Anything Under the Sun: Shaping Contemporary ‘Sunday Morning’ Experiences

The first of three presentations during the launch of the Lay Forum, a progressive lay movement within the Queensland Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia

 

our hills are not silent but shout tall

Our rivers sing their own song to southern seas…

(Best 2005).

 

Introduction

How can we sing in a strange land… when the Spring festival of new life called Easter ‘down under’, comes in Autumn, the season of little deaths when leaves turn gold, fall, and the grass has turned from green to brown?  Or when the warmth of Christmas is not from some domestic fire in an iron grate, but from the sun high overhead – 38 degrees celsius and rising?

Thank you for the invitation to be present here this weekend, as you celebrate the launch the Lay Forum, a progressive theological movement within the Queensland Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia.  It is both an honour and a privilege to be here.

You are joining an important and growing grass roots movement.  The movement of progressive religious thought both here in Australia and around the world.  Voices in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA and Gt. Britain “are celebrating a lively, open-minded and open hearted” (Taussig 2006:2) approach to religion in general and Christianity in particular.

A grassroots movement, whose practitioners are, to use the words of American New Testament scholar and researcher, Hal Taussig:

“refreshingly confident about a new lease on Christian expression that is strikingly different than both the fundamentalism or the flailing denominations often featured in the… press” (Taussig 2006:2).

I also wish to pay my respects to the Jagera and Turrbal People, and to those who have cared for this part of the land from time immemorial.

In the three presentations I have been invited to give this weekend I want to sew some seeds, about (i) progressive liturgy, (ii) progressive theology, and (iii) progressive biblical studies expressed in the parables.

oo0oo

 

Shaping a distinctive Australian theology is a recurring problem for us in Australia generally, and for those of us who have the communication task of shaping the ‘Sunday morning’ worship experience, specifically.  Especially when we are invited, if not expected, to follow a Lectionary and liturgical year shaped in the main by natural European/northern hemisphere seasons, as well as it “reflecting an ancient cosmology that is no longer credible” (Shuck 2005).

How to face this contextual problem constructively has exercised my imagination and liturgies, for many years now.  And some of the ways I have attempted to respond to this situation is through the study of narrative communication, progressive theology and biblical criticism, and the use of contemporary language which is both story and image based rather than propositional.

However a radical ‘call to arms’ was issued in early 2005 when the founder of the Westar Institute, the now late Robert Funk, in his editorial in the January/February issue of The Fourth R, issued this call to a group of scholars and associate church leaders:

“throw the old forms out and start over (again)… design a new Sunday Morning experience from the ground up… new music, new liturgy, new scriptures, new ceremonies, new rites of passage” (Funk 2005:2).

and what goals might this ‘experience’ contain?  Funk made a few suggestions:

(i) it should square with and thus confirm the modern world as the horizon of our bona fide religious experience;

(ii) the experience should include confession: confession of the church’s moral failures;

(iii) it should have scriptures, selectively chosen, from the Bible and other sacred texts, ancient and modern;

(iv) the experience should grant permission to undertake journeys of faith into unchartered territories;

(v) be radically inclusive;

(vi) should praise new icons who have pioneered the way in new paths of trust and openness;

(vii) it should be a celebration of life, and

(viii) support the creation or identification of new music and symbols.

 

So with these suggestions as our matrix, let us both experience and explore some liturgical possibilities and actualities just a little.

The experience of living in the 21st century and/or in the Southern hemisphere shapes the words of this contemporary hymn, “As the sun beats down”.  It is published in a collection of contemporary hymns called ‘Faith forever singing’.  The hymn’s author is Bill Bennett from New Zealand.  It is new words to new music.

 

As the sun beats down(Tune: 10 7 10 7)    2 FFS

As the sun beats down and the heat invades,

and creation burns and dries;

let us sing to God of a promised hope

in the midst of anxious cries.

 

As the parching winds relentless blow,

and creation browns away;

let us sing to God, who restores and calms

all foreboding and dismay.

 

As the feed dies back and the stock decline,

and creation’s bones show through;

let us sing to God of the bread of life,

to refresh, restore, renew.

