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) February 14, 2010
BY Timothy K. Snyder
Luther Seminary St. Paul, Minnesota
I. Introduction “JAZZ IS NOT JUST, ‘WELL, MAN, THIS IS WHAT I FEEL LIKE PLAYING.’ IT’S A VERY STRUCTURED THING THAT COMES DOWN FROM A TRADITION AND REQUIRES A LOT OF THOUGHT AND STUDY.” — WYNTON MARSALIS A Connecting read: Improvisation in Jazz
e art of jazz is, as is true of all the arts, about possibilities. Jeremy Begbie speaks of doing theology through the arts because, “the arts are showing us over and over again the possibilities of transformation...they show us how things can be even in this world [and] even the worst can be woven into God’s purposes.”1 e emergence of jazz as a musical genre is a particularly American experience.
And for this reason it o ers unique insights to understanding the intersection of tradition and culture in this context. Jazz is a contested word. e debate over the etymology of the word itself has not produced any
sort of conclusive result despite it’s best e orts and in depth research. Peter Townsend writes on jazz as a American cultural force and he contends two important distinctions. First, jazz is not a musical style but a “family of musical styles.”2 at is to say while it is di cult to de ne in words, there is fairly little
contention about its experience. To put it another way, when listening to a jazz performance, there is little doubt that is it “jazz” one is experiencing. Second, is that no matter whether it is New Orleans ragtime, Afro-cuban latin, or bebop, the role of improvisation is central. Improvisation, the art of composing and performing simultaneously, must be of central importance for this family tree of sorts. It is through improvisation that jazz tells its heritage, its struggles and its future. Improvisation in jazz is the epitome of both medium and message being one in the same. Improvisation is the nuanced message of contextualization. Jazz can be generally described as American, but in reality is thoroughly local in its performance. is is partially true because, all performance is contextual. A performance is an event that
Jeremy Begbie, “Theology Through the Arts,” Faith and Leadership Forum video presentation (May 14, 2009), Duke University. Peter Townsend, Jazz in American Culture, (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000), 2.
happens in a particular place, during a period of time and before a particular audience. But additionally it is true because all musical performance is an “interplay between a given and the unpredictable .”3 Tradition is one form of that “given” and all musicians “have to be apprenticed into a tradition”, Begbie contends because, “its the only way you will ever innovate.”4 Improvisation in jazz is a dependent factor and so it is extraordinarily obvious that innovation and tradition are not competitors but intimately related because jazz itself is a tradition of improvisation. But how does one learn to improvise? Paul Berliner’s ethnographic study into the art of improvisation reveals a complex process of study or engagement with the tradition,5 participation in the jazz community, mastering a vocabulary, nding one’s own voice, taking creative risks and committing to a routine, collaboration across ensembles — a process of give and take, enduring con ict resolution and interacting with diverse audiences and settings.6 In his conclusion Berliner calls jazz nothing short of a “way of life.” For those of us committed to a following of God in the way of Jesus Christ, this narrative of improvisation should already begin to sound familiar. In the essay that follows I explore the complexity of improvising with tradition around issues of mission and leadership and argue that by paying critical attention to our practice of Christian worship, we can gain a critical and creative lens into the complex process of faithful and yet innovation improvisation with tradition. With this critical and creative lens as the starting point, the Church can more con dently and boldly join our missional God indeed makes all things new. For a number of reasons the Christian practice of worship is an appropriate and helpful setting for understanding how communities engage tradition and innovation. First of all, it is most o en, but not always, a public setting. Worship practices are deeply infused with particular traditions and
Begbie, “Theology Through the Arts.” Ibid. In the case of jazz it was ﬁrst understood as development in the wider African American musical tradition. Paul Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Inﬁnite Art of Improvisation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 1-17.
theologies. Worship is a o en, but not always, the central gathering of the Christian community and so its role in community formation is of utmost importance to understanding how a community embodies a tradition and its social context. Finally worship’s re ection of cultural values, either implicit or explicit, can provide a critical starting point for raising theological questions of mission and ecclesiology. Inversely, if our theological understandings are not re ected in our worshipping communities then the church’s public nature and relationship to the kingdom of God will be incredibly dysfunctional. e
vocation of the Christian community to be a public witness to the resurrected Christ is not optional, but is the heart of soul of being the Church. at is our “given” and everything that proceeds from that
tradition is an improvisation on a re-occurring theme. e following essay explores the intersection of mission and leadership in improvising with tradition through a case study of alternative worship, also referred to as “the emerging church,” in the United Kingdom (U.K.). My rationale for a case study in the U.K. is multi-faceted. Perhaps most importantly there is a both a longer history of alternative and experimental worshipping communities in the U.K. and additionally a deeper understanding of the very history of the church in that place. at is
to say that of the Western countries where the church is intentionally emerging from of modernity and into postmodernity, the history of the church in the U.K. provides the richest backdrop for thinking critically about tradition. Secondly, the socio-religious context is in some ways simpler than for example the American context. e variously competing denominational con icts in the United States creates a
layer of complexity that, while important, has too o en skewed the serious conversation about mission and innovation in the Church into theological children’s playground ghts. In the U.K. there is a common thread of Anglicanism (whether Baptist, Methodist, Salvation Army or Church of England), a tradition which has long been a third way between Catholicism and conventional Protestantism. Additionally, religious participation in the U.K. is in such a dire position that there simply is no time to waist in coming up with real solutions for context so spiritually curious and institutionally disconnected.
Finally, I have long been personally inspired by the faithful improvisations of the alternative worship movement in the U.K. Since the early days of experimenting with worship on the campus of Texas Lutheran University I was captured by the photojournalism and videography coming out of London, York, and the Greenbelt Festival. And nally, because in my method I sought to employ insights from ethnography, it was helpful as an American to be outside of my own cultural context. is displacement
helped heighten my senses and observations paying closer attention to dynamics such as language, visual culture, art, music, and other such dynamics easily ignored under the surface layer of culture. is case study explores ve alternative worship communities in the U.K. All ve represent distinct streams and innovations within the movement and yet they also are related to one another and explicitly a part of the Anglican tradition. e communities studied include: (1) Grace (London), Moot e study was conducted in
(London), Visions (York), Dream (Liverpool) and Sanctus1 (Manchester). January of 2010 and included two stages. interviews and participant observations.
e rst was a series of site visits that included both qualitative e second stage was a thorough investigation of supporting
documentation including photography, videography, websites, oral histories, and graduate research on the U.K. movement. Alongside this ethnographic method, I made myself familiar with a basic understanding of jazz as cultural studies. Of particular importance was the work of Paul Berliner in his comprehensive ethnographic study jazz improvisation as published in the 700 + page volume: in Jazz: e In nite Art of Improvisation ( inking
e University of Chicago Press, 1994). First I will lay out ve
narratives, one from each of the communities studied. Following that, I will present a series of eight practices of improvisation. ese practices contribute to what makes improvisation a “way of life.” e
Christian tradition, like jazz, is a tradition of improvisation and a indeed a “way of life.”
II. Grace (London): Wounded In All
e Right Places
Grace, located in the Ealing neighborhood of London, began in November of 1993. Long-time participant and leader in Grace, Jenny Baker, recalls the words of co-founder Mike _______, who calls the situation that gave birth to the community as both “desperate” and ultimately “sel sh.” at is to say
it was out of desperation for something to change and a self interest in that if they did not do something about their own desperation, then their own faiths were at risk. Perhaps it is appropriate that they named this experiment “Grace” (REWORK). e earliest gatherings were events that engaged local
leaders already taking risks of their own in other parts of London the and UK. Many of those who gathered where artists and creative-types: art instructors, photographers, and journalists with the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). worship services. installments. is ethos of creativity was apparent throughout the rst ten years of
e services were non-linear, organized o en around engaging stations or art
e worship space itself o en resembles a contemporary art gallery dropped into the old
sanctuary of St. Mary’s Church. During the earliest years a young curate helped with the launch of the community but the relatively short appointment — three years — created a sense of urgency. A er _____’s tenure, there was a six-month break followed by an invigoration of new energy and new leadership. Jenny and Jonny Baker, who at the time worked for Youth for Christ, became involved alongside others. Re ecting on this move, Jonny Baker says, “When we moved (to London from Bath), we found Grace, which was an alternative worship group that had almost burnt out and was taking a sixmonth break. We quickly joined and helped to restart it. I had been leading a worship band at various events and was nding an increasing discomfort with the performance thing and the Christian subculture. e move helped me break from it, and Grace was a new space in which to reimagine what
worship might and could look like.”7
Jonny Baker in Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creative Christian Communities in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 242.
On the tenth anniversary of Grace, the community made a signi cant attempt to, as Jenny Baker says, “to articulate our ethos.”8 e core community came up with initially three words that were both
descriptive and aspirational: creativity, participation and engagement. In closing their discernment time together in worship, one leader introduced a fourth word: risk. In its nal expression these words made up the core values of the community. Finally a er a decade they were beginning to name what had been happening all along. In his December 2008 address to the Fresh Expressions National Pilgrimage, the Archbishop Rowan Williams named an additional point of signi cance to the long process of discernment. He contended that, “the one thing that we are truly awful at is taking time, or understanding that some outcomes, some processes, just take the time that they take — that you can’t rush the business of growing. A lot of the misery in our economic crisis is the result of people more and more losing touch with time — the time taken to build trust, the time taken to bring a new enterprise to maturity and so the time taken to see an investment of energy and money bear fruit.”9 Additionally during this time of discernment, the community took the time to re ect on their model of leadership. Jenny Baker re ects on this time saying, “What we realized is that although we didn’t have anybody paid, there were people taking on that role in terms of encouraging us to be forward thinking and planning ahead. And so we named what was going on. We encouraged everybody to take responsibility for what was going on at Grace, for their faith journey, to participate, and to realize that if you say, ‘why doesn’t Grace do such and such?’ — well you’re part of Grace.”10 is understanding at Grace, of a radical embodiment of the priesthood of all believers is, perhaps, its most signi cant quality. For seventeen years the community has thrived without anyone paid or “set aside” to speci cally minister to Grace. Such a success story is profound for all of those of us who are seeking new ways of being church in the twenty- rst century context. e implications are
Jenny Baker, public presentation, ReSource Weekend (London, U.K.), January 9, 2010.
Rowan Williams in Ancient Faith, Future Mission: Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition, eds. Steve Croft and Ian Mobsby (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2009), 5.
Jenny Baker, Ibid.
profound and numerous but two deserve special attention. First is the real, strategic advantage the community has without the burden of a full-time salaried minister. e economic realities of doing
ministry in a post-Constantinian era — an era in which the church is no longer the privileged center of society — demand lighter and nimbler organizational structures which can adapt quickly and uidly to the needs of the context. e story of Grace debunks the myth that for the sake of sustainability,
professional (clerical) leadership is essential. Secondly, is its parallel dynamic with what Paul Berliner speaks of in his study of jazz improvisation with “paying your dues.” e idea that in order to improvise
with a tradition, we must deep responsibility for our own faith lives is an important framework. [Berliner Quote Here]. In other words, faithful and innovative improvisation with a tradition can not be done without paying your dues through study, critical engagement, repetition and risk. When Jenny Baker re ects on the particular themes of Grace services over the years that has had a signi cant role in shaping the community’s formation, she will inevitably tell about the vulnerability of that risk. e theme of the service that really captures this vulnerability was called “Wounded in all the
right places.”11 Jenny Baker describes that signi cant service saying, “that service was about recognizing our brokenness as individuals and as a community, but trusting that God would use that in the service. And so we made a table together as a community. People took a piece of broken tile and placed it on a table top making a mosaic and we grouted that and now we have that. We use it as our communion table even though its actually quite small. Rather than using [the altar at St. Mary’s Church] we use this wobbly-top, tiny table which does feel quite appropriate to us as a community.” is is a deeply
embodied understanding of liturgy as quite literally “the work of the people.” Such embodied improvisations are vivid takes on what Rowan Williams speaks when he says, “the sacraments of the Church are there not as mysterious rituals to deepen our sense of group identity — though of course they do that among other things. ey are there to tell us what story it is that de nes the shape of our
Inspired by the song “Wounded In All The Right Places,” by 1 Giant Leap, What About Us? www.whataboutus.tv.
world, and to take us further on our journey, on our following out the Son’s journey.”12 Grace may be deeply broken, at times failing and altogether fairly unremarkable by typical measurements of church growth, but perhaps they are wounded in all the right places.
+++ INSERT 1-3 examples here from the pocket liturgies. III. Moot (London): Custodians of Tradition Moot is a community located in the heart of London — literally in the central nancial district. e parish church in which the community gathers has no one actually living in the parish’s jurisdiction. e London Tube station is called “Bank” and emerging from the underground the church is directly in front of you, and yet all around the church itself is dwarfed by the towering commercial buildings. It is precisely this context in wish the founders of Moot sought to do mission. If in many ways Grace represents the low church expression in London’s Anglican alternative worship movement, then Moot represents the Anglo-catholic and high church sensibilities. Many of the earliest members of the Moot community had long been part of the Epicentre Network, an alternative worship group, since the 1980’s. Re ecting on those last years of Epicentre Network, Ian Mobsby re ected that, “ e Epicentre
Network ended because the group was not sustainable. People disagreed about everything to the point that there were two di erent groups — one very cynical, which felt very disabling, and the other wanting to move on, which was the beginning of Moot. When a church gets like that, it needs to end.”13 Between 2002 and 2003 the conversations that birthed the new Moot community were cultivated in both prayer and the pub. Much of the conversation was a deconstruction of the very form of alternative worship they had helped create. Ian Mobsby, an Anglican priest and missioner at Moot, re ects on that experience saying, “much of the alternative worship at the time was too much ‘about us’ and not strong enough against consumerism...(it’s) default was to a white, middle class, consumeristic and individualist
Williams, Ancient Faith, Future Mission (2009), 7.
13 Ryan Bolger and Eddie Gibbs, Emerging Churches (2005), 207.
ethos that only reinforced the binary of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.”14 Furthermore there was a deep awareness of a shi ing cultural reality in which spirituality was important and yet participation in religious institutions was not. It is a dynamic that most theologian and ministers feel the pressures of all too well. For the founders of Moot, there was a deep resonance with the shi from a spirituality based on orthodoxy to one based on orthopraxis.15 e central question for Moot is, “How should we live life?” To begin
answering this question, the community found its starting place for the future in a very old place: monasticism. Ian Adams and Ian Mobsby described the this new monastic movement saying, “New monastics communities invariably remain part of the denomination to which they belong, and are committed to its accountability structures. However, because of their place ‘out there’ in culture — in common with their monastic forebears — they are also uniquely place to o er new insights to the Church of which they are part.”16 Having centered their new community life around this central question: how should we live life?, a rhythm of life (derived from the ethos of the old monastic rules of life) was adopted. e six elements
— presence, acceptance, creativity, balance, accountability, hospitality17 — are committed to annually by members of Moot before the bishop of London in true structured form. e liturgy that is
improvised out of this rhythm has produced art gallery exhibitions, booths at the Body, Mind and Soul Festival and labyrinths around the city center. e arts have been an integral part of the community and
soon they will launch an arts venue in the city center. Participation in festivals o en considered taboo and “new age” among Christians, has sought to reconnect the spiritual seeks to the mystical spirituality of Christianity that is pre-modern in its ethos. And nally its labyrinths and meditation services throughout the city provide meaningful opportunities for spiritual pilgrims and passerby's to
14 Ian Mobsby, personal interview, January 7, 2009, London, U.K. 15 Ibid. 16 Ian Adams and Ian Mobsby in Ancient Faith, Future Mission (2009), 54. 17 See Adams and Mobsby, 58-59.
