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Holy Theatre, Holy Worship

By John Stroyan

In the earliest days of human expression and communication, religion and art were integrally related, indeed inseparable in the seeking, finding, and expressing of meaning. Every human being, made in the image of the Creator God, is made to be creative. Creativity is the gift and expression of the creating and creative Holy Spirit in us. The arts express beauty, truth and goodness, evoking not simply thought but feeling (head and heart).

Before I was ordained, I was involved in the arts, particularly in theatre, directing and writing. It was in the 1970s that I first came across Peter Brook’s seminal book The Empty Space. I read it then as bringing immense wisdom and insight to the meaning, purpose, and possibilities of theatre. Now, after some years of ordained ministry, I find his insights and his questions deeply pertinent for the Church today and what we are offering in worship.

Brook has been described as Britain’s “greatest living theatre director,” and many others would say he is the world’s greatest theatre director. I do not know his faith position, but as a seeker of truth, as one who sees the potential of theatre to change lives and even societies, he seeks to communicate “the invisible through the visible” (his phrase).

This is also the calling of the Christian Church. As missional Christians, we are called to consider the perspective of those who have a sense that there is more to life than the visible, who are hungry for a transcendent dimension, but who have not found it or would not expect to find it in Church of England (or other Christian) worship.

So, I ask the question: If people are not encountering God among us or in our worship, why? Might it be that we have allowed the Church to be centered on itself, as if the Church existed for its own sake? The important thing about the Church is not the Church, but God and God’s love for the world. Have we ourselves become too self-referential? Consider this warning from S.T. Coleridge:

He who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth will proceed by loving his own Church better than Christianity and end by loving himself better than all. Aids to Reflection.

These words resonate powerfully for me if — and only if — we take “Christianity” here to mean what humans have done with the Christian faith, rather than Christ himself, in whom, we Christians believe, is all truth, and who calls us through the Holy Spirit into the truth that sets us free.

Have we lost something of this dynamism in our understanding and practice of the faith? Have we settled for comfort as our goal and let go of the transformation into which we are invited? Do we expect or even want to be changed by God? Do we truly want to grow?

In the Ordinal the Bishop enjoins those to be ordained to pray earnestly for the Holy Spirit that “your heart may daily be enlarged and your minds enlightened by the reading of the Scriptures.” This surely, though differently, in the economy of God, is what art does, whether it be music, painting, sculpture, poetry, performance, or literature. It enlarges our hearts and enlightens our minds. Both the arts and worship serve to help us grow up in the truth. There is — or certainly should be — something transformative or dynamic at work. We should leave the theatre (and worship) different from how we came in. But is this so? Does this happen?

Brook’s first chapter is entitled “Deadly Theatre,” which he argues not only fails to elevate or instruct, it reinforces prejudice, it affirms stereotypes, it avoids seeing, it does not instruct or challenge… We go to theatre to take us out of ourselves, for a glimpse of transcendence, of the beyond. We leave not satisfied.

How many people go to Church to encounter God? How many people go to Church hungry for God and leave not satisfied? How many people hungry for God are looking elsewhere?

True worship needs not so much endless re-inventions of style, but the Holy Spirit. As Jesus tells us, true worship is worship in Spirit and in truth. It needs the beyond to break into our midst. Composers, artists, and writers know that for a work of art to be born, something new has to break in, something that was not already formed in the mind or imagination of the artist. Something needs to be given: inspiration.

Artists offer their gifts, their discipline, their imagination, their hard work. They offer the best that they have to give, but still something more is needed that they cannot provide, something that is beyond them, something that is “gift.”

If so much theatre is deadly, to what does Brook aspire? He longs for what he calls “Holy Theatre,” which is “Theatre of the Invisible made Visible.” This is sacramental language, the beyond breaking into our midst. Brook writes: “Holy Theatre takes us out of ourselves, it gives us a glimpse of what could be and what we could be.” Shouldn’t worship and preaching also give us “a glimpse of what could be and what we could be”?

When we come to worship, when we come to Holy Theatre, we come into a crucible of transformation, giving ourselves to the experience, making space for God’s recreating work in us.

A “holy theatre” should also be “a theatre of joy.” How much of our worship brings or is suffused with joy? Returning to Brook, he writes, “We do not know how to celebrate because we do not know what to celebrate” (my italics). As Christians do we truly celebrate Jesus, the Joy-Bringer? Do we open our lives to the One who is the truth who will expose and challenge what is not true in us? My recent experience of worship in Kenya was a wonderful witness to knowing both how to celebrate and whom to celebrate.

If Holy Theatre gives us a vision of what could be and what we could be, it needs to be both visionary and prophetic. It needs to disturb our tendency to deadliness, to “living and only partly living,” to quote the Chorus in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. It needs to wake us up.

Brook writes of the extraordinary playwright, Antonin Artaud: “What he wanted in his search for holiness was absolute. He wanted a theatre that would be a hallowed place where the audience could be shocked into action and leave behind the trivial.”

So where, asks Brook, should we look for this Holy Theatre? In “The Rough Theatre,” a theatre without chandeliers, without comfortable plush red seats, without programs and refreshments and without clever tricks or illusions. This theatre is earthed and earthy, it is characterized by salt, sweat, and noise. It is the theatre of blood, sweat, and tears. We might say it is incarnational. God, who is the truth is with us in the mess, the pain, the struggles of actual life. Theology begins where the pain is, as Kenneth Leech put it. This is the theatre that is outside the theatre. This is the God who is not containable by the Church.

Brook goes on to say that “we cannot assume that the audience will assemble devoutly and attentively.” Long gone, I hope, are the days when we assume that people will simply come to us. Instead, as missional Christians, we know it is our responsibility to go out and to meet people where they are.

Brook continues, “It is up to us to capture [the audience’s] attention and compel its belief… To do so we must open our empty hands and roll up our sleeves. Only then we can begin.” This echoes for me the poverty of spirit with which we must approach both God and worship.

Finally, what of us who lead worship? Brook writes of the conductor of an orchestra: “We are aware that he is not really making the music, it is making him. If he is relaxed, open and attuned then the invisible will take possession of him and through him it will reach us.” We too surely need to be attuned to the movement of the Holy Spirit, sensitive to the Spirit’s leading.

Both the conductor and the orchestra need to inhabit the music and let the music inhabit them. In theatre both the director and the cast need to inhabit the script for it to come to life.

In worship, the leader, yes, needs to be attentive to the movement of the Holy Spirit, but within and beyond that, needs the Word of God (Jesus) and the words of God to inhabit her/him. We are to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly (Col. 3:16). In doing so, we give space for God to act in his transforming presence and power.

The Rt. Rev. John Stroyan is Bishop of Warwick.

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