Transcendence comes of age

Wednesday, 14th October 2009 at 8:00 UTC 2 comments

Many of you will know that I spend some of my time working on a monthly service called Transcendence in York Minster, a blending of traditional high church worship with modern ambient music, mood lighting and interactive prayer activities. For all its newness, Transcendence is threatening to become routine, or it was until last Sunday.

To start off, this wasn’t helped by my decision to train up extra servers. I’m not the best at involving other people, mostly because I’m no less good at hacking myself up over other people’s failings as I am over mine, especially when I feel like I’m responsible for them. As it was, everything passed off fine, and I was left to do an odd mix of server duties that made me more of the furniture than anyone else.

I suppose I got a bit more nervous when I saw the crowd lined up for coffee before the service. It was definitely going to be a big number. In the end, it was 175, the biggest we’ve been in 5 months, and that’s if May’s slightly approximated figures are OK, otherwise it might have been the biggest service to date. It was also another time when we had large numbers of travellers, people coming from afar, or at least as far as Leeds. It was powerful to see the impression that the service had had on them, though I think I felt a profound sense of awe at how it all came out, even despite a couple of hiccups on the word slides.

The problem is, we’ve gotten to a point where we probably know about as much about running Transcendence in York Minster as we’ll ever get. Yes, we have the ongoing “Transcendence on Tour” project to figure out, and we’ll be in Doncaster on February 6th. Whilst its clear lots of people are turning up and being heavily inspired, I was a little worried I was going to get disconnected from the awe, as it becomes a monthly routine. A renewed sense of awe was probably the one thing I really wanted to take away from a Transcendence service if at all possible. As we processed in on Sunday, I think that’s pretty much what hit me.

The processional music was as unconventional as it comes; Coldplay’s Viva La Vida crying out just as everyone rose to their feet. It was a superb entry, and reminded me of the kind of wonders you don’t get when you just stick to plain traditional or plain modern, but decide to be inventive. The whole thing just blew me away, and I felt a renewed invigoration for the project. But not just the project, its future. Which was a long way of getting to something that has been bugging me…

We worry about making church too professionalised, about putting a gap between those in the inner circle who plan and run things and the ordinary congregation, but finding people who can make some aspect of a service work really really well, not just passably, but to the extent it catches people’s imaginations seems really important to. We’ve had this with Transcendence lately, as I’m trying to make sure the structures are in place so the key people don’t burn out and so everyone can enjoy the view from the pews once in a while.

Of course, we want to train up new people and make them part of the team, but one of the problems is that, in our haste not to do branding or crew t-shirts, we lost the approachability we need given we’re now well and truly a “large church”. But there’s also a problem whereby we get cliquey at the top, which hurts us even more. And its very difficult not to make some tasks appear more valid than others (particularly the behind the scenes nature of set up verses the visibility of candle bearing.

I find it a common thing between church and activism that people are incredibly nervous of “professionalism”. Some of this is wise, as we want to challenge values around us, but it can mean we almost value shoddiness. And we simply can’t afford to do shoddiness. And also, we can’t afford not to bring through different types of talent. Church isn’t linear in this respect, and people who are amazing at one task might be good at another, but someone else is probably better.

Is the creeping professionalism in the church a problem? I’d like to know other people’s opinions, but to me its important to distinguish between two things: a desire to do things as smoothly, clearly and as well as we possible can, or the desire to put the power in the hands of a few paid individuals. If we mean the latter, we should be very worried indeed; the same for activists. But for the church, getting it right can be the difference between providing something run-of-the-mill and providing a flickering glimpse of heaven. I wonder whether that’s what anyone else saw as they went through the doors into the chapter house on Sunday night. I really hope so.


Entry filed under: Activism, Alt-Worship, Church, Culture, Faith.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. brainduck  |  Wednesday, 14th October 2009 at 14:34 UTC

    What I got from Transcendence last week? Impressive performance yes, awe no, and a creepy feeling of emotional manipulation.

  • 2. Lois  |  Thursday, 15th October 2009 at 12:39 UTC

    I think my reaction was similar to yours, Graham. It was the first time in a while that I was able to watch rather than take part and I really felt the atmosphere of peace and awe helped me to focus more on God than I have been able to in church for a while. Obviously different people react to things in different ways.

    I was also with a friend who was coming for the first time and really enjoyed it, and the atmosphere in the minster was one of the things she said she enjoyed.

    It’s good when things run smoothly, but I sometimes think it’s nice when something goes a bit pear-shaped- like words not appearing on cue- as it does show we’re all human and make mistakes sometimes. On the other hand too much of that and it disturbs the atmosphere, so you do need people to have a fair idea of what they’re doing. I guess like everything it’s a balance.


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