Liberal Charismatic

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.
And when many people are gathered together it also must 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, as, say, in the evolving Unitarian-Presbyterian continuum, or in Buddhist schools, or the Prayer Book tradition in Anglicanism, or even through an invented history 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 of people 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. I want to refer to this for the broader issues especially of 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 so it should be stopped must be applied across the board. What then about the barely concealed sexual homo-eroticism of Roman and Anglo-Catholicsm, or about a frustrated sexual avoidance in non-conformity, or indeed, as seen recently, 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 bureacracy invested much in the promoted leader and his creative ideas for attracting the young, and when he let them down with his behaviour they publically isolated him and blamed him; whereas usually such people get shuffled off to one side within the bureaucracy and disappear out of public view. Fortunately there are other groups developing like the Nine O»Clock service, which, though damaged, do continue on.
The other reason for the media obsession was also that here was a Church, a national institution usually associated with sedateness, garden parties, jumble sales and the upper age range in its congregations, displaying instead young people in reduced clothing, worshipping within 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 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 self styled purists disowned this kind of service, but not only because of some scandal, but because it has become so divergent in theology.
The new services, though born out of the charismatic movement, take mainly young and intelligent people and, on a more Catholic principle than certainly the charismatics, deal with the people where they are, using the cultural forms they know, making a spirituality out of dance music and modern media. And the Catholic principle, and the planetary concerns of the people, brought in green, secular and multi-faith theologies rolled into one.
The incarnational principle and all the theologies naturally led to questioning being part and parcel of the religious fellowship. In fact it was the inbuilt critical feminism and questioning that overcame the Sheffield leader»s personal inability to handle the sexuality of what had been created. In a globally orientated approach to worship Buddhism, Hinduism, even indeed Paganism moved in.
No wonder the religious bureaucracy, constrained by conservatism, liked what they saw and still do. When decline is all around, this movement offers an unexpected broader, more tolerant future for the Church with the missing generation who usually ignore churches.
And, with a loud explosion, the new services had broken through the dominant church and chapel subculture which, I do believe, throttles so many places of worship today in terms of cutting off knowing insiders from outsiders, in terms of trapping religious expression into narrow forms. Able to start again these groups make churches look like museums, and as word gets around the young do join in, many secular in outlook for whom this worship gives meaning, which becomes precious to them, and which form them into communities.
But of course if that was all there was, it would exclude people like you and me, and this is the very point made by people pushed out of churches which go charismatic.
But I can admire the creativity 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. It does harbour a lot of nonsense and astrological silliness, but nevertheless does generate creativity.
Matthew Fox, the ex-Roman Catholic now Anglo-Catholic priest, who works with the Pagan priestess Miriam Simos, or Starhawk, and with a Buddhist input, was a big influence on the new rave services and them leaving the charismatic stable. They have also been an influence on UUA and Unitarian development. Starhawk spoke to the UUA General Assembly, and spoke 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 Fox and Simos are as much a result of trends as a cause. We see a number of developments within our own small movement. I think of 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. These groups may presently be a little shallow, and may have to tighten up in 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 a relationship of cultural signs, and worship is a way of attaching our deepest spiritual selves to the relationships between signs, symbols, meanings and planetary direction.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful