Rockets and Reform

Just a few days ago, the church was commemorating and even celebrating the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On 5th November, England remembers (for she knows no reason why it should be forgot) a direct consequence of that Reformation process.

No revolution or reformation is without its casualties and in 17th century Jacobean England there were plenty on both sides.

Remember, remember the fifth of November; gunpowder treason and plot. We see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.

The violent tension between Protestants and Catholics fuels the volatile motive to religious terrorism in the gunpowder plot; the complex relationship between church and state forms the heart of the potentially explosive means; the state opening of Parliament by King James I on 5th November 1605 provides the opportunity.

Groups of Christians at war over political power. Groups of religious extremists ready and willing to torture and kill those who disagreed with their beliefs.

How then should the church mark this occasion? With the customary pyrotechnic reminder that the plot failed and Catholics remained second class citizens (until relatively recently!) or by reenacting the burning at stakes of those who would rather die than deny their religious principles? (Of course Guy Fawkes was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason rather than burned at the stake for heresy!)

The church is often quick to condemn the dark connotations of All Hallows’ Eve, disapprove of the fancy-dressed sweet requests and lock the doors. But while we English churches gaze into the dark skies this fifth of November, perhaps we would do well to remember, remember our own dark histories and ponder a more tolerant and inclusive future.

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Reformed Worship

500 years ago, On 31st October, a young monk challenged the status quo of the church by pinning his thoughts to the door of a church in Germany. He challenged the principles of the Roman Catholic church, in particular the practice of charging money for absolution of sins; paying for salvation.

The monk was Martin Luther, and his actions triggered what we now know as the Protestant Reformation in Europe.

500 years later and we are making the same mistakes again on, quite literally, an industrial scale. This time it is not salvation that is up for grabs for a price, but our worship; that feeling of connection with God, the ability to express our faith in creative ways, that artistic expression of eternal gratitude and recognition of who our maker is… is being sold to us.

We can purchase it for 79p a track or £9.99 for an album’s worth of blissful spiritual escapism. If we’re really desperate for a ‘worship fix’ (because of the hard week we’ve had, the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves, or just that we ‘need’ that warm fuzzy ‘worship’) we can pay out for a ticket for our favourite priests worship leaders’ concerts worship events.

In this environment, worship songs is not so much a bad description of a musical genre that shouldn’t exist as much as it has become a command: worship songs.

Musical expression, singing together, worshipping ‘in spirit and in truth’ are all fantastic and sacred acts in our individual and collective spiritual experience. But the industry that has developed around it is flawed.

To charge people to worship (in the narrowly defined way the industry has taught us to understand the very nature of that worship!) is surely wrong. To have transformed into a commodity material specifically created to facilitate worship experiences – and by definition turn those who purchase into consumers, albeit informed to a greater of lesser extent – is wrong.

Jesus had some very sturn words to say about those in his time who charged the public to worship; “you’ve turned the house of God into a den of thieves!” He threw them out. He removed their means of prohibiting people from worshipping unless they had the right currency, or the right album and the merchandise to go with it. He put an end to that system… and in the creation of this ‘worship industry’ we have merely reassembled the money-changers’ tables and sold CD’s and downloads from them instead.

What would worship look like in a re-reformation era? What would the Church’s gathered expression of worship sound like if we were free to express our worship indigenously in each local congregation instead of feeling coerced into replicating album after album? How different would our churches be if everyone brought to the table something of personal and vulnerable sacrifice instead of hiding behind bland, rehashed, boring lyrics accompanied by over produced backing tracks?

What if the record companies went the way of the indulgences salesmen of the past and worship was reclaimed, re-calibrated, refreshed and reformed. Just as the printing press was the new technology of the Protestant Reformation giving everyone the opportunity to read the Bible for themselves instead of relying on priests, what if we used the technology available to us – the internet, social media, live streaming apps – to distribute worship material across the globe for free?

It’s not about which mountain, it’s not about which record label or which singer, it’s not about the songs or the currency: A time is coming, and has now come when the true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth.

Reformation.