Daniel Gullotta attended the Common Dreams 2 Conference held in Melbourne between 15th and 18th April 2010. In today's reflection his focus is on a liturgy event held at the Conference led by Gretta Vosper, chair of the Canadian Center for Progressive Christianity, which was not worship in our traditional understanding and which did not even mention the names of God. His essay provides an insight into other ways in which people seek to be religious or spiritual.
Worship without the 'G' Word...
Recently I experienced a service unlike any other I have previously taken part in. I was in Melbourne for the Common Dreams 2 Conference, a conference about living the Progressive Religious Dream. It brought together people from all over Australia and from various parts of the world to discuss, listen, learn, and engage progressive ideas, stories, and worship. The keynote speaker was Gretta Vosper, pastor of West Hill United Church in Toronto, Canada, founder and chair of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity and author of With or Without God, and the conference concluded with her leading the members of the conference in a service of progressive religious expression entitled Common Dreams. I wish to reflect on my time at the conference and that form of worship, exploring the content and structure of the service, evaluating the elements, themes, and underlying theology used as well noting other key aspects of the service.
As Common Dreams 2 was a conference that included people of various faith traditions and religious expressions, the service was not designed to be explicitly Christian but neither was it a multi-faith service. Rather it was designed to be an inclusive service designed to gather people together to open themselves to inspiration. The theme of the conference was all about living the progressive religion dream in "our" common dreams, and the service embraced the conference's theme as its own. Vosper welcomed the people gathered with words of encouragement, opening with a quote by Oscar Wilde relevant to the theme, "A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world". Working in the space of St. Kilda Town Hall, a supported candle was positioned in the middle of the stage with Vosper and the Readers standing to the right hand side of the stage close to the microphone and lectern.
Rather than a Eucharistic meal, the service focused on "The Laying of the Circle of the World". A rite that used different coloured robes, candles, and cloth to highlight different emotions, experiences, passions, pains, and dreams we share as a spiritual human family. As each direction and element was named, the appropriately coloured cloth was forwarded by different members of the conference and placed, with a candle at the corresponding "corner" of the earthen rope, after this, the candle was lit. The congregation first turned and faced the north, the season of summer, element of water, the name of love and the colour blue. Than east, the season of spring, the name of wisdom and the colour white. Afterwards, we turned south meaning the season of winter, the element of earth, the name of mystery, the colour green. Finally we faced west, the season of autumn, the element of fire, the name of beauty, and the colour red. With all these symbols, elements, seasons, and colours, the "Circle of the World" was complete and we were asked to embrace them all as a part of our common dreams.
As each of the cloths and candles were brought forth and in between the time when the next set was presented, Gretta Vosper led the congregation in a liturgy focusing and exploring that which was being offered to the "Circle". The most striking aspect of the service was that the words, God, Christ, Scripture, and other such traditional religious words were never used. Rather, Vosper focused on what she calls "spiritually inclusive language". She believes that "we crawl underneath the titles and names used for god, find the essence of what we believe is worthy of being named in sacred space, and bring it forward." Due to what religious progressives have labelled "theological baggage", words like "heavenly father" or "holy mother" suffers from too many shortcomings, misunderstandings, personal hurt and theological limits. In this endeavour Vosper views that "non-gender specific terms are essential in all areas of the church" because of their exclusive nature. Ms Vosper wore no "liturgical garb", as she calls it, understanding vestments them to be dividing force within religion. The hymns were a mixture of old classic set to new and more progressive lyrics as well as new songs written and played by Gretta Vosper's husband, Scott Kearns. The focal hymn was a reworking the classic hymn "Be Thou My Vision", replacing some of its lines with such lyrics as:
"Wake, now, my reason,
The sermon was brief, perhaps due to the length of time the forming of the "Circle of the Earth" took or because Vosper had run out of things to say after three keynote addresses; however it was to the point. Vosper in her sermon focused on us, as people and as religious people, as becoming an inspiration to those around us in all fields and walks of life and how we must go out and inspire the world. Vosper argued that it would be our actions and deeds that would inspire, not our beliefs, nor doctrines, nor creeds, nor dogmas, or anything else associated with our personal faith. She drove home a message of faith-in-action, and action-for-the-sake-of-action rather than faith. The sermon was interrupted from time to time for an opportunity to sing a song or to pause and mediate on the images being presented on the projector, images like statues, forests, children playing, the sun, etc.
