I’m reading Jonny Baker’s book on curating worship (see link below), which makes the distinction between leading worship and creating spaces where people can come together and bring the content / be the content in participative ways. It is a paradigm shift to how church is led in the mainstream, and how we are expected to worship as congregations, with someone else setting the agenda. In most churches, there is a tiny tiny amount of participation, limited to standing up to sing every now and again, and perhaps in Pentecostal environments, shouting “Amen!” or “Preach it!” occasionally!
In Anglican liturgy most services are framed to allow fixed responses from the church, although some of the Eucharistic prayers contain only optional responses. At one I attended recently the priest omitted any responses, which I found completely frustrating. So how do we orchestrate and create environments where encounter can happen, sharing and opening up of the self to God in wonder and worship, that are honest and have integrity and are not coercing people towards ‘the right answers’ but do enable connection and deep encounter? Much of the answer is about context – who is it that will be coming? What are their living environments and life circumstances? What cultural references and metaphors will make sense to them as a starting point and where is it helpful to subvert those assumptions and surprise, distract, confuse?
Jonny draws many parallels with the world of art and emphasises the role of the curator as the person who draws an audience, by building trust with them so they expect integrity and challenge in the environment they are entering. This, according to the latest research by Prof Linda Woodhead, is what the church has lost – especially among the young. So curating (pioneering) needs to have a strategy to get people in, to consider the issues and challenges.
Jonny also discusses how many curators work freelance in order to preserve themselves from the compromises that may be made by galleries or museums, institutions with agendas that might muddy the more free expression of the artists. This is a particular issue for ordained pioneer ministers to think about, as they have to straddle the agendas and at times compromised world of the institution, in this case the Church, and the culture that they hope to reach. He cites Robert Stoor of the Museum of Modern Art who “reflects on how curators were once criticising the institutions but now find themselves on the inside of the establishment and only have themselves to blame if the tradition is not renewed – ‘If the art world is not responsive to the needs and achievements of the artists there are all kinds of people to blame for that but mostly we must blame ourselves’, and he appeals for working creatively with the institutions rather than working reactively against them.”
He follows this thread to talk about the need to create trust and it is true that pioneers have to fight hard to build that trust with the inherited church – and within the culture. Experimentation and newness cannot emerge without this building block of trust; instead there will be infighting and discord which will shower relationships with further toxicity. The skills of turning the other cheek and praying in faith will be much called upon in the early stages.
Curator Okwui Enwezor discusses curating beyond the canon as an artist, the canon already having “a highly circumscribed notion of what artistic practice could be. I think it is already embedded within a very large historical determination that is in many ways very much set. It is un-giving. I am really interested in curating within culture, even when I am drawing from the canon in order to unsettle the kind of methodological issues that have become so situated within one place.”
This is very interesting for us as the ‘Canons’ of the CofE are fixed in law and when we are ordained we agree to curate worship within them, and yet they are very prohibitive on some points that will prevent us from inculturating worship in ways that meet the needs of the locale and the people there.
However Enwezor also brings into the open what happens when the pioneer becomes drawn into the system: “When their ambitions change, when they want to become more institutionalised, they want to prove their commitment to the canon…the curators have already reached a threshold where they want to have a permanent job.”
This is a dichotomy facing many at present, given the lack of paid pioneer posts advertised in the church, and yet the church continues to train pioneers who want to change and challenge the system. Many end up going into parish posts that may have an element of experiment in mission in order to survive financially but are back within the mainstream of the institution and where the Canons must be obeyed. The Church may pay lip service to pioneering, and may want the growth and energy that comes from it, but it has not undertaken a significant enough restructure to have made provision for the new ways of curating worship to reach new groups who will not accept their own lack of influence and participation.
Jonny’s book s hugely helpful in teasing out where power lies and how this can change. The lens of art overlaid with church life is brilliantly instructive too – think about what it was like to visit a museum in the 70’s. Artefacts and treasures behind glass, labelled and protected. Just like the Eucharist in the church. Compare that to the interactive discovery based museums of today, and pioneering.