Viral Vicar: relevancy, participation and leadership

Once upon a time a vicar threw her hands up in the air. She danced like she did not care. And everyone loved it. That is accept a few dullards unable to see the fun and brilliance of celebrating a wedding through dance, who thought expressions of joy were out of place in the house of God.

The Rev Kate Bottley declared the couple man and wife and then began to dance, the couple joined in, then the wedding party, then people dotted around the congregation. The celebration was orchestrated, but it was contagious, more and more people joined in. (Aside from a couple of elderly ladies who clearly decided this was a bit too much.)

It was a stunt. It was an incredible stunt and it worked so well because this was not a hip trendy church in Camden, but a rural Church of England parish. The wonder was in the surprise and authenticity at the same time (I don’t think the fact it was almost certainly planned and practised makes it any less authentic). And it’s had nearly 300 000 views on YouTube.

A survey published this week showed that 56 per cent of 18-24 year olds consider themselves to be of no religion, only 5 per cent attend church weekly, and 25 per cent believe in a god. The most shocking and disturbing finding was only 14 per cent think religion is generally the cause of good in the world, whereas 41 per cent think it is a the cause of evil. Nick Spencer has a helpful take on these numbers, raising the important question of what is religion, and what it means to be anti, or pro, religion. But however this is sliced it shows the church has an image problem.

Does the dancing vicar help? On the face of it, absolutely, it provides a high profile demonstration of the church as a place of joy and celebration, of a vicar having fun and prepared to throw it down on the vestry floor.

There’s been plenty of discussion about this, in particular Vicky Beeching wrote a piece for the Independent, and Peter Ould and Sara Batts have responded with some thoughtful comments. All of them make good points, and all of them leave me pondering further and asking more questions. I can see at least three different themes: relevancy, participation, and leadership.

Relevancy

I’ve been involved in church events with smoke machines and lighting rigs that would make many bands’ eyes water. I’ve been up at the crack of dawn to unload vans and rig trusses from the ceiling of decrepit church buildings. I’ve seen a thousand people worshipping God in a nightclub, I’ve been in church services far cooler than the people they are trying to reach. And sometimes, not necessarily, but sometimes, relevancy comes at a cost. Trying to be the next big thing, trying to catch up with a culture that is not running on the same tracks as you, can be hard work. Sometimes in the quest to be what people want we forget who we are.

The viral vicar’s dancing caught the media’s imagination because it hung at that apex between cultural relevance, and deep irreverence to the norms of wedding ceremonies. It transfused the old with the new, the traditional with the flamboyant, and – what is at the heart of the flash mob – the rehearsed with the surprising. The church can’t chase after culture like a fawning fan, but it can learn from truth that finds its way out in surprising places. It can grab people’s attention but it can’t lead them down the garden path.

Because that’s another part of this that gets tricky. Church isn’t all about flash mobs, I’m not sure I want people coming into church expecting that, expecting to be entertained even if they get to be part of the entertainment. Church is about something else.

Participation

Church should be about participation, this is the key point of Vicky’s piece, and sometimes it seems like church is a turn up and sing, sit down and listen, drink your coffee and leave, affair. It is a consumer exercise far too often. When church becomes about all of us, and not the congregation simply following instructions, singing words on screens or song sheets and counting how many wine gums it takes to get through the service, then it serves all of us better. We need to find ways of ensuring that church is participatory and not consumer focused, and I think many churches are getting better at this.

A vital part of church services is corporate worship, and by its nature this is something we all participate in, it is something we do as a body. And we do it collectively as a whole and not as multiple individuals. Both Peter Ould and Sara Batts made similar responses in defence of Church of England services, and the participatory nature of them, and particularly of liturgy. It’s part of what I’ve dubbed the reliturgicalisation of the church, and it’s happening, the rediscovery of Celtic practices of spirituality, the appreciation of order and forms of words that have been honed over centuries to carefully communicate our relationship with God and our commitment to him. Participation does not have to equal being trendy.

Participation is important, but sometimes in trying to generate participation we try too hard, we lower the bar, we make church about whatever it is that will get people engaged, there’s a great little section in the most recent Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass on that (I’ll write a review of that shortly). The Christian faith is not easy, it is wonderful, it is beautiful, it is life giving, but it is not cheap. It is also definitely not the same as getting people through the doors of the church. There are all sorts of things I could do if all I wanted was bodies in the building. But the church has a purpose, and that purpose is to preach Christ crucified, and to go and make disciples.

Leadership

And this means leadership matters. What the church is doing is not incidental to its purpose, or at least it shouldn’t be. Whether it is a wedding or a funeral with those who would rarely otherwise walk through the doors of the church, or an evangelistic event, or a regular Sunday service, the ethos of who we are as people of God should be the same. This is done through good leadership, it is done through vision and it is done through participation in the work of God in the whole Church and our specific church.

The irony of the viral vicar is that while it is a brilliant demonstration of participation of lots of people in the congregation it is also, and primarily, an example of strong leadership. It took Rev Bottley quite a lot of courage and effort to start the dance, to brave the cold stares and disapproval, the awkward silence, and the even more awkward stillness as people sat on their hands unsure what to do. I think churches should involve their congregations in decisions and in discussing the life of the church, but the responsibility rests with the leaders.

To be honest, I do not want to see another vicar doing what Rev Bottley did. It was good because it was unexpected and out of the blue. If another does it, it will be a repeat, an imitation, an effort to recreate the viral effect that cannot be replicated. It will also be more about getting attention than celebrating a wedding, and that would miss the point.

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