participate. At mid-week meditation services, Mooters — community members — sit in silence along side city workers, bank executives and tourists passing through. In this way the community gatherings are small but signi cant attempts at liturgy which is deeply contextual and incarnational. Moot, as an expression of new monasticism, has tapped into the deep resources of a tradition — the desert fathers, St. Francis and St. Benedict, and Dorothy Day. is new monastic tradition, like its
predecessors, has an innovative approach to both belonging to an institutional tradition and also to a counter-cultural tradition. is way of organizing around a way of life o en means a de-emphasis on
public worship as more typically understood by congregations. At Moot, the community is preparing to open an arts cafe and in a similar missional impulse they are negotiating with their diocese for custodianship of an old clergy house to set up an intentional resident community in the inner city as a beacon of hospitality and mission. Such a missional posture towards their context makes an understanding of Moot derived only from its worship life drastically lacking. at is not to say creative
improvisations in worship have not been signi cant for community formation at Moot. During one Moot service, a prayer station was set up to highlight (literally!) they networked relationality of the community dispersed for mission throughout the city. Worshippers were invited to trace on a large map their comings and goings throughout the city during the past week with ultraviolet pens. e prayers of
the people were upli ed in dramatic fashion when the black light was shown on the map revealing the connections, spread and particular locations of the Moot diaspora. at the Christian community is
both a gathered-sent community and that our vocation has the hands and feet of the risen Christ had never been so illuminated. Similar to the way that participants of Grace embraced risk and its opportunity for failure, Moot understands in profound ways the di erence between a rhythm of life commitment to in principle (especially when it is before a bishop) and the imperfect attempt at actually living out such a rhythm. Re ecting on past shortcomings and failures Ian Mobsby contended that because of Moot’s radical commitment to the laity and lay leadership, at times it means that the liturgies themselves are “total
rubbish.” “One of the reasons hardly anyone knows about Moot,” quips Mobsby “is because we have not done anything spectacular.” Personally, I disagree.
III. Visions (York): Transcendence With a Medieval
e Visions community in York stands out as the longest running continuous alternative worship gathering in the U.K. e rst worship service began in August of 1991, though the in uences
reach back even further. When I sat down with Sue Wallace, priest at Visions, I asked her when this had all started for her. “Back in 1986...” she began.18 e year struck me as remarkably long ago not least
because it was the year I was born. Sue Wallace had found herself drawn into the community of a local Anglican church a er spending a missionary year in North Africa. Both this drive towards community and mission would continue to shape both her faith and ministry in profound ways. In 1988, several from York participated in the Nine O’clock service at the Greenbelt Festival. It was there that worship was opened up to a world of possibilities from loud music to multimedia. e Nine O’clock service was
deeply committed to mission, in the sense that culture was embraced as a vehicle for reaching young twenty year olds not connected to a church. In 1989, an ecumenical partnership in York launched a nightclub and music venue in a warehouse. A small group form out of those relationships met regularly a er this experiment. Sue Wallace had been a key part of that warehouse mission and when she expressed a growing frustration with the culture gap between secular and congregational life, her priest (Graham Cray) predicted soon her frustration would lead her to start a new service in York.19 exactly what happened. At rst the group was called Warehouse, a er the summer mission experience that initially formed the core of the relationships. Later named Visions, three gatherings rotated across three months. at is
18 In 1986 the Nine O!clock service (NOS) began out of St. Thomas!s Church in Shefﬁeld, U.K. NOS began an incredibly signiﬁcant
inspiration for many, if not most, of the alternative worship leaders in the U.K. Of Particular note is its early participation and contributions to the Greenbelt Festival, a long time gathering place for the alternative worship community from across the U.K.
19 Bolger and Gibbs, 319.
During these formative years the group was deeply inspired by Celtic spirituality,20 traveled together on pilgrimages into their historic religious (Celtic) heritage, and got deeply entrenched into the nightlife and club culture of York.21 Wallace says, In those days we envisaged the church quickly becoming full of converted clubbers, but this never really happened. What did happen, though, was that those who were antagonistic towards Christians and Christianity changed their opinions a little. ‘ e Christians, oh they do e missional impulse was overly optimistic perhaps, but quite intentional.
great visuals,’ was the comment that we kept hearing. We took this as great praise, considering some of the awful things people were saying about Christians when we rst started working in clubs.22 ose earliest services were completely lay led and soon a deeply liturgical sensibility emerged. Wallace re ects on that time saying, We began to feel a sense of hunger to share communion together, and so we began a new monthly communion service...this was a much more mellow and contemplative service, with Bible meditation, story, and images accompanied by a constant gentle wash of ambient music...It was in the context of the communion service that we rst began to explore creative prayer; we soon learned it was a powerful way to connect to God.23
20 Sue Wallace quips that such a reach backwards to the Celtic tradition was only appropriate considering the church they met in
was founded in 687 CE on the site in which St.Cuthbert, patron saint of Northumbria, blessed the city of York.
21 Sue Wallace in Steven Croft and Ian Mobsby, eds., Ancient Faith, Future Mission, 10. 22 Ibid. 23 Ibid., 11.
is creative freedom sourced from within the sacramental-liturgical tradition was further explored int he mid-1990’s when Visions began to follow the lectionary and liturgical calendar. “[ is] gave us a
sense of continuity and connection with the wider Church whilst also challenging us to confront di cult subjects we might otherwise have avoided. Having Bible readings prepared so far in advance also made forward planning much easier, and we found that there was plenty of scope in the readings for us to be creative. Around this time, a critical stage of life — crisis — became a formative part of the story of Visions. In 1995, a number of complaints of sexual abuse arose among the community around the Nine O’clock service. Soon a full blown scandal was apparent and made excruciatingly public. e media
coverage around the fall-out in She eld impacted alt. worship communities around the country. Sue Wallace called this time in the life of Visions a “crisis of con dence.”24 “ e scandal...shattered all the
friendships and trust we had carefully nurtured within the clubbing community. We had to run around apologizing to people for ever having invited them to come to She eld with us.”25 In the midst of the crisis, however, the community intentionally processed the grief collectively by weaving stories of the great saints of the Christian tradition — St. Francis, Oscar Romero, Kolbe — into the worship service themes. Anyone who walks through the city of York instantly feels a vibe that Sue Wallace calls “its medieval throw-back.” Put another way, the city itself is deeply self-aware of its history and connection to a thick tradition. Minster. e most obvious and symbolic stands in the old city center: the infamous York érèse of Lisieux, Maximilian
e rst church, erected on the site of the minster was built in 627 CE in haste for Edwin,
King of Northumbria, to be baptized in. In January 2010, on the Festival of the Baptism of Our Lord (First Sunday A er Epiphany), I gathered with seventy- ve, or so, from the Visions community in the crypt of York Minster for Transcendence: An Ancient-Future Mass. e mass is the newest innovation
24 Ibid., 12. 25 Ibid.
and service created by the Visions community.
