Originally published as
Rundell S (2009) Blesséd: A Sacramental Perspective of Alternative Worship with Young People in Croft S & Mobsby I (Eds) Ancient Faith, Future Mission: Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition. SCM-Canterbury Press, Norwich pp132-139
There is a classical story of three blind men being introduced to an elephant. The first was led to the trunk, the second to the side and the third to the tail. They were each asked their impressions of their encounter. The first thought that he was dealing with a flexible hosepipe, the second thought he had found a solid brick wall and the third, a fly swatter fixed to the wall by a latrine! None of them had the opportunity to take a step back and perceive the whole elephant.
We can never know God. We rely on him for revelation1, and although we can strive for a personal encounter with him, we will never be able to perceive the whole elephant. To think that God can be fully captured by Scripture or by any other concrete construction would be to bring him down to a very small level indeed2.
The sacraments have never sought to capture God, but merely to reflect some of His essence. The Greek word used is Mysterium from which we get the English word ‘Mystery’. In seeking God in worship, in seeking the unknowable, the mysterious, we turn signs and symbols. In the language of postmodernism, this is ‘semiotics’.
Postmodernism suggested that our cosy prejudices were subjective. Even if young people didn’t know the language of postmodernism and got confused between Jacques Derrida and Jacques Cousteau, they clearly now sense that authority is defunct and sources of truth are suspect: the internet can provide you with a million different interpretations and all or none of them may be true.
Alternative worship began as a rejection of traditional church and traditional worship and rode the wave of postmodern thought. As it continues to seek to be radical, it discovers that a priori concepts of worship have to be dismantled and new ways of worship need to be explored. In the same way that Postmodern thought has become eclectic, so postmodern worship has embraced a wide variety of style and spirituality without concern for where it has come from. Alt.Worship defies traditional labels of churchmanship.
The result has been the rediscovery of ritual and a greater emphasis on sign and symbol as a mechanism for reaching out towards God.
The natural territory of signs and wonders, of sacrament and ritual is the catholic tradition. We must be careful not to misunderstand ‘Catholic’ with a big ‘C’ and ‘catholic’ with a small ‘c’. The former usually refers to the Roman Catholic Church whilst the catholic tradition is more a style and a theology than a denomination. ‘Catholic’ itself means universal, as in the stated belief in the ‘one holy catholic and apostolic church’ which is a feature of the Nicene Creed. Within the catholic tradition there exist many church affiliations and so in this way it is more appropriate to a postmodern understanding which rejects a single point of reference or authority.
Being catholic is not just about incense and candles (staple tools of alternative worship), it is more than Gregorian chant and any of the other affectations of faux catholicism, but is about a fundamental way of looking at the incarnation and the world as affected by the incarnation: the unknowable can be made partially known and the sacraments can provide a mechanism to that encounter – we should not be concerned with immediate effect [‘the souls won for Jesus’ requirement], but trust in the power of Christ to capture the spiritual yearning within most people young and old. The original multisensory worship was the liturgy celebrated in the Basilica of the 8th Century: a place where sight, sound, smell and taste ensured that we seek to engage with God’s wondrous creation and to try to express the inexpressible. By worshipping with more than just our lips and seeking faith without necessarily seeking understanding, we celebrate our humanity as glorified by the incarnation3 in all its diversity4
Blesséd was a group which sought to be unconventional, to remain true to its anglocatholic heritage and yet embrace new ways of encountering God through sign and symbol and most especially through the sacraments.
Fundamentally, I believe that our primary encounter with God in worship is not an intellectual one, but an emotive one. Worship is one of the first ways that seekers of faith encounter Christ, and when asked about their first dip in the worship ocean, they do not reflect on worship in terms of reason or logic: whether they were convinced by the argument, but how it made them feel. The mountaintop experience of the Transfiguration came about by a wondrous encounter with the divine, not by intellectual engagement.
Blesséd sought therefore to replace the rather simplistic approach of evangelism: ‘let me tell you a story about Jesus, kids…’ and replace it with an emotional experience and a glimpse of the divine.
Principally, this focused attention upon the Mass, but not exclusively, for God can be encountered through all nine of his sacraments5. Sacraments are ‘an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace’6 and are therefore a way for humans to seek to comprehend a facit of God’s nature by something tangible but without limiting God by either physicality or the boundaries of our own intelligence. When originally planned an act of worship, a number of our young people involved all said independently “well, it has to be a mass doesn’t it?” They sought to define themselves in terms of their relationship to the sacrament and yet not to be constrained by the traditions of it. Each element of the mass was seen as being up for grabs, for a radical interpretation and a retelling of the story. As Pete Ward discussed in his book Mass Culture7 the mass is an evangelistic opportunity and a missionary tool. It provides a unique opportunity for expressing the salvation story and the joy of the resurrection in word, song, action and ritual. The mass provides both fixed points of reference and an ever-changing cycle of encounter with God, and this mix of the familiar and the challenging provides a framework on which to hang new explorations of worship; rather than being a limit to fresh expressions of worship, it forms a skeleton upon which a new creation8 is formed.
Within Blesséd we have spoken unashamedly of the Mass because it is a classical English word, and although has in recent years been hijacked by Roman Catholicism, it is the only word which describes effectively the whole service of word and sacrament joined together: ‘holy communion’ refers only to a small part of the whole ritual, ‘eucharist’ to a specific prayer within that ritual. It is a ‘Divine Liturgy’ in the Orthodox sense, an encounter with God in mechanisms which are not, and should not be, fully understood.
In order to facilitate this encounter, all have been welcome to participate and share in the sacrament. Within the Anglican tradition, it is customary for the sacrament to be denied to those who have not undergone sacramental preparation and the administration of another of the nine sacraments: confirmation. However, a God issues a welcome to all to encounter him; so at a Blesséd mass, the blessed sacrament will be offered to any who come forward for it. It is a valid sacrament, in the understanding of many the real body and blood of Christ (for he said that himself, and who are we to deny what Our Lord said of himself). Can any of us claim to fully understand these mysteries? Let us administer the sacrament freely and with grace and let God sort it out.
Blesséd took something well loved and cherished and gave it a new slant. Nothing within the mass is not there without purpose or significance, and so it afforded opportunities for new ways of communicating this. By maintaining the shape of the liturgy as described by Dom Gregory Dix and radically at times reinterpreting them, the whole encounter with God is re-explored and new nuances and themes develop: Eucharistic prayers are mimed, Creeds are given a rave feel in a language not spoken by anyone in the audience, the Gloria is tap-danced and the liturgy is shared by all as dough is kneeded, baked and broken across a single act of worship.
The end result is something which is at once both familiar and yet very challenging. The comfort found in ritual and repetition9 is transformed by new and risky ways of looking at them. The symbolism of a past age is brought crashing into a modern era as the gently tinkling bells of the Eucharistic elevation10 are replaced by a guitarist’s heavily distorted power chord.
Like many youth phenomena, the initial phase of Blesséd has passed, and the young people who came together for it have since moved on, to university, to work and at the same time to different expressions of church in which to encounter the sacred. The moment it starts to appear stale it must, like Brookside be discarded and replaced with something new, otherwise it will continue like those Christian gatherings which have moved from the radical to the establishment; and lose its place at the cutting edge of faith.
Yet, Blesséd in new incarnations also continues, as a sort of roving resource: parachuted into new environments to destabilise and reinvigorate groups of young people without a sacramental direction: to take something familiar like the mass and to give it a shocking new presentation which threatens to transform an individual’s encounter with the mystery of salvation.
To witness the achievements of the past and to become a part of the future, see www.blessed.org.uk
So the comfortable becomes uncomfortable and the ageless truths of catholic spirituality reveal new perspectives in the postmodern light of day. It is not just evangelicals and charismatics who speak of Jesus in today’s world with relevance and the stamp of sacramental liberation theology can be seen to be giving new insights into our encounters with the Divine. Look outside the box, draw upon the wider body of Christ and give yourself the opportunity to encounter much more of the whole elephant that you previously had imagined possible.
Fr. Simon Rundell SCP
1. Ireneus Adversus Haereses 4:6 ‘Deum scire nemo potest, nisi Deo docente’ – ‘No One can have any knowledge of God unless God teaches him’
2. Henry De Lubac (1960)The Discovery of God T&T Clark. Edinburgh.
3. Anselm Monologium 1 ‘fides quaerens intellectum’ ‘Faith seeking understanding’
4. Psalm 150:6
5. Yes, nine: The two sacraments instituted by Christ: Baptism and the Eucharist, the five ‘classic’ sacraments of Confirmation, Marriage, Anointing, Reconciliation and Ordination and the two primordial sacraments explored during Vatican II: Jesus Christ himself from whom all sacraments flow and Holy Mother Church in whom they are all embodied.
6. Catechism of the Catholic Church Paragraph 1130
7. Ward P (Ed) (1999) Mass Culture Bible Reading Fellowship. Oxford
8. cf 2 Corinthians 5:17
9. Ward P (Ed) (2004) The Rite Stuff Bible Reading Fellowship. Oxford
10. As the priest makes the bread and wine into (literally, for many of us) the body and blood of Our Lord, he or she lifts it and shows it to the congregation. Traditionally, this is marked by the ringing of a bell to draw attention to it.