Twenty people gathered in the darkened Ambulatory at the back of the Cathedral, enjoying the coloured ambient lighting, swirling incense mist and disembodied choral singing as they awaited the start of Night Visions
– the latest Soul Circus event and the seventh since their inaugural meeting, ‘Exploring Sacrament’, in the Cathedral during December 2011.
Presently, a robed Revd Suzanne Cooke
and Bishop’s Chaplain Simon Ward
appeared and introduced us to the event, along with Robin Vincent,
who also handled the striking, minimalist audio/visual elements.
The ‘Thoughts Behind The Music’ video, below, outlined the Lent theme of the event as “the absence of light”. Indeed, the only illumination was a few main Cathedral lights and the dim ambient floor lights where we congregated. Along with their neck glow sticks, torches held by three young white-robed acolytes further illuminated the main trio. The acolytes also did well as event guides.
The first of three activity stations was the Ash Table in the Jesus Chapel, consisting of a layer of ash - representing sin that must be ‘burned away’ in our lives - on top of a clear tabletop, through which shone an eerie, low, shifting light. People knelt around the table, creating swirls like Celtic weave patterns with the ash.
The following station in St. Luke’s Chapel had a 7ft foot tall mesh cross outside. There was a box of wet-wipes below for wiping off the ash from the first chapel and poking through the mesh as a way of leaving sin at the cross. This was after having written them in marker pen on a UV-lit white duvet covering the ‘Confessional Bed’ in front of the altar inside, which was a little uncomfortable to do with people watching, depending on one’s sins.
A candle-lit Bauchon Chapel housed the last station, ‘The Word’, where people attempted to hear a voice reading scripture amongst intentionally distracting sounds. Instead of this, I went to the Presbytery, where I have often attended Evensong. With all the activity in the Ambulatory - the moody lighting, incense and discordant soundscape created a pleasantly unsettling atmosphere and a new perspective on Cathedral worship.
We reconvened where we began for the Absolution, moving to the high altar for the Lord’s Prayer, Holy Communion and sharing the Peace by exchanging glow sticks rather than handshakes. “A glow stick has no spiritual value,” Robin pointed out, “yet it is a physical reminder of the spiritual act.” The spiritual glow remains even after the chemical one expires.
During this, Robin sang into his microphone, “Never heard your voice at all”, which seemed off-putting. Everyone joined in with the final chant, “Once again, I come to your table…” after which, the service drew to a close.
In the ‘Thoughts…’ video, Robin mentions Bible characters hearing God’s voice at night and how, “musically, I wanted to think about the absence of light…certainty and for many people, the absence of God’s voice at all.”
“Through the Eucharist,” he adds, “we can anchor ourselves in something that’s not dependent on us having some kind of night-time vision, or personal call.”
“The assumption is that we should be hearing from God in a kind of constant stream whenever we (worship),” Robin later told me “…many of us don’t and so find ourselves wondering what’s wrong with us…God has already spoken, we already know what we should be doing and when we spend all our time trying to hear from God we can forget that we’re already walking his path.”
This idea came across better in the video than the event itself, however. It needed more explanation on the night, although it did at least provoke thought afterwards.
Night Visions’ overall theme of absent light, both physical and spiritual, was successful. The event was reasonably well attended, despite not having been widely publicized, by a mixture of ages and denominations.
Suzanne said, “Some Christians might believe…liturgical worship to be outdated and unnecessary. However, I believe it allows us to place ourselves within our Christian story and is therefore always relevant. Also, we are commanded by Jesus to 'do this in remembrance of me' - a statement which seems fairly unambiguous!”
Revd Cooke also felt that events like Soul Circus are too ‘resource heavy’ to organise as often as regular services but I hope that Night Visions has inspired others to see the importance of liturgy and be creative with worship in their own communities.
Simon said: "I think that Soul Circus has always been happy to challenge the norms and try things differently BUT we do respect the wholeness of the liturgy. Hence you'll find that while we may be creative and playful with the peace, we will not change or mess around with the Eucharistic prayer: the heart of the service is the Eucharist in which we celebrate the presence of Christ and we are not 'playing' with that!"