 

As the silent birds sing a silent song

in creation’s still blue sky;

let us sing to God of the songs of hope,

through a gentle rain’s reply.

 

As the season comes and the season goes,

and we search the skies each day;

let us sing to God of a rainbow faith,

and a promised green display. Bill Bennett

 

And this contemporary hymn, “Whispers rippled through the cosmos”, written by British hymn writer, Andrew Pratt – new words using traditional music – from his personal collection distributed as and when world-wide situations arise.

 

Whispers rippled through the cosmos(Tune: ‘Nettleton’, 87 87. 392 TiS)

Whispers rippled through the cosmos,

pan-galactic breath of God;

marking paths of whirling planets,

stellar strings where stars first trod.

 

Major chords of constellations

ringing on the staves of time,

soften to a sombre minor,

echoes of an ancient rhyme.

 

God is in this wild confusion

bringing order, giving grace;

author, ground of all creation,

fount of being, Lord of space.

 

All transcendent power and glory

now distilled, condensed, confined;

shaped while shaping rich resources

cradling waiting humankind.  © Andrew Pratt

 

Finally, Gretta Vosper’s “Sing praise to all” uses progressive theology to a very traditional hymn tune… if you are over the age of 50 years:

 

Sing praise to all(Tune: ‘Lobe den Herren’, 14 14 4 7 8. 111 TiS)

Sing praise to all that has offered us life and sustains us-

All that has opened our hearts to the love borne within us:

Family and friends,

Beauty we see without end-

Gifts that our lives lay before us.

 

Sing praise to all that has opened our minds to new vistas-

All that has called us to seek out new truths through the ages:

Vision and word,

Music that sought to be heard

These are the gifts that will mould us.

 

Sing praise to minds that will fashion our bold new tomorrows-

Yesterday’s wisdom released from its dogma and credos.

Evermore free

To live out what we believe

Walking the path that Life hallows. (Gretta Vosper/wwg)

 

Thank you.  At this early point I need to make a few disclaimers.

Even ‘down under’ it is not as simple as it sounds.  For nearly 10 years I lived in Canberra ACT, a cool to cold climate, where our national fore fathers and mothers were keen to replicate the English/European country side.  So the thousands of imported trees do indeed change their colours in some glorious autumn seasons, and after a cold snap or two, lose their leaves by the millions.  But not every tree.  Not the native eucalyptus!

And while there is frost and sometimes light snow in the outer suburbs, there is no general closing down of the land.  I am assured by others, among them Cheryl Maddocks the Gardening writer with Good Weekend, that species of flora continue to flower during winter and, in fact, such a season is an opportune time to plant many native plants.  So the Canberra spring, for instance, is not the land celebrating life from a winter induced death, but rather the beginning of an intensification of colour.

Similarly, it is said Canberra boasts four distinctive seasons.  But that may not be the case in other parts of this same country called Australia.  Australian poet Les Murray highlights this when he suggests:

“In (some) parts of the continent it can often seem that the seasons comprise essentially summer and non-summer.  A reign of heat, flies, snakes, beach culture and burgeoning growth is followed by a cooler time in which the discomforts disappear and both beach-going and burgeoning tail off.  And there is that bit of sniffling cold in the middle” (Quoted in Ranson 1992).

And then there are the wild cards of drought, bush fire and flood – upheavals that can happen at any time “affecting and altering any of the seasons” (Ranson 1992).

So whatever I say, must be reinterpreted and reconstructed.  And as you reconstruct my hope is you will seek to acquire a real understanding and experience of this country’s life – in all its endless variation.

With that off my chest I guess it might now be appropriate to offer the fragments of my thesis for this presentation:

• only when our liturgies have about them the flavour of story can we expect them to have the resonance we would like them to have;

• the challenge of our liturgies is to retell our personal experiences in the light of our Australian experience of the natural seasons, and

• our preaching should be intellectually and theologically honest – keeping what we know and what we believe, together – delivered in conversational or ordinary language.

