Avoiding the middle-class bubble

“Our services allow for different moods and different frames of mind. There’s a lot of stillness, and you can just respond to what’s going on in your own way. That’s very different to normal church. There’s no one telling you how you should be responding…”

That’s a description of graceland, from one of it’s founder members, Mike Barnett. Graceland is an “alternative worship” group based in Cardiff.

Their services make use of contemporary music and extracts from modern writers as well as creative, multisensory ways of praying. They draw heavily on the culture of those who attend, as well as from a range of traditions within Christianity. A key feature of the services is the use of stillness and silence.

Rosemary Allen, one of the members of the group describes the ethos as follows, “What we have is a desire to do something that is linked to our every day life rather than going into a middle class cultural bubble on Sundays and forgetting the rest of the week. Many of our services touch on urban issues/social issues, not surprising as we live in a capital city. We take things very slowly and try to give people time and space to come to their own interpretations rather than imposing something on them. We use the Bible, sometimes as quotations, but on other occasions we do a meditation based on it instead – often trying to come at things from a different angle and related to our own experience.”

The service was started in 1996 by a group of friends. Key influences were, the Late, Late Service in Glasgow, the Nine O’Clock Service, in Sheