“This city will be in a state of Worship-Carnival”

Tuesday, 17th April 2007 at 9:00 UTC 6 comments

NB: Article has heavy religious focus/content.

There’s a poster sat beside me that I find quite challenging. Not because I find what it has to say, or the event it is advertising challenging; its a carnival, and I shall hopefully be there. I feeling challenged by it because I feel drawn into comparing the language of this poster to the reality of worship. So what does the poster say?

On Sunday May 6th , this city will be in a state of CARNIVAL. Doing away with the trivial and the mundane we will parade through the streets in all day party. A moment when we can truly call the city ours. Music will be played for the joy of it, and not for money, for once. People will wear costumes other than those they are forced into by work or fashion. TRANSGRESSION WILL BE PERMITTED. Fellow revellers will be viewed as playmates, not rivals or threats.

THE CARNIVAL IS NOT A GIFT from its organisers, nor those in power. Like all revolutions it has intimate, individual origins. Occasionally certain people get worried that if they don’t lend us our streets for the day WE WILL SEIZE OUR LIVES FOR GOOD. However, the carnival is not a step towards liberty, nor is it a recuperation of the dissenting impulse; THE PLEASURE AND FREEDOM OF THE CARNIVAL IS REAL and in enacting them we realise our true potential. What is remarkable about a carnival is its atypicality and its limits. It is full within our power to SURPASS ALL POSSIBILITIES.

You may be left wondering what on Earth all this has to do with worship. We don’t worship God in the streets very often. Usually its a private act, even if the privacy, in the form of church walls, surrounds a group, rather than an individual. And the idea that “transgression will be permitted” seems almost contrary to the gospel. But this is exactly my point.

When we worship within a church, we do so within a set of rules. Like the rules of the street, these are often unwritten social norms that govern a space without anyone actually being able to say what they are. In some churches, these rules are focused on restraint. Even the Quakers, the non-hierarchical proponents of unstructured worship, now have fairly strict rules of this kind. I’ve done a few transgressions of this kind, but I’m not penitent in the slightest.

In other churches, the rules are pretty much the opposite: you are told how to be exuberant and charismatic; you raise your hands at the exact correct moment and say Amen in time with everyone else. And sadly, when someone breaks those norms and controls, we see them as a threat, rather than as a friend helping us through the boundaries. When someone has done something outside the normal box I’ve grumbled and muttered “why can’t they just shut up?” , I’m sure others have too.

Without thinking about it, Church leaders often attempt to give us moments of freedom. Often these can seem quite forced. Sometimes these are highly constructed. Anyone who’s heard Tim Hughes practice knows the true meaning of “spontaneous”, but hey, no one’s perfect.

The ability to worship freely is not to be experienced as a gift, but to be sought out and chased; it is something which happens in our hearts, and which we alone can make manifest. The pleasure surrounding that moment is real, and shows our true potential, while allowing the Holy Spirit to work beyond the boundaries of what we consider possible.

I remember at Soul Survivor one year, there was a wonderful night when people came together randomly, and forming a completely ad-hoc worship band, played whatever came to mind. People launched into songs, and they joined in. It wasn’t all that exuberant at times; sometimes very reflective, it went through unplanned phases. It was a truly wonderful time, a more enduring memory than much of the “big tent” stuff that week. Sadly, Soul Survivor then invented the “late night acoustic worship” session, and its hard to see something like this happening again any time soon.

The thing is, despite all the freedom that one is supposed to get at something like Soul Survivor (and I’m never claim that they failed to try), one tends to find that even festivals and ‘free churches’ get tied to a logic of control that just isn’t in the bible. Though maybe given David’s butt-naked worship, maybe there’s is still a line to be avoided somewhere!

But what if we really did go into the centre of our cities, to worship God in the true spirit of the carnival; breaking the rules of the space around us, and forgetting the rules that apply within the stone walls of conventional ‘church’. To be in that place would not be to travel along the road towards true worship, it would be to arrive, if only for a short time. We would not have to dress the way we’re told, or sing in tune, or sing at all; we could shout and express our worship from ‘deeper down’ than ever before.

At that moment, our city itself would be in a state of Worship-Carnival. The trivial and the mundane would melt into the true reality of God’s presence, and in filling the space with worship we would experience a moment when we could truly call the city ours; a part of the new reality Jesus declared; for a city which is worship is a city inhabited by God.


Entry filed under: Church, Culture, Free Space, Freedom, Theology.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jennifer  |  Tuesday, 17th April 2007 at 11:00 UTC

    Surely there must be value in ” the still, small voice of calm”, as worship.

    To pause in Centenery square on a sunny Saturday morning and feel the quiet presence of God in the bustle is a joyous little event…

    Also it doesn’t scare the horses, or get you arrested ; )

  • 2. Graham Martin  |  Tuesday, 17th April 2007 at 13:54 UTC

    Hmmm, fair point, I didn’t clearly distinguish my argument from one that says “all worship should be loud”, of course it shouldn’t; intimacy and silence are two very key aspects of worship, but perhaps they’re easier to attain within the boundaries set by ‘church’.

    I should say that all comments will be gratefully accepted, seeing as I intend to submit this article to a couple of magazines (Christis being one, Greg 😉 ), but it needs a bit more work before then.

  • 3. Greg  |  Wednesday, 18th April 2007 at 19:00 UTC

    You just knew I’d be reading, didn’t you?

    Well you may like to check out This article by Theo Hobson, and you’d probably enjoy reading more of his stuff (try the easter rising talk on theohobson.co.uk and his guardian blog.

  • 4. Greg  |  Wednesday, 18th April 2007 at 19:12 UTC

    Did you know that the theme of Christis issue 105 is slavery/freedom/abolitionism? So if your article dwells on the stuff you’ve got about worship being freedom, us always trying to constrict it, etc, that’s all good 🙂

  • 5. Urbane Malaise  |  Saturday, 21st April 2007 at 14:07 UTC

    I absolutely recognise your right to appropriate my work, plagerism is one of the central tenets of my writing and so I sympathise with your methods.

    I do feel that it’s fairly misleading to describe your interpretation of the poster as a development, however. You seem to have a very different conception of what a carnival is than I do. Your whole conception of freedom is bound up with deferrence to a mystified patriarchal authority figure in the sky; rather than “surpassing all possibilities”, which is active and empowering, you seek to “allow” the holy spirit to work beyond “what we consider possible”, which is passive and disenabling. To celebrate a carnival is to celebrate and express ourselves, whereas to worship is to celebrate and defer to what is not us. The pleasure of worship is not real and you do not create it; it is one of the ways in which people fail to engage with their reality in a constructive way. Escapism is counter-revolutionary.

    Your concept of “worship-carnival” is a capitulation to everything that I am attacking in the poster, and the degredation of everything that I celebrate. Enacting the carnival and sustaining it indefinately could be a method whereby the individual would be truly free. To “worship god in the spirit of the carnival” is an antithema. To introduce heirarchy and authority into the carnival is to destroy what makes it carnival. If god is, the carnival is not.

    In “filling the space with worship” you would only be “breaking the rules of the space around us” by taking one form of indoctrination and replacing it with another.

    -Urbane Malaise

  • 6. Graham Martin  |  Saturday, 21st April 2007 at 21:53 UTC

    Greg pointed this article out to me, which you might also find interesting. A lot of similar stuff, though some divergent points (especially the importance of (not) consulting with state authorities.


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