 

Liturgy

Liturgy is an oral/aural celebration of life (Vogt 1927), the whole of life, where we gather the folks, break the bread and tell the stories (Shea 1978:8) .  Indeed it is one of the ways we make sense of the world around us.

It is not about the past, but real life in the present, immersed in and surrounded by, an ever present sense of the sacred, many call God.  It is also about co-operative participation (Wieman 1929) rather than crowd participation or pseudo-togetherness.  Where people are given the respect to be actors rather than just reactors.

Liturgy shaped by story attempts to take seriously the fact we live in a culture which is dominated by television… and television lives on story and image.

So in all this it is important that those who share in the liturgical experience are able to see and hear their experiences, even though they may not be able to put those experiences into their own words.  Our worship liturgies need to be both sensitive and intelligent, resonating with something within (experience of the world, memories, etc.), bringing that experience to ‘the surface’, and reshaping or transforming our sensitivities and feelings about that experience and/or those memories (Vogt 1927).

If I may suggest a word picture: worship which is arranged by a traditional ‘Order of Service’ would be drawn as a brick wall, with the parts of the service being the bricks, one on top of the other.  You must have the first brick before you put the second brick in place, and so on.  On the other hand, worship which is shaped by narrative would be like a road map, weaving its way across the countryside, taking in tourist sites and towns here, passing through various other roads there.

Language

If liturgy is not about the past, but real life in the present, as I have suggested, then the language of the liturgy (including preaching) should be accessible by people living in that real and present life.

Gone, thank goodness, are the days when people were prepared to put up with “theobabble” (Windross 2001) - that “peculiar language much loved by some preachers, consisting of theological words strung together in the hope they might add up to something meaningful” (Windross 2001, www.tcpc.com).

Within the Australian context, such language will more than likely be ordinary everyday, “earthy and horizontal” (Tacey 2000) rather than exalted and technical or specialised.  And such language will nurture folk to sense the presentness and embodiment of the sacred or

G-o-d in the rich diversity and variety of life in this dynamic and unfolding world – and not is some ‘world to come’.

It will also be inclusive, progressive, and respectful of the intelligence of its hearers.

Story and image should intentionally shape the language in all our liturgies, but especially in our liturgies celebrating community, the sacrament of Holy Communion.  So, I am of the opinion (along with Australian author and liturgist Bruce Prewer) that if the season of the year is the Australian summer, then our liturgical language should play with such images as: “God of the lingering sunset and early dawn…  of the hot north wind and the cool water bag”.  Likewise if the season is winter this too could reflected in appropriate Australian images: “God of mystery, wind and storm…  of brisk winter mornings, frosted back lawns, of warm socks, coats and gloves”.

Thus, I am suggesting that: all our speaking and thinking of G-o-d or the sacred presupposes a “constructive imaginative activity” (Kaufman 2004:121).

 

Prayer

Prayer for progressive christians is not talking to a supernatural being, Harry Potter style, hoping if one uses the right gestures or says the right words, he (traditional images of G-o-d are nearly always in masculine terms) will manipulate the situation for us.  Neither is it Santa style – be good and get what you ask for.

For progressives prayer could be described as poetry or the ‘language of the heart’.  Not just in some interior realm.  And certainly not is some oral heavenly escape.  But as an invitation to sense the connectedness of the whole of life – and the “in-between-ness of God”  (Taussig 1999:131) – the “always present God” rather than “an elsewhere God”  (Morwood 2003:8).  Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once commented ‘prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays’.  Others have refined that a bit, to: ‘Prayer doesn’t change things.  Prayer changes people and people change things’.

Inclusive language is used in reference to God and humankind in both prayer and meditation.  And rather than an emphasis on petition prayer, many progressives experience prayer as:

• listening in silence

• giving insights into ourselves and possibly others

• connecting us to each other.

Coupled with this experience there should also be free time for sharing joys and concerns, including a symbolic action such as lighting a Care candle.

 

Music and hymns

We believe what we sing.  Hymns are religious artefacts created to allow us to speak of our experience of the sacred.  They are also historical artefacts.