e service was started when the church they normally
meet in was in need of roof repairs. Temporarily housed in York Minster, relationships led to a partnership for the creation of Transcendence as an outreach of the minster. It is an eclectic blend of high church — robes, cruci ers, incense, and all — and multimedia, ambient beats, club lighting, and prayer stations. e liturgy used is the Common Worship Order I, with hymns sung over trip hop and is partnership with the Minster has brought a
projected on screens around the Chapter House.
renewed awareness for mission and outreach. Visions reaches more participants (3-5x) through the Minster than in its other locations. Sue Wallace is a part of the normal rotation of clergy serving on a daily basis as chaplain to the tourists, visitor, and sta of York Minster. As I waited in a side chapel for Sue to arrive for our morning interview on a Monday morning, the sta were preparing to open the doors for another day of tours. A er only a few minutes a young female sta member from the Minster's volunteer sta peaked in and asked if I needed anything. “No,” I replied, “I was just praying while I wait for a friend.” She quickly o ered up another chapel, one more private, out of the way and o limits to tourists. Despite the thousands that pay to visit the minster for historical value anyone can enter for prayer, be waived through the tourist lines and brought to a private place to prayer in the transcendent and sacred place that has been used for Christian worship for more of Christian history than not.26 is precisely why Visions undertook the Transcendence experiment. is
e service is both ancient and future
in its orientation to be a place of missional spirituality for pilgrims across the fullest spectrum of experience with the Christian faith.
IV. Sanctus1 (Manchester): reGENERATION in the City Centre us far, the origins of the alt. worship communities studied have been the result of gradual inspiration, frustration, dissatisfaction and an impulse towards mission. As lived experiences these were typically subtle and not dramatic. But in Manchester the catalyst was quite di erent. In the late morning
26 In December of 2009, over 20,000 tea light candles were used by visitors and worshipers at York Minster. That daunting number
is a testimony to the profound way in which the place is very much a house of prayer!
of June 15, 1996 an enormous explosion erupted from an IRA bomb planted in the city centre. It was the second largest ever planted on the British mainland and over twelve hundred buildings were damaged. e city’s response was a massive initiative of private and governmental agencies to rebuild
and regenerate the city. A large focus was put on repopulating the city centre. Ben Edson, former missioner at Sanctus1 cites the following dramatic increase, “ e re-population has been dramatic.
Whereas in 1991 there were 966 residents, the 2001 census recorded that the number had risen to 5,496 residents, and by 2004 the O ce of the Deputy Prime Minister put the number at over 15,000.”27 In light of this development, the Church of England and the Methodist Church partnered to commission a missionary to “to explore alternative ways of being church in this context.”28 In October of 2001, this exploration began. Early on the community gathered on a Wednesday night with monthly Sunday service in Manchester Cathedral. is rhythm was developed in response to
the high transient and mobile population who o en went away for weekends.29 An additional challenge in forming community in this formative years, and in fact now as well, is a high turn over rate within the city centre. Edson estimates about a third of the population leaves every year, constantly being replaces by new waves of immigration.30 is is a challenging context in which to do mission, but yet is a growing
trend in urban centers. In 2003 the size of the group nearly doubled a er having participated in the Greenbelt Festival the year before. When I sat down with Ben Edson to talk about Sanctus1 and mission in Manchester he said, “Sanctus1 was started as a community for mission, not worship.” Of course worship happened — centered on question-evocation — but the drive was rst and foremost missional. at is evident in two events the community has regularly hosted in the city centre. e rst
is called “II,” a mix of contemporary electronic and media.
e second is called “Reel Spirituality,” a lm
27 Ben Edson, “An Exploration Into the Missiology of the Emerging Church in the UK Through the Narrative of Sanctus1,”
International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, 6:1, 24—37.
28 Ibid. 29 Ibid. 30 Ben Edson, personal interview, January 13, 2009, Manchester, U.K.
showing and discussion. Both events are located in the city in “third spaces”31 — at a local bar or at the Nexux café, an arts venue and co ee shop created by Sanctus1 community as a gi to the city of Manchester. Edson re ects on this gi -giving as an intentional part of the Sanctus1 ethos. “Gi -giving is a vital part of the missional equation, but alongside that, hospitality must also be practised by the hermeneutic of communitas. ese two strands are woven together in Sanctus1’s missional DNA, which
is then worked out in a number of ways in the city centre.”32 Re ecting on the decision to give away II as an event without any sort of measurable, evangelical outcome, Ben Edson, himself a Church Army evangelist, says: On the rst night of II, I spoke with a variety of people and observed a number of conversations, all of which con rmed to me that mission was taking place within the conversations and, indeed, simply through the presence of a caring Christian community. For a professional evangelist to have given a presentation would not only have risked alienating visitors, but would also have disempowered Sanctus1 members as they shared their own faith with others. e hermeneutic of communitas was
also proving to be a key missional element. Strangers who wandered into the event wanted to know who we were, and as we gave an account of ourselves more than a few preconceived stereotypes were challenged and people were given a positive experience of Christian community – something which is undoubtedly the rst step in mission.33 If the rst step of mission is challenging stereotypes of a post-Christian society, a future step would certainly be positively contributing to its transformation. As statement about transforming the
31 The term “third space,” is common within the alt.worship/emerging church movement. The term itself was coined by Ray
Oldenberg in The Great Good Place (1989, revised editions in 1997, 1999).
