Theo Hobson attends Grace, an alternative Christian service in west London, and finds it arty, irreverent, postmodern — and full of people seeking a new way to worship
I went to church last weekend. Sort of. It was a Saturday evening service run by a group of laypeople in an Anglican church in Ealing. It’s a monthly event called Grace. What sort of people attend? Quite trendy ones. People who are a bit too trendy for normal church. The sort who know how to link a computer up to sound and visual equipment. No grannies, no kids.
Soft club music pulsed as I entered, and a big screen showed an art installation: furniture made of neon strips. In the middle of the pewless nave were a couple of sofas, a table and chairs, and a fridge; round the edges were some beanbags. I sat on one. This month’s theme was Home.
A youngish man (an ageing youth?) called Johnny welcomed us (there were 30 or 40 of us). He had a laid-back, unchurchy tone, like a bloke among his mates. He explained that the service was centred on the parable of the Prodigal Son. Then there was a brief chanted liturgy, during which a teenager rapped some prayers which I think he had written himself. We then heard a recording of a moody religious song by an Irish singer whose name escaped me.
The distinctive thing about this sort of worship style is that it likes inventing mini-rituals. Ritual is perhaps too strong a word. Some of us, prompted by the website, had brought along photographs that summed up ‘home’ to us. We stuck these on the fridge. Those who had forgotten photos wrote messages. Later on, there were four ‘stations’ to choose from, in each corner of the nave. On a table in one corner there was a bowl of water in which to wash your hands. In another there were sheets of paper printed with the message ‘I’ve f***ed up so many times’ (a line from the moody Irish song): we were invited to take one and put it in a shredding machine.
This sort of thing is easily mocked, and yes it’s a bit hit-and-miss, but the truth is I actually quite enjoy it. As long as it’s carefully organised and confidently presented, as this was, I am up for it. If I’m honest, I’d really rather do this than half-sing a dirgey hymn or sit frowning at a sermon, feeling all conflicted about organised religion and establishment and church schools.
Grace itself admits it’s difficult to define. ‘In some ways who we are and what we are about is best captured in telling our stories. Grace is shaped by the people in it at any given time and as such changes and moves on in response to an interplay between the ideas of the group, the Christian tradition, what we sense God is calling us to at that time, and the shifts in the culture around us.’ OK it’s waffley, but they’re reaching for something interesting, something that makes worship part of normal life. ‘We hope the changes to the life of grace will open up other possibilities for mission — evangelism locally, engaging in justice issues, in art and the media.’
Back to the service: Johnny read Luke’s parable of teenage rebellion forgiven, and then we were invited to offer brief reflections on it, beginning with the phrase ‘I wonder…’. For example: ‘I wonder what the mother thought.’ It worked well: a way of staying with the story for a bit, without being preached at. We were led in this exercise by another man, with a slightly more vicarish air than Johnny.
Then the sofas were moved back, creating a space into which we were all invited. It was a subtly effective bit of symbolism. They had put some thought into all this. Next, a little sketch in which the brothers of the parable tried to make up over the kitchen table. It was quite amusing. Then we stood in a circle for communion, administered by the more vicarish man. Trendy music pulsed and bubbled away in the background. There was a bit of liturgy that to be honest I thought could have been improved on. There was a line about how God ‘reconfigures the world’. I’m no Cranmer fetishist, as you might have gathered, but this jarred a bit.
At the end Johnny stood up and rattled a tin — so even alternative churches take a collection? No, in the tin were old keys, we were to take one away as a sort of sacramental souvenir. Chatting over a drink afterwards, I learned that the more vicarish man was indeed a vicar. ‘We invite him along when we do a communion service,’ said Steve, a long-standing member of the group. ‘We use a church building, so we feel we should respect the rule that says a layperson can’t do communion.’ Does this mean that their group is essentially Anglican? ‘Not really, but it started when a few friends left the normal Sunday service here and wanted to do something new — and the link hasn’t been broken. But we’re free to do what we want in every other respect.’
I find this a bit odd. If you’re going to do something riskily new, why not go the whole hog? It’s a bit like starting a punk band, but feeling obliged to include your dad on the trumpet. The other arty-alternative Christian groups that I know of follow this pattern. There is a group in Brighton called Beyond that stages Grace-like worship, and also puts on public art — it had the bright idea of turning beach-huts into an advent calendar (a new door opened for every day). There is also a group in Liverpool called Dream that has experimented with outdoor ‘guerrilla’ worship: it staged a flash-mob worship event in a shopping centre last Easter.
A lot of people dismiss this scene as marginal trendiness, a very minor sideshow. I don’t. I think their time might be coming. In the same way as people are crying out for a ‘new’ politics, there’s a definite longing for a new church. The Catholics are mired in paedophile scandals, the Anglican communion has lost its way — perhaps it’s time for Grace instead?
What groups like Grace grasp is that though some people are turned off by organised religion, they still feel basically Christian: what they want is a new, disorganised style of religion, a postmodern shook-up version, full of irreverence and irony, and arty events. They want a new style of sacramentalism, that isn’t steeped in authority. Now that the internet’s here to stay, it’s difficult to accept hierarchy any more — religion must become open-source.
For the moment, the pioneers tread carefully — the stylistic reinvention of an ancient religion is a slow and difficult process, with huge pitfalls — but my hunch is that we should watch this space. God reconfigures his church in mysterious ways.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 29, 2010