Rodney Schofield gets in step with all that is new, life-enhancing and forward-looking

IT WAS TO BE my first liturgical dance. Curiosity rather than excitement was, I think, the emotion I experienced most acutely at the time. It was all rather unexpected, in point of fact, because the programme listed “evensong” at this juncture, and apart from the lesson reader making his or her solemn journey to the lectern, that is not a service I had previously associated with Dionysian frenzy.

Once, at the diocesan clergy conference, a troupe of middle-aged ladies clad in black lycra had joined our chapel proceedings, but I remain uncertain to this day whether their performance could be described as “dancing”. I leave it to others more familiar with this genre to judge. A maypole had been attached to the altar, and round it were wrapped a number of multi-coloured ribbons. Otherwise the altar was bare, and for good reason, as we soon discovered. We had all travelled a long way to our destination, and so the service began with the ministry of the word. It was suggested that there were things on our minds that might be troubling us, so why not unburden our souls by writing down the problem on a piece of paper (provided, together with a pencil). The dancing ladies collected these from each row, and laid all our problems in one large cardboard box which was then placed on the holy table, where it remained. Later on, I presumed, someone would come along and place the contents reverently in the dustbin, along with the kitchen waste. But now the pace quickened. The ladies advanced and retired several times in the aisles, before boldly seizing the ribbons on the maypole, which they then stretched out to all quarters of the congregation. The idea was, I believe, that every person present should be able to catch hold of a ribbon, thus being symbolically united with the central pole. I cannot recall quite whether any deeper point was being made, but others with more poetry in them may have found it a richly rewarding experience.

At that earlier event, I was but an onlooker. Now at the ordinands’ retreat, on the eve of the cathedral service, I was to be actively a participant. For morning and evening prayer, it is our custom for the candidates themselves to take it in turns to officiate. Those with little imagination use the texts from one of the authorised prayer books, but the more advanced theological colleges encourage their students to be creative. Colin on this occasion had pushed back all the chairs, so that we (including the Bishop) could sit on the carpeted floor in a circle. We held none of the usual distracting books or papers in our hands. Before starting the tape on his cassette recorder, Colin explained the liturgy of the day. We were to stand up, hold hands, and then in time to the music were to take one step in towards the centre, one step out again, one to the left and two to the right. I quickly realised (with my mathematical training) that the net result would leave us all having moved one place to the right around the circle.

We were to continue, Colin said, until we were back in our original positions. So off we went, to rather sad and haunting Indian music, in which the sitar backed a singer who might well (for all I knew) have been extolling the virtues of Krishna. It was certainly a language unfamiliar to me, and looking round I suspected that not even the Bishop was conversant with this tongue. However, these are ecumenical times, and perhaps we should be generous in hearing some of the treasures of other faiths.

Finally (after perhaps ten minutes, for it was a long way round the room), we stopped, and everybody sang a Graham Kendrick song. The lesson reader stepped forward, offering two verses from a Gospel, and we rounded off the office with another Kendrick number. It was much easier, I can safely report, than waltzing, tangoing or morris dancing, although once more I think I failed to appreciate the spiritual nuances.

Circles do seem to be popular in the West Country. At a gathering of “sector’ ministers, our worship was led by an educational expert. Once again we sat in the round while the ritual was introduced. A sapling had been uprooted from the roadside, and was placed in a colourful Christmas tree support – in the very centre of us all. Sheets of paper were issued, which we then had to tear and to fold as instructed. On the bottom flap we had to write a meaningful expression about our work, then the flap was glued down (pritsticks were distributed) and sealed: our secrets were to be kept confidential!

At this point a Graham Kendrick song was sung, and one by one we were to tiptoe forward and hang our paper “flowers” on the branches of the tree. I chose to opt out, because I lack skills of co-ordination, and my “flower” looked too much like a hand grenade: I could sense at once the symbolism would have been jeopardised.

When the last “flower” was in place, the music stopped. There before us was a previously bare tree now covered with secret messages. We paused meaningfully and looked at it. Then we sang another Kendrick song, and so into the agenda for the rest of the day.

Why, by comparison, is the material coming before General Synod from the Liturgical Commission so prosaic and wordy? Are they simply out of sync with Anglicans at the cutting edge of worship? Why use words when liturgical origami can say it for you? Why not give body language a chance instead, and let sacred dance call the tune? Where is the touch and the feel that really modern Christians find meaningful? Joining hands and sitting in circles is surely the essence of worship as the people want it: when will the liturgical establishment take note?

Rodney Schofield is Diocesan Director of ordinands in the diocese of Bath and Wells.