32 Edson, IJSCC, 33 Ibid.
spaces of our lives and about the isolation of the city, Sanctus1 created a forty-day, Lenten public performance art exhibit called “40 Days of Public Solitude.” During this forty day event, forty di erent artists, creative-types, etc. spent from 9:00AM until 5:00PM in a glass box constructed out of the glass store front display space at Nexus café. Each person brought only three things with them into the space. Was this a box of isolation or a box of inspiration, was the question posed by the event. roughout the
time, observers could watch as they passed by the café, view the box live online, or even later on watch archived time-lapse videos of each person. At the end of the forty days, all the artists and the public were invited to a party to share their experiences of the box, as well as before and a er in the city. It is here in this convergence of gi and hospitality that the boundaries between worship and mission, public performance art and liturgy are suddenly blurred. Mission and worship are both the natural, organic outpouring of Christian community. Similarly to the other communities studied, Sanctus1 o ers unique insights to missional leadership in the context of the post-Christian, secular culture as we head into the twenty- rst century. Ben Edson began his work with the community as a Church Army evangelist. Being paid created “both the best and worst,” Edson says. On the one hand it provided the availability and accountability needed to ensure something new happened as part of the city-wide regeneration. On the other hand, it is always a challenge to struggle through community ownership and leadership expectations when someone is “set aside” and paid for ministry leadership. At Sanctus1 a core community lead through a diversity of gi s and soon a whole host of folks were part of making Sanctus1 a reality between the worship planning, the community engagement and partnership of the arts café. A er seven years of lay ministry, Ben Edson was ordained in 2008. But surprisingly, perhaps, Edson describes this transition as the “beginning of the way out” from Sanctus1. Every community eventually must struggle through leadership transitions, but it is not a common one among alt.worship/emerging church communities. And so as the Sanctus1 community nds itself transforming yet again, it will be pioneering not only a way forward in mission, but also a way forward towards the long-haul. In a recent report to the General Synod of the
Church of England, Graham Cray, missioner and team leader for Fresh Expressions, he called for commitment to these communities over the long haul: “To engage with those who have no knowledge of the faith, or apparent need of the Church, takes time. We are challenged to a long term incarnational ministry. e gradual separation of the church from the lives of so many has taken decades and the tide
will not be turned quickly.” How do we train, equip and release leadership into alternative communities? How do we prepare leadership for such highly contextual ministry? How do we create structures and processes which both support and honor the contextual, and missional needs of the community? ough these
communities have much to teach the wider church about leadership, these are questions that must still be wrestled through for the sake of such long term engagement.
V. Practicing the Art of Improvisation: Lessons om the Jazz Community
I used to think, How could jazz musicians pick notes out of then air? I had no idea of the knowledge it took. It was like magic to me at the time. — Calvin Hill.34
A metaphor is only as valuable as it is helpful. All ultimately speak of both a “yes” and a “no.” While I certainly do not intend to exhaust the metaphor of jazz beyond its helpfulness in thinking about how it is we, the Church, improvise with tradition, there are certainly lessons to be learned from the jazz community. For one thing, just as jazz is a contested word with no clear positive and exhaustive de nition, so to is alternative worship or even more the case emerging church. Alternative? Alternative to what? Emerging? Emerging om what and where is such a church emerging to? Of course these questions might be helpful to a point, however what is most important is the way such questions point to the relationality of Church. e relationship between tradition (given) and culture (unpredictable) is always
an intersection in which the Spirit is thoroughly at work, and so it is there that the Church must struggle to nd itself. And so just as jazz is not a singular style or intersection within music, but rather a family of musical styles, so to is emerging church.
34 Paul Berliner, Thinking in Jazz., 1.
ere is no ‘essential’ framework for emerging church
that any de nition could contain. And yet because a family is de ned by its relationships to one another there is enough common features and relationships to refer to the collective on the whole as emerging church. e failure to understand both the diversity and the limits of the movement label as such has
o en been responsible for premature and uninformed dismissals of the gi s it has to o er the wider church. In the following section, I will outline a series of insights and propositions derived from the jazz community and its tradition of improvisation. e underlying assumption to my argument here is that e subjective nature of lived experience creates
Christianity is too, in fact, a tradition of improvisation.
such a reality and so there can be either faithful improvisation or unfaithful improvisation. Tradition that is meant to be primarily kept and not given away is in fact unfaithful improvisation. However, tradition that is meant primarily to be given away, as a gi , already contains the faithful response of grace in which the Christian story nd its center.