A hymn is not written to be sung once but rather a hundred times (Bell 2000).  To become part of the familiar, often-used tradition of a living religion.  But that is also reason why it is very important to sing new songs/hymns and appropriate ones at that, because those same hymns weren’t written to be sung for a hundred years!  Our perceptions and experience of the sacred, change.  And so too should what we say and sing.

John Bell from the Iona Community, rightly points out, I reckon, that we are in danger of developing a ‘sloppy relationship with Jesus’ unless we can be honest in our theological imagining.

For our age and time, many of the contemporary hymns by Shirley Murray and Bill Wallace (NZ) and Andrew Pratt (GtB) for example, enable a fuller theological expression and experience.  Four resources which appeal are: Alleluia Aotearoa and Faith forever singing – both coming from a New Zealand landscape, Andrew Pratt’s fine collection called Whatever name or creed, and the efforts of Australian George Stuart called Singing a new song.  While general landscape and/or ecological examples from another resource yet to be explored more fully here in Australia, can be found in Singing the living tradition which comes out of the Unitarian/Universalist tradition in the USA.

oo0oo

 

After more than 40 years as a progressive, shaping and reshaping liturgies, I have come to the position that worship is not about the praise of G-o-d.  It is about the celebration of life, the whole of life.

A couple of years back I wrote about my understanding of the Sunday morning experience called worship:

• It is a human activity, celebrated in the presentness of G-o-d/the sacred rather than praise required of us by G-o-d/the sacred.

• Must be broad enough to create a co-operative experience (rather than

collective) – cognitively and emotionally.

• Be a celebration of whole of life (in ordinary times).

• Have form/shape.

• Use of artistic media/symbols highlights the ‘art/creativity’ of worship.

• What is brought to the service can be as, or more important as content.

• Be ‘landscape’ and ‘intellectually’ honest  (RAEHunt web site).

 

And the goal of worship?   To help us know and feel how we relate as individuals to ourselves, others, the world, the universe.  To celebrate that relationship.  To touch sources of creative transformation.  To reinterpret our experiences.  To reaffirm living in this world.

The form or shape of my liturgies offer six encounter points:

• Gathering • Centering • Exploring • Affirming • Celebrating • Scattering

 

While other aspects of my liturgies include:

• both biblical and non-biblical/contemporary readings consistent with the spirit of Jesus

• use of contemporary affirmations or celebrations of faith rather than traditional creeds

• new hymns and hymn tunes which use progressive language and new metaphors for G-o-d

• Holy Communion as ‘celebrating community’

• Baptism as ‘celebrating belonging’

• the rediscovery of lament

• centering silence

• a spiritual vitality earthed in the Australian here and now

• non-anthropomorphic prayers and God-talk

• an insistence on church with intellectual/biblical integrity

 

Scholarship

However… all this is really just a preamble to saying: the church at large has seldom handled change, especially critical scholarship (biblical, theologically, liturgical) well in the congregations.  Reflecting on my own theological formation in the late 1960s the positive thing I can say about it is: we were taught to think theologically.  We were introduced to creative critical scholarship.  But… we weren’t given an adequate model of how to present it in our preaching and teaching and liturgies.  I, along with a few others, have had to work that out for ourselves.

Observing colleagues, drinking coffee with them and sharing stories about ‘grassroots’ congregation/ministry life, as well as listening to the multiple stories from those who belong to the ‘church alumni’, the gap between pulpit and pew frustratingly remains.  When it comes to initiating change, such as sharing the results of critical biblical scholarship with one’s congregation, the options which many clergypersons often adopt seem to be:

(i) ignore it,

(ii) resort to confessional apologetics (especially attractive to fundamentalists),

(iii) escape into postmodern doublespeak (tell the story and don’t worry folk with facts).

 

But as colleagues from the progressive movement (especially those from the Westar Institute/Jesus Seminar) remind me, there is a fourth option:

(iv) embrace critical scholarship.  Be honest.  Speak openly and publicly about it in teaching and preaching.

