“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Mark 16:8
Terror, amazement, fear – the women meet with the angel and they are left trembling. In the times of Moses and the prophets, this was how it felt to meet with God. To meet with the divine was an experience that filled every sense, it was something one did not forget. Encounters with the divine spoke to the whole person, they changed people. You could not meet God and go away the person you had been.
Perhaps we have forgotten the Scriptural God, Jesus has become on the one hand our “best mate,” who helps us find a car park space, or catch the train for which we are late, or, on the other hand, he has become a mere cipher, a mere monogram applied to the activities of the church to give them some theological dressing.
The Risen Jesus we meet in the Gospel stories is neither a best mate nor a cipher, and if we believe he is the presence of God, we need to think about how people might encounter that presence of God in our own times. Is it possible to have encounters that speak to our whole person? Shouldn’t church worship be something where there is a genuine possibility of an encounter with the divine? Shouldn’t we have worship to which people come and go away changed?
I remember back in 1999, it was one of those times when there was a feeling that change was in the air. Of course, everything would be similar the following year, but there was a sense that people expected a change. Embracing the fin de siècle that pervaded much thinking, I bought a book on a spirituality for the Twenty-First Century; I probably still have it, somewhere. Rather than being a handbook of what to do, it attempted to analyze what the writer believed would be the trends within popular thinking and what response churches might make in the way they structured their spiritual life.
The key word in the the writer’s thinking was “affective,” that is spelt with an “a”, not with an “e.” He believed that churches needed to appeal people’s feelings and emotions. The book was set aside, not because the analysis was faulty, but because, as anyone familiar with the Church of Ireland will know, we do not engage in emotional worship. Low church Protestants tend to recoil at the idea of anything that might approach the adjective “affective.”
Eighteen years after reading that book, there is an awareness that the churches that attract people are those that understand the power of the affective, those that understand the need to appeal to people in ways beyond words. The so-called “New Age” was dismissed as a reversion to old paganism, but at its heart there was a desire to find something that could not be found in the dry propositional worship of the traditional churches.
The affective can take various forms. Perhaps that’s the problem with it, what appeals to the feelings and emotions of one person may leave another person wondering why a fuss was being made. Personally, there have been three situations recently where affective spirituality has been memorable. In no particular order, they have been::
An evangelical gathering. It was a gathering where the speaker sought to speak not to reason and intellect, but to the heart; speaking of a personal response, speaking of a faith rooted in feelings unarticulated. Being an evangelical, being someone who believes in a personal response to the challenge of the Gospel, it was a moment that spoke to feeling and emotion, but would probably leave cold most of the people here.
A funeral Mass in a local Roman Catholic church where the Eucharistic prayer, with the stroke of the bell at the consecration, and the final commendation, with its antiphonal chant and incense, spoke of a faith beyond the rational and propositional. It was a vast gathering of hundreds and hundreds of members of the local community and there was an indefinable sense of God’s presence.
The third situation was a choral evensong here in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral earlier in the year. There was music that was transcendent, timeless, spine-tingling, if there was music in heaven, this would surely be among it.
What is interesting is that, perhaps not unexpectedly, research shows the places where attendances are growing are the evangelical churches, where preaching is to the heart; , the traditional Catholic churches, with their colour and ritual and mystery; and the ancient cathedrals, with their great choral traditions.
Affective spirituality is very evangelical, it reaches out, it challenges, it touches the senses, it confronts the whole person with a sense of the divine. Perhaps the opportunity here is to set aside the low church Protestant tradition that has been so much part of the life of the Church of Ireland, and to become flamboyant Catholic in liturgy, incense, bells, vestments; anything that speaks to something beyond our reason, anything that speaks to us of the terror and amazement and the fear felt by the women at the tomb.
Affective spirituality is about encountering a God who makes us tremble. When people come to worship, they should be able to go away with a sense that this is the God with whom they have met.