pagan , priestess, Miriam Simos or Starhawk, and with a big Buddhist input was a considerable influence on the new rave services. They have also influenced UUA and Unitarian development. Starhawk spoke at the UU General Assembly of liturgy as a form of play ritual play - which involves the imagination and our creativity. Postmodern religion in essence is about the visual and the ironic; in the discovery of meaning in the playfulness and ritual of words and movement.

I think that Fox and Simos are as much a result of trends as a cause. We see a number of developments within our own small movement e.g. flower communions and chalice lightings. In our denomination, of course, change tends to be non-Christian in meaning because the Christian side is a traditionalist wing, but in other churches the new forms do relate to Christianity.

I am not a Christian but I am a non-realist, and I support the creativity of art-religion. Such groups may presently be a little shallow and may have to tighten up their philosophy, but I share in the movement to dream-like art-religion using colour, irony, meditation, action, light, music and ritual to try to create a sense of meaning, direction and even transcendence. To me, God is a relationship of cultural signs and worship a way of attaching our deepest spiritual selves to the relationships between signs, symbols, meanings and planetary direction.

My sermon, which was reproduced in New Age Unitarian, Samhain, 1996, some months after delivery. In it, Peter Roberts wrote as a foreword: Adrian Worsfold is not a Net-worker, but came across a copy of 'NAU' in Hull and remembering me from UCM days sent the text of a service he conducted at our Hull church. The service included Pagan and Christian material and the following address (which he gave permission to use.) Adrian is influenced by 'Sea of Faith' attitudes to religion.