Sunday, 3 July 2011

Getting Worship 'Right'

As a preacher who is passionate about leading worship I know that getting it 'right' is a minefield of negotiated pathways, twisting paths and a need at times to return to the beginning to start again.

The Methodist Conference Worship this morning was, I think, the nearest to 'getting it right' that I have experienced in a long time. This was certainly borne out by the wonderful atmosphere, a great sense of joy and so many kind and thoughtful words from people afterwards.

There are great challenges when planning Conference Worship, not least a myriad of decisions taken along the way to accommodate all sorts of hopes, desires, tastes, hang-ups and perspectives. There are also the institutional challenges of containing the momentous occasion of the Reception into Full Connexion within an act of worship that includes that hugely significant act but is not only about that act.

Planning begins months before and involves the President and Vice-President Designate, those responsible for the ordinands and those responsible for the due order of formal elements of the event.

The most wonderful development in all this for me has been, the increasing involvement over the last two years of superb musicians, who have a profound understanding of what happens in worship and are, like me, committed to using the best available mix of styles, focussing most importantly on the theme that will develop through the whole act of worship.

Important factors such as the use of inclusive language are made easier as our denominational resources begin to better reflect this aspiration for the church. Singing the Faith offers a range of known, loved, traditional hymns and vibrant new texts, some to familiar comfortable tunes, others to tunes that some find challenging.

Here is one of the 'pinch points' - in our attempts to please God through our worship we cannot always pick everybody's favourites and may even pick songs that some people find challenging. I think that there are some issues here that have to be considered sensitively, such as language that might re-open wounds for people who have been through trauma or have had difficult relationships. Theology is a real challenge - as a 'mainstream, liberal methodist' whose natural perspective is to focus on God's love played out on the cross, rather than a substitutional or penal perspective, there are some songs I avoid. Yet we are a broad church and that has been a challenge for those of us tasked with choosing our current authorised hymnody. I don't mind if people offer feedback about the content of a particular hymn - I do get more uptight if the feedback is about style rather than substance. We all have preferences and enjoy particular forms of singing but surely we can have the grace to allow worship to be a space in which all are able to offer praise to God, knowing that there is more than one way to do this.

Planning Conference worship is a privilege and delight and involves the making of many decisions and editing, reediting and proof-checking the text. Choosing to have a story-teller to open up the scriptures is a risk. The risk payed off today - we heard in wonderful tones a holding of each text within a broader perspective on the life of Jacob and the life of Christ. I have already picked up criticism that the full text was not on the screen, or that we used a 'paraphrase' of scripture in worship. On the screen were excerpts from the Handwritten Bible - one of the decisions to be made this year was how to include and honour that project in worship without shifting our focus from God. So a creative compromise was born. The full texts were in the printed service booklet for those who wanted to reflect on God's word as understood by the writers of the NRSV.

My favourite moments in the service (and there were many) include the sung intercessions - the solos and the congregational responses were so beautiful and prayerful and I enjoyed sourcing and choosing images from David Perry, TwelveBaskets and a free stock source (these last ones carried watermarks - but were such striking images I chose to use them - this has produced a negative comment on Twitter, I'd love the person who twittered to get in touch so we could talk about how I might have got rid of the watermark without breaking copyright law).

The music group were just wonderful, skilled and sensitive, able to take us to a new place.

I could write more - there is so much to reflect on. I'm grateful to my partner Worship Co-ordinator, Paul and Director of Music, Ian, for their incredible hard work and to all the band. Also to Joseph for his great story-telling, to Christy-Anna for sharing in the prayers, to Ruth for her praying and careful leading and to Leo for a sermon that was well-crafted, offering inspiration and was a good length.

Most of all, I'm grateful to God for helping us to navigate the minefield and for being present with us in what was a very special time of joy, solemnity, inspiration and assurance.