Soul Circus returns to Norwich Cathedral
Experimental worship group Soul Circus returns to Norwich Cathedral on Sunday November 23 from 6pm for a new regular bi-monthly slot. Mark Sims spoke to Rev Suzanne Cooke, a founding member of Soul Circus, to learn more.
The opening event, ‘Shared’, aims to ‘create a worship service that is rooted in the reality of how we approach the divine’.
Suzanne says of the decision to allow Soul Circus its new slot that: “The Cathedral recognises that it has a ministry to deliver worship for everybody… Not everybody wants to come and sit in an amazingly sung Evensong, much as that might be an incredible experience.
“We’re here in this fantastic building that people have worshipped in for a thousand years,” she expounds. “I have a profound sense of connection with our monastic tradition. That is a valuable and rich tradition on which we can stand and draw on… I think its genuine love of that tradition which is the reason we’re allowed to be here! We don’t want to take it away from anybody.”
Suzanne Cooke formed Soul Circus over three years ago with audio/visual artist Robin Vincent and Rev Simon Ward, formerly Bishop’s Chaplain, now Priest In Charge at St Andrew’s, Eaton. In its previous events at the Cathedral, Soul Circus has provided a more interactive worship experience than its regular worshippers usually experience, relying heavily on audio/visual elements created by Vincent.
Part of Soul Circus’ remit is to challenge traditional liturgical elements, whilst still honouring them. It helps that the group’s core members bring different elements to the mix, although Suzanne says they agree, ideologically. She and Simon come from liturgical backgrounds, whereas Robin offers a Free Church perspective, bringing ‘deep-seated worries’ about liturgical tradition that allow for ‘open discussion’ that feeds into the worship. “It works,” Suzanne thinks. “We can do incredible stuff with that.”
Suzanne prefers to call the style of Soul Circus (and other similar outfits, e.g. York Cathedral’s Transcendence) ‘creative’ rather than ‘experimental’ worship. This approach always carries a danger of upsetting the status quo.
Suzanne learned this lesson well through helping with creative worship during her first year studying for an MA in Pastoral Theology at Westcott House in Cambridge.
“I learned early on that, if you going to be experimental in your worship, you had to be careful about how you did it… there are ways of pushing people without purposely trying to push them over the edge.”
This is something Soul Circus has been good at. “If we do push them further,” she says, “it’s because we’ve actually thought it through. Theologically or liturgically it’s a conscious decision on our part, to take it that far.
“There will always be people who deserve to be pushed over the edge, because they’re so extreme that it only takes a slight lean to one side and they’ll drop over anyway.”
Despite the recent Diocesan decision on women bishops, misogyny can still be a problem. “I have quite often let Simon preside,” Suzanne admits, “because I knew it would mean people would come (who would be opposed to female clergy). You have to sit lightly to those around you who don’t necessarily support your ministry.”
Suzanne invented the name ‘Soul Circus’ to evoke a ‘roving entity’, with the priest(s) as ‘ringmaster’. Suzanne has previously studied Performance Theory and liturgy-as-performance is a ‘burning interest’ that she wants to explore in Soul Circus.
“If you repeat something, it becomes ritual; if you repeat it in front of someone, it becomes performance. We’re kidding ourselves if we say we’re not an audience. If you look at how church is set up, you cannot escape the fact that it is a performance being observed by an audience… the Anglicans are more doggedly sticking to their performance-based model.”
This is evident at Norwich Cathedral, where choral worship is its USP, although the commercial appeal of worship music is not limited to the Anglican Church. Evangelical services can sometimes take on the atmosphere of a live gig, with guitar solos and merchandise.
“If you can buy a CD of the music you just listened to in the service… there has to be a point which you say, ‘does it become entertainment’?” Does it lose its pure worship element? Can it be both? Suzanne thinks that “It’s probably OK to have an element of performance and for some of it to be ‘entertaining’, as long as it’s done with awareness and you have thought through your worship in such a way that there’s a liturgical and theological continuity to it.”
Despite academic interest in the dynamics of worship, Suzanne is wary of allowing Soul Circus to become merely an intellectual experiment: “Whether or not it’s possible for people in that service to understand that there’s this dialogue going on is another thing… it becomes elitist. So, what I’m talking about is the accessibility of worship, which is another thing we’re all about.”
Accessibility brings its own challenges. Some of the phrasing of the blurb for ‘Shared’ is abstract, to say the least, e.g. ‘We hope to bring music, songs, words that help us find our way to the bread and wine.’ Does that mean there’s a treasure hunt for them?
“It’s an element of our marketing that we are having to address,” she admits. “You’re trying to put into very few words something really quite profound, so it is quite difficult…I think we’re getting a bit closer.
“Postmodern culture is OK with mystery... I don’t believe we need to dumb things down for people because they won’t understand. The Cathedral has many visitors, yet it’s this incredibly ornate and beautiful place. It is what it is. It doesn’t apologise for it, or try and be anything else. Anything successful is prepared to stand confidently, authentically as what it is. Soul Circus is trying to work out its identity. This is our chance to bash out what it looks like when we do it regularly and that’s quite a big deal for us.”
Gaining a regular home at the Cathedral is hoped to allow Soul Circus to develop in new ways. Suzanne expects “home-grown liturgical, ritual elements” to be a part of this, “that’s what anchors it,” she says. “There will be points that we will play with and constantly question because usefulness is a big element.”
The team hope to strike a balance between regular elements and spontaneous ones, which, she admits is “a tall order…a developing thing. It’s a creative, experimental worship, so some bits work better than others. That’s the nature of being different and on the edge. I would really want to be asking questions that aren’t being asked everywhere. Even if they are being asked somewhere else, it’ll be a unique answer if Soul Circus answers it because it’ll be us answering it!”
Suzanne does defer that “We are living in the shadow of the Nine O’clock Service,” referring to the creative worship event led by the notorious Revd Chris Brain in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. She admits that Soul Circus lives with the question ‘are we just changing the music?’ “That’s where the liturgical aspect comes in, along with its willingness to engage with the questions.”
“There’s always a creative anxiety that you’re not actually doing anything different at all. I’m often the one saying, ‘This isn’t different enough!’ Robin and Simon disagree. I’d love to do a prayer installation on Riverside, if anyone wants to fund it?!”
The service proper starts at 6.30pm, 6pm is for attendees to mingle.
Pictured top is a previous Soul Circus event and, above, Rev Suzanne Cooke.