The problem seems to be such scholarship is viewed as a threat to faith.  Well, that’s right.  It does make people question and doubt their confessional heritage and re-evaluate what they believe and what they think is important.  Learning does have a way of “opening up new vistas and eroding uninformed opinion” (Funk 1988:xiii).  That is excellent!  “Critical scholarship,” my colleagues go on to suggest,

“is a gift to the church.  It is our friend.  Whether or not the church embraces this friendship [still] remains to be seen” (JShuck. Shuck & Jive blog.2009).

 

Change

So what is a change process or model for introducing all this to a congregation.  Let me offer some suggestions which might be helpful.

(i) Be courageous.

Have a go!  Part of ministry leadership is to be a change agent.  The great majority of ministers/parish leaders have already had access to and assimilated contemporary scholarship…

“They’ve traversed that scary land of the big questions and [believe it or not] come out the other side” (Vosper 2008:269).

 

On behalf of the ‘church alumni’ in congregations and those who have left congregations, be honest, be open, be courageous.

 

(ii) Be satisfied with tentative answers or working ideas.

The possibility of reshaping the ‘Sunday morning experience’ includes the certainty that all our efforts are finite, and that they can and will be faulted by colleagues and congregants.  It is an ongoing experiment, so stay the course of time rather than quitting after one week.

 

(iii) Stay close to ‘ground-level’ experience.

The hard work of others in exploring both the embodiment of the sacred and human existence in non-supernatural ways

“…should always be appreciated.  One can not dig deeply into the stuff of human life without the sweat and toil of others (Barrett 1993:12).

Gather together your resources.  But in the end of the day, the liturgy needs to be prepared and celebrated.

 

When selecting a reading (biblical or non-biblical) or other resource, some simple selection criteria, suggested by Gretta Vosper, might be helpful:

(a) does it make a claim that cannot be substantiated?

(b) does it lift up so-called universal values or universalise local or tribal values?

(c) does it lift up the life-enhancing values the community has identified as sacred?

(d) is it engaging? (Vosper 2008:336-37).

 

(iv) Watch your language.

If we see ourselves as an inclusive community then our language must also be inclusive, and not just gender-inclusive stuff.  For instance, if we can

“crawl underneath the titles and names used for god, find the essence of what we believe is worthy of being named in sacred space, and bring it forward” (Vosper 2008:320) then we will have moved some way, gently, along the way of developing inclusive language. And kept one’s integrity.

 

(v) Keep it WWKAWWB honest.

In all our much needed liturgical reform we must go beyond the “intellectual two-step” called “latitudinarianism” (Davidson Loehr)  – that is, preserving one’s intellectual integrity by proclaiming belief beyond literalism, but continuing to use the anthropomorphic language or images of the traditional hymns, liturgy and creeds “in order to remain within the tradition” (Loehr 2000:8).

 

“But playing this game compromises our integrity and our religion… [because] it is another example of keeping what we know and what we believe separated” (Loehr 2000:9).

 

oo0oo

 

Robert Funk’s radical call to design a new Sunday morning experience from the ground up, will be too radical for many, although after more than 40 years of trying to shape contemporary liturgical worship, I resonate with his call.  However, it also needs to be said great change has already taken place in some quarters.

I have shared with you some of characteristics of my personal reshaping of the Sunday morning experience.  Another from the Southern hemisphere to offer suggestions is Lloyd Geering from New Zealand, who has said:

“Reflecting on our cultural origins will still have its place; that is what Bible readings provide.  Time will still be set aside for meditation; that is what the prayers provide.  Mental stimulation, which is what the sermon provided, will remain an essential ingredient.  It is the content rather than the form that needs to change” (Geering 2005:52).

In the main, many folk within the church today are tired of the translating and editing that has to go inside their head as they try to create an awkward fit with what they believe… What they hear and what they sing.  And we ignore them at our peril!

So in the spirit of these comments and this occasion, let us again sing the progressive theology we have been speaking about – this time from the creativity of Shelly Denham, called “We laugh, we cry…” published in the collection Singing the living tradition:

 

We laugh, we cry(Tune: ‘Credo’, Irreg.)   354 SLT

We laugh, we cry, we live, we die;

we dance, we sing our song.

