Special and the church

May 30th, 2010 | By | Category: Church of Ireland Comment

“It’s good to have a Protestant neighbour again”, the archdeacon smiled.  Perhaps it’s not about being Protestant; perhaps it’s about being non-conformist, asserting a sense of individual liberty, not caving into convention.

Randomness was frowned upon at college.  There was a prescribed way of leading worship.  Those doing the prescribing had little experience of actual parishes.  The wearing of the black cassock at church services was, we were told, to eliminate individuality.  In Dublin, when I suggested that students training with me for ordination put expression into leading worship and maybe explain the odd thing, I was told by someone who claimed to know about about such things that I was “over-determining the liturgy”.  What did that mean? Don’t ask me.

We have not gone much beyond the thinking that undergirded the Latin Mass, the defence for which was that it was the same everywhere.  We do the predictable, and we do the dull. In a post-modern culture, where the random is the ordinary, we still think guitars and drums are being contemporary, and we think that we will survive by staying in the 1950s.

Thoughts about our dullness came to mind sitting in Langton’s in Kilkenny this evening to watch Duke Special in concert.

Duke Special’s music defies categorisation. Two sets were played: The Silent World of Hector Mann – twelve songs inspired by the twelve films made by the silent movie actor, and Mother Courage and Her Children, songs written to words by Bertolt Brecht, with an encore of a couple of familiar songs

Our daughter delights in things she describes as “random”; things out of the ordinary, things that maybe express individuality and creativity.  Why does Duke Special do half the stuff he does?  Why did he wind up a gramophone and come to sit in the auditorium to listen?  Why did he run upstairs to lead the singing of a song during the encore?

Perhaps it’s about identity; about leaving a mark; about being unafraid of the imagination. He is unpredictable, undefinable, unashamedly fun.

In ecclesiastical terms, Duke Special would be a Protestant.  He does not conform; he trusts his own instincts; he is unconstrained by convention.

The bland liberal conventionality that pervades much of church life is stifling; it is not engaging people and cannot cope with a world filled with randomness.

If there is a church version of Duke Special, he is needed.  Continue as we are and we will become as forgotten as poor Hector Mann.

Leave a comment »

  1. It seems that always the “random” church services are those which make the biggest impact… do something a little different and people come alert, make comments afterwards and remember! I’m not talking wild or dramatic… just…. do the talk for children from the baptistery…. or speak from under one of the windows that illustrates a point…. or, like yesterday, explain why the hymns were written and how they can be used in personal devotion…
    I love random….. the unexpected… creativity….

  2. I think I do know what your unnamed interlocutor meant by ‘over-determining the liturgy’: if you explain what you’re doing, then you can make people think when maybe otherwise they wouldn’t have done, but on the other hand they are thinking what you told them to think – and that might mean cutting off valuable meanings and insights and restricting responses.

    You always seem very impatient with tradition and set forms, but I think they can be inspiring, and I don’t find them dull. They give us a point of contact with the other people who share them now and have shared them through past centuries; and when you say words often you can start to sound their depths and understand them in richer ways. (I’ve found this in particular when learning lines for plays: by the time I came to the performance I’d feel I had built up a much deeper sense of the meaning of what I was saying than I had started with.) I’m not saying one can’t get stale or descend into empty routine. But I think what we should aim for as an alternative to empty routine is not to jettison the forms but to fill them

  3. Whatever that means:-)

  4. The problem is in filling them. There is often form without substance. The Anglo-Catholic movement in England was imbued with deep spirituality. What has emerged in the Church of Ireland in many places is a sort of pseudo-Catholicism, a concern with details of the liturgy without the discipline or ministry that undergirded that ministry in times past.

  5. I’ve been accused of having Protestant hair. It tends to stick up for itself. And does not conform.

  6. Are you talking Presbyterian?????? Plain Protestant is Church of Ireland isn’t it? I thought keeping very much to Church of Ireland rigid guide lines was Conformist.

  7. A Presbyterian friend became very annoyed when I once called him a non-conformist! Presbyterians, he told me, were Dissenters.

    Conformity seems adhering to a bland consensus. Sometimes I feel like the old priest in Brian Moore’s ‘Catholics’ (though with hopefully more faith than he).

Leave Comment