Before the service there was nothing really, besides the single central candle on stage, to suggest that we were entering and engaging with a sacred space. The weakness of this was evident in the time it took people to stop talking when they re-entered the conference room. However, we did create a sacred space in the forming of the "Circle of the World". As all the symbols and cloths were being brought forward, and as the music and liturgy began to carry the service, the space was transformed into a holy place. My problem with the space is that the main focus of the service was to form the "Circle" and yet the chairs and stage were not organized in a circular fashion. I believe this would have made the turns to each of the directions of north, south, east, and west, much more effective, as well as the emphasizing the centrality of the "Circle of the World".
The texts selected all held with the theme of Common Dreams, with texts being used by Oscar Wilde, Johann Von Goethe, Genesis 1:1, Carl Sagan, as well as Cicero. All of these texts were used effectively in illustrating the common dreams we have, emphasizing the things that unite us as religious people, rather than divide us. Vosper, while having what many a clergy-person and theologian has with the Bible, a love-hate relationships believes that Bible should not be made special or central when there are other and even more appropriate readings that can be found in spiritual writings, philosophies, sacred texts from other traditions, literature, drama, music, contemporary novels, poetry, and so on and so forth. According to Vosper the, "readings must be held up against those ideals to which we aspire and agree. If they do not meet them, they are not worthy of being brought into our religious gatherings." As this was a spiritually inclusive and progressive Christian service the use of multiple texts was a wise decision and rich symbol of our unity with our diversity. All of the texts kept with the theme and added in carrying the service, making the theme of common dreams all the more visible and effective.
The prayers at the end were not directed to "God" but were rather statements of what has happened and what we hope will happen in the future, such as, "May we be the communal breath that lifts and shapes our common dreams holding before us the vision of a world in which the beauty born in our hearts is lived into our lives, lived into all life, and we, too, shimmer in the light of a new day." The words were encouraging and engaging, but confusing as well. Who were the prayers directed at? Who or what was the source of the power of these prayers? Sadly, to me, without direct mention of God, they only seemed like nice words with a nice meaning, but did not contain the power to be transformative and prayerful.
It was clear from the beginning to the end that the image of God being invoked, although never named as such, was one of non-theism. Vosper clearly stands in the theological framework of people like Dietrich Bonheoffer, Paul Tillich, John A. T. Robinson, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and John Shelby Spong. Progressive Christianity moves beyond traditional forms and expressions of worship because of the so-called "theological baggage" they bring. For example, the very phrase "prayers of intercession" suggests that God can intercede on our behalf, or perhaps even our command. Spong makes the Progressive Christian line clear that,
"There is no parental deity watching over us from who we can expect help. There is no deity whom we can flatter into acting favourably or manipulate by being good... There is also no way that life can be made to be fair or that a divine figure can be blame for its unfairness."
Progressive Christianity generally regards theistic understandings of God and worship as being behaviour-controlling, that Christians worship such a deity in order to either seek divine favour or fearing divine retribution. Rather the Common Dreams service was very much in the style suggested by William Murray in which liturgy and worship "finds great value in human beings coming together in religious community to deepen their understandings, support and strengthen their values, celebrate life's passages, and work together for a better world."
Even without the words "God" and "Christ", because of my own walk of faith, being that of the Christian within the context of the Anglican Church of Australia, the service's music, words, and symbols spoke to me. Even without mentioning "God" I felt God's presence being illuminated throughout the service in words denoting love, wisdom, mystery, and beauty. Of course this type of service would not be for everyone, nor would it be the type of service I could attend every Sunday. Its vagueness was both powerfully appealing and yet confusingly difficult as well. Without prayers of intercession, or of words that gratitude towards a god-like figure or image, or a message from the gospel, many Christians, particularly evangelicals would not see the point in the service nor make sense of a lot of it.
Non-theistic religious expression in ritual and liturgy is still an on-going experiment within progressive Christianity. The difficulty facing such rituals were made clear in the Common Dreams service, with such problems as common language, symbols, songs, and rites, however its success was also made clear by the use of new and inclusive themes, ideas, and practices. The entire service was creative, attractive, easy to follow, and very engaging and contained elements that could be universally practiced. The Common Dreams service was a wonderfully engaging expression of following Christ without mentioning Christ and worshipping God without mentioning God.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?