We need to feel there’s something here

to which we can belong.

We need to feel the freedom

just to have some time alone.

But most of all we need close friends

we can call our very own.

 

And we believe in life,

and in the strength of love;

and we have found a need to be together.

We have our hearts to give,

we have our thoughts to receive;

and we believe that sharing is an answer.

 

A child is born among us and

we feel a special glow.

We see time’s endless journey

as we watch the baby grow.

We thrill to hear

imagination freely running wild.

We dedicate our minds and hearts

To the spirit of this child.

 

And we believe in life,

and in the strength of love;

and we have found a time to be together.

And with the grace of age,

we share the wonder of youth;

and we believe that growing is an answer.

 

Our lives are full of wonder and

our time is very brief.

The death of one among us

fills us all with pain and grief.

But as we live, so

shall we die and when our lives are done

the memories we shared with friends,

they will linger on and on.

 

And we believe in life,

and in the strength of love;

and we have found a place to be together.

We have the right to grow,

we have the gift to believe;

that peace within our living is an answer.

 

We seek elusive answers to

the questions of this life.

We seek to put an end to

all the waste of human strife.

We search for truth,

equality, and blessed peace of mind.

And then, we come together here,

to make sense of what we find.

 

And we believe in life,

and in the strength of love;

and we have found a joy being together.

And in our search for peace,

maybe we’ll finally see;

even to question, truly, is an answer. (Shelley J Denham)

 

 

Notes:

Barrett, J. E. 1993.  “Pragmatism, process, and courage” in (ed) W. C. Peden; L. E. Axel. New essays in religious naturalism. GA: Macon. Mercer University Press.

Bell, J. L.  2000. The singing thing. A case for congregational song. GtB: Glasgow. Wild Goose Publications.

Best, D. C.  2005. …from under the bench. NZ: Wellington. Steele Roberts Ltd.

Faith forever singing. New Zealand hymns and songs for a new day.  2000.  NZ: Raumati. New Zealand Hymnbook Trust.

Funk, R.  2005. “Editorial” in The Fourth R 18, 1, 2, 20.

Funk, R. W. (ed). 1988.  The parables of Jesus. Red Letter edition. CA: Sonoma. Polebridge Press.

Geering, L. 2005.  The greening of Christianity. NZ: Wellington. St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society.

Kaufman, G. D.  2004.  In the beginning… creativity. MN: Minneapolis. Fortress Press.

Loehr, Davidson. 2000. “Salvation by character: How UU’s can find the religious center” in Journal of Liberal Religion 1, 2, 1-14 (PDF).

Morwood, M.  2003.  Praying a new story. VIC: Richmond. Spectrum Publications.

Pratt, A.  Unpublished. “Whispers rippled through the cosmos”. From the author.

Ranson, D. 1992. “Fire in water. The liturgical cycle in the experience of South East Australian seasonal patterns” in Compass Theology Review 26. (Photocopy in private circulation).

Shea, J. 1978. Stories of God. An unauthorized biography. Ill: Chicago. Thomas More Press.

Shuck, J.  2005.  “What to preach? The challenge of the Jesus Seminar to contemporary homiletics”. Westar Institute. Santa Rosa. Photocopy.  In private circulation from the author.

Tacey, D.  2000.  Reenchantment. The new Australian spirituality. NSW: Sydney. HarperCollins.
Taussig, H. 2006. A new spiritual home. Progressive christianity at the grass roots. CAL: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

Vogt, V. O. 1927.  Modern worship. New Haven. Yale University Press.

Vosper, G. 2008.  With or without God. Why the way we live is more important that what we believe. Canada: Toronto. HarperCollins.

Wieman, H. N. 1929.  Methods of private religious living.  NY: New York. The Macmillan Co.

Windross, A.  2001.  “Why bother to go to church?” in The Newsletter, The Centre for Progressive Christianity, Web site.

 

Review & Commentary

or, use the form below to post a comment or a review!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>