Imagine the scene...it is the year 800, and you are a simple peasant visiting one of the first of the great cathedrals of Christendom. You leave the cold, dirty, dung encrusted streets, and gasp as you enter a building of great beauty, with diffuse light streaming through the stained glass windows.
Priests and acolytes in fabulous robes process up through the great space. Incense fills the air in great clouds, punctuated by pools of candle-light. Music drifts from the choir. As the act of worship progresses there is a crescendo of noise, and the ringing of bells. You, the humble peasant, are lifted out of the dreariness of your daily existence into a fabulous world of colour, music, smells, and visual stimuli. Your senses are used the highest possible degree that would have been possible in the medieval world. You feel, for a while, that you have glimpsed heaven.
1200 years later, in many churches, the patterns of the Roman Mass have little changed - and as we all know, familiarity breeds contempt. The colours, smells, sounds and drama of the whole event have become commonplace, and as a result, for many...empty. In some churches, partly as a reaction to that feeling of emptiness, the drama has been entirely stripped away. Ministers wear suits, not robes. Incense is banned. Words replace drama in a more literate age which has somehow forgotten the power of drama. Some churches have become as plain as shopping centres, and as dull as cinemas... with harder seats. And people don't come any more.
But, along comes a movement determined to rescue us from dull, undramatic, word-driven worship. The Alternative Worship movement (also known as 'alt.worship') is setting out to the use the best sensory experiences that the modern world has given us, and to use them to give glory to God. Video, popular music played loud and with power, drama, the return of incense and other smells - scented candles, joss sticks - the use of touchable materials (stone, wood, water)...all combine to recreate for the modern 'peasant' a sense of occasion, a separation from the humdrum... a glimpse, perhaps, of heaven.
If you are someone for whom church has become boring and empty in its current form, let me tell you about two opportunities which are coming up.
1) Next Sunday: (the 25th of March), in the Parish Hall in Emsworth (directions on request), I shall be leading a 'Wordless Eucharist'. This is a Communion Service which will be conducted entirely without words, but which will be crammed full of symbolism and sensory experience... designed to take us beyond words, and into experiencing something of God in a very different way. All are welcome (from any denomination) and, because it will be wordless, from any language! Tell your friends.
2) The following Sunday (Palm Sunday - 1st April) at St Thomas the Apostle Church, Elson Road /Elson Lane (Gosport) - my colleague Fr. Simon Rundell, will be leading an alt.worship event. More details can be found at www.blessed.org.uk
Why not take one of these two opportunities to experience worship in a new and exciting way...and who knows...perhaps to experience God in a new and exciting way too.
Let me know what it does for you...if you are able to come.