e Emerging Church Movement as Educational Community When Paul Berliner speaks of the jazz community as an educational system, he says, “Young musicians typically nd points of entry into their local community within the intersecting domains of neighborhoods and public schools where they seek out knowledgeable peers who share their musical passion.”35 In the jazz community it is a myth that jazz is the development of largely uneducated musicians — quite the opposite is true. e community itself has been deeply impacted by both those
with highly educated backgrounds, mostly in classical Western music, and also by highly experimental styles rooted far outside any formal education. And yet Berliner speaks of a generous outpouring of relationships as the pivotal process of education within the jazz tradition. From informal study sessions and apprenticeships to jam sessions in important neighborhoods — in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York for example — to sitting in at concerts and the willingness of all the jazz legends to embrace a
35 Ibid., 37.
culture of risk with its up and coming artists all contributed to a process that Berliner calls “hangin’ out and jammin’.” e result is an open and largely supportive atmosphere, but it is also one that puts the
responsibility on the learner. Berliner argues,
e value the jazz community puts on person responsibility is especially appropriate for the artistic growth of initiates...It enhances their powers for critical evaluation, cultivates their tastes, and provides them with an early sense of their own individuality. Overall, the jazz community’s educational system sets the students on a path of development directly related to their goal: the creation of a unique improvisational voice within the jazz tradition.36
What would such a vision open up for the possibilities of religious education? What if religious education, as modeled by the emerging church movement, sought to create such an “unique improvisational voice” within the Christian tradition and did so by embracing both an openness to mentoring and embraced the widest diversity of paths to such improvisational expressions? If our theology of the priesthood of all believers was improvised in this way, every adult would become an elder who room for aspiring improvisers to sit-in and learn side-by-side from their life-stories. Similarly, if our goal was truly to create unique expressions of our tradition, perhaps we would embrace the fullest spectrum of diverse gi s and ordain them all, not just gi s of public speaking (“preaching”) or worship leader (“priest” as ritual choreographers). Perhaps this would require altogether new forms of theological education. Perhaps our mass-production processes leading to ordination and standardized degrees programs in theological schools would have to be abandoned for a system that actually encourage innovation, creativity and experimentation. At minimum, theological education would have to include signi cant opportunities to practice innovation, creativity, and experimentation alongside mentors. In the U.K., one might argue, the emerging church movement is already on its way towards creating such a reality. For example, Jonny Baker, in his role with Church Mission Society is working
36 Ibid., 59.
alongside a team of educators and creatives to develop a lay pioneering training recognized fully by the Church of England’s Fresh Expressions initiative. Valuing both good theology and missional leadership, the training would seek to mobilize a whole new generation of leadership into diverse contextualized missions. Similarly, alt. worship services at the Greenbelt Festival have long been a source of both inspiration and celebration. Communities showcase best practices in creativity, multimedia and cultural interpretations. It is in e ect a hermeneutical showcase of improvisational mission. Finally, when I traveled in January of 2010 to the U.K. to conduct the eld research portion of this study, I was welcomed into the alt. worship community itself. Opportunities for rich conversation with some of the most veteran leaders of the movement were immediately open doors. I drank so much tea and co ee — tokens of their posture towards hospitality — that I was caught o guard with no way to return the gestures. I was in e ect hangin’ out and jammin’ alongside all of the great improvisers of worship and mission. is atmosphere of openness and generosity is exactly the kind of community that will be
required to cultivate innovation, creativity and risk.
Improvisation & Style: Many Voices, Many Positionings Since we have discussed the emerging church as a ‘family’ of alternative expressions of church at the intersection of tradition and culture, it should only follow that we discuss some of those ‘styles’ more thoroughly. If one were to think of a continuum of alignment with the o cial structures of authority attached any particular tradition, there might be those carefully connected to the perceived center on the one end continuing out towards the margins with the furthest stretching and blurring the lines of even the most vague relational connects to such power structures, you would have a decent tool for understanding the range of styles of emerging church (see Figure 1).37 When compared to the jazz community, such a spectrum can be observed ranging from the classic popular artist of the recording
37 Such a continuum is, of course, only helpful in the context of the aforementioned question: What is this community emerging from
and where is it emerging too? Nonetheless, such a continuum can be observed. The examples here are derived with advantage of the more continuous religiosity of the U.K. as mentioned in the introduction.
industry — Count Bassie, Ella Fitgerald, and Duke Ellington — to the more avant garde and experimental — such as elonius Monk, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. While the impact of such
experiments ultimately paid o making such names notable in their own right, they are all seen as innovators in their day. ose styles with the closest alignment with the structures of authority may nd themselves in such a position out of an intentional commitment to historical Christianity. Such is true of the “new monastic” style or stream articulated by Ian Mobsby and practiced by communities such as Moot (London) and mayBe (Oxford). In the case of Moot, Mobsby’s ordination and current role as priestmissioner strengthen such a commitment. Similarly, the community’s practice of committing to the Rhythm of Life before the Bishop of London could be seen as an intentional alignment. Another possibility altogether may be a matter of progress on the part of the movement on a whole. Such is true of Sanctus1 and its use of a bishop’s mission order, a possibility only a er the Mission Shaped Church report and the establishment of the national Fresh Expressions initiative. In both these circumstances the improvisation is happening the way they practice community life or engage in mission. eir
leadership structures, their spaces, or their worship practices may not improvised toward great departures from the tradition. ose styles furthest removed from such structures similarly may nd themselves in such a positioning out of intentional break with the tradition or as a matter of circumstance. For example Vaux (London),38 had no connection at all to a diocese, a parish, a priest, a bishop, or anything else of the sorts. Kester Brewin, co-founder of Vaux, describes themselves primarily as “worship architects” design spaces for that can be engaged for worship.39 Notice here a step part from even Grace which would say its services follows a basic outline of the order of worship (however loose that be) and which
38 Vaux was not ofﬁcially a part of the research study as the services not longer happen. Kester Brewin, co-founder, was however a
part of the supporting qualitative interviews.
