The closing of churches over the past year has prompted many Christians to reflect on the importance of regular worship, and to debate the role of online services. The consensus is that the natural and proper form that religion takes is people congregating in church buildings.
I want to dissent, or half-dissent, from this. Not because I am a fan of online events, far from it. Rather, I want to question the assumption that real worship can only happen inside churches. It overlooks the fact that worship can also occur outdoors. Maybe the aftermath of the pandemic will be a time for some out-of-the-box thinking (literally) about this.
It’s a side of religion that has fascinated me for years. Of course most people are excited by large festive events, special days of celebration, whether secular or religious. But for me the excitement is a bit different: I have long felt that this is a really important area for religion, maybe even the key to its renewal in our time.
Let me offer a few glimpses of how my interest took root.
Glimpse 1: I saw a thrilling production of the medieval mystery plays. It was in a theatre, but it made me find out about the medieval tradition of biblical street-theatre that grew up around the the feast of Corpus Christi.
Glimpse 2: In central London one day with my young children, I chanced upon a Chinese New Year celebration in Trafalgar Square, with dancing dragons. We were handed percussion instruments and invited to join in, and it was fun.
Glimpse 3: On holiday in Spain, I visited the medieval city of Girona on Good Friday. It was a sort of stage-set, with Roman centurions on horseback and, as darkness fell, processions through the streets with painted statues and hooded penitents.
Glimpse 4: Leaving an Easter Day service, I had a sense of dissatisfaction: it felt no different from any other Sunday service, and now it was time to go home and have lunch and watch some sport maybe. But Jesus is risen. Why is there not a carnival to go to? Why aren’t Christians dancing in the streets?
It seemed that I had become interested in “ritual” – but not in the normal Anglican way, which means seeking a “higher” form of church service. I had caught an unusual strain of this bug. I was rather ambivalent about institutional church, but passionately interested in merging worship with carnival, spectacle, performance art. This influenced my understanding of modern theology: I began to see it as a major weakness of Protestantism that it turned away from public sacramentalism. I also tried to get involved in alternative worship and religious art.
My interest in public ritual has resurfaced in reaction to the privations of lockdown. So I thought I should put it in historical perspective. Is my hunch right that this is a whole side of religion that has fallen away in recent decades? Time to ask a few experts.
“I wouldn’t overstate its disappearance,” says historian professor Diarmaid MacCulloch. “There are the Walsingham national pilgrimages, both RC and Anglican, and I remember the papal mass at Coventry in 1982. But it’s true that there was a lot more going on in the past, right across the Protestant and Catholic spectrum. There were the chapel anniversary marches and Wakes Week pageants, and their passing is really about the collapse of the cultures that sustained them. The English equivalent to outdoor worship might be the church fête. And there’s always the weather.”
I get another weather report from Rowan Williams. “It’s not really about the weather. I don’t think the weather was better in the 18th century, when Daniel Rowland, one of the early leaders of the Welsh Methodist Revival, used to have literally thousands of people gathering out of doors at his monthly Communion services. So, yes, I think it is a very modern problem.
“I wonder if it’s that outdoor gatherings are harder to police: if you think congregational worship is first and foremost an occasion when you can give instruction to an attentive and fairly docile audience, outdoor events are just less controllable; you can’t be sure what’s happening on the fringes. Both Protestant and modern Catholic philosophies are hung up on getting a message across clearly. Maybe the more you think of worship as gathering around something miraculously given, the less you worry about this?”
One of the few public religion success stories of recent years comes from the home of England’s first martyr, St Alban. Every year since 2005 (barring pandemics) his story has been dramatised using huge puppets that parade through the streets of St Albans.
“People really missed it last year,” says the Reverend Canon Kevin Walton. “It’s become a major local event, a source of pride in our history. There’s a buzz as the big day approaches, especially among young people.” It’s a civic event as well as a purely religious one, he tells me: “The lord mayor and other VIPs are there, and also the fire-brigade – they provide the miraculous spring that’s part of St Alban’s story, as told by Bede.”
Imagine if this sort of thing caught on and changed the image of religious worship. It’s an exciting thought – that England’s first martyr is still sowing seeds.
Theo Hobson is an author, journalist and theologian. His book God Created Humanism: The Christian Basis of Secular Values