39 Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 249-250.
understands itself as a “congregation of St. Mary’s church.”40 Typically such a position opens wide the possibility of improvisation with any element of community life, worship, mission, and leadership. In short, nothing is exempt from innovation, re-imagining and improvisation. ough there may be substantial di erences between a community like Moot and a community like Vaux, there is also a continuous thread that intimately links the two. Both are (were) passionately committed to the Anglican Church and its improvisation at the intersection of tradition and culture. Such a continuous thread is important in understanding that both the ethos of Moot and Vaux — as opposite ends on a continuum — push forward as the Church by ultimately reaching backward. Both are ultimately ancient-future expressions of Church in a particular missional context.41 Additionally, in that deep commitment to improvisation, both are equally commitment to that practice of giving away the tradition. ese two together are the connection threads that make the similarities enough to be
considered ‘family.’ In the jazz community, there has been a great e ort to show the connections and relationships along the way as the styles have evolved again and again. Peter Townsend argues, “Instrumentalists de ne their own styles by closeness to or distance from exemplars of their instrument, seeing themselves as ‘descended from’ a particular musician in a quasi-familial pattern, or as modelling themselves upon a chosen example.”42 Similarly, Paul Berliner points to John McNeil’s genealogy of trumpet players from the years 1943-1993. is graph (see appendix A), identi es sixteen sources, or key players, and over
forty addition well-know performers who’s styles can be easily and intentionally identi ed with its source. But what is the usefulness of such a continuum? Drawing from the opening Wynton Marsailis quote, improvisation not, as it turns out about doing anything desired. It is a carefully structured process
40 Jenny Baker, public presentation, ReSource Weekend. 41 For the sake of the illustration the context shared between Vaux and Moot is the city of London. And yet at the same time, context
also means careful attention to audience, past experiences and so forth.
42 Peter Townsend, Jazz in American Culture, 30.
that needs to be done with careful study.
e ability to identity the diversity on the spectrum is
important for honoring the full range of faithful improvisations, but it is also helpful when others wanting to learning the art of improvisation can nd their own unique voice. Strategies for improvisation include imitation, embellishment, variations on a common theme, and connections made what has already been done and what may be possible. is is precisely why so many in the U.K.
alternative worship movement name the Greenbelt Festival as a signi cant inspiration. It is here that connections are made and cross-pollination is celebrated.
Figure 1 Most closely aligned w/ authority structures. Moot Dream Visions Sanctus1 Vaux Grace Furthest departed from authority structures.
Practices of Improvisation in Worship In conclusion, I proposed a series of eight practices of improvisation with tradition. Each of these has its roots in one or more of the communities in the U.K. Here I present them in brief and somewhat vague format. e idea here is that each givens ample space for broad application. Some of
these practices are designed for worship planning groups, creative teams or similar groups who plan worship while others are broader in scope. e purpose is to foster an imagination for improvisation
recognizing that though everyone has the potential to be creative, we must start with what we know already — and so we start with worship on this basis.
1. Write Your Own Liturgy // Many (if not most) of the emerging churches have a community practice of writing their own liturgy with images, metaphors, visual references, and language indigenous to their own location (think social location, geographic location, denominational location). Even starting with elements of the worship o en not typically seen as “sacred,” can open up space for
e prayers of the people, the invocation or the benediction all o er fairly
non-abrasive way in to creative prayer. 2. Encourage the Artist(s) // In the Church of modernity, rationalism dominated. Making room for the voice of the artist to be heard, seen or felt inspired creativity. Artists know better than us nonartists that exposure to creative thinking fuels further creative thought. among emerging churches in a wide range of ways. creativity. 3. Practice Storytelling // e practice of telling the story of a community’s life together evokes shared e arts are encouraged
e result is a creative atmosphere, a culture of
memories as well as critical re ections. At times such a community practice even raises a diversity of perspectives about that shared history! Emerging churches have made a habit of telling their stories. At Greenbelt, resource weekends and in collaboration with local community partners. 4. Imitate Someone Who Inspires You // Imitation is a powerful tool for improvisation. It is a practice of careful and intentional study. Even when taking careful considering to imitate and replicate, new connections and insights are made. Doing the same routine in a new place invites creative thinking and deeper attention to context. It won’t matter the medium, so think broadly here. 5. Visit Art Galleries // ough it may seem odd, there is much that can be learned from experiencing
well laid out and well curated art exhibits. Paying attention to ow, lighting, presentation of the art and background information presented can provide new ways for thinking about creativity.43 6. Create Boundaries and Limits // O en it is harder to be creative with absolute freedom. Rather than starting with a blank canvas, choose an element of liturgy (or other aspect/event of community life) and create intentional boundaries to work within. For example, many of the emerging churches were limited to the presence of only lay people. is meant that their sacramental practices had to be
creative with other areas of the service — such as creating prayer stations.
43 At Grace, Jonny Baker has developed much thinking on “curating worship.” Every Grace service is led by a “curator.” The idea
here is that when good curation happens, you experience the difference and yet no one ever knows or realizes who the curators of any exhibit are. Good curation is felt more than noticed on the surface.
7. Do Less, Simplify // Similar to creating boundaries, limiting the content to the bare minimum o en produces a more creative setting. Create a special seasonal service (Advent, Lent, for example) with the bare minimum. Use the same scripture multiple weeks in a row or use the same prayer repetitiously but in slightly di erent way. ough many alt. worship services are intricate, many
participants o en choose a single prayer station or opportunity to express themselves. 8. Create a Change of Scenery // O en times when we are dislocated, we nd ourselves with a new awareness of our surroundings. Changing the location (be intentional here) of where worship or another community life event is help to re-imagine what the possibilities are. A change of scenery was responsible for both Transcendence (Visions, York) and for a new rhythms of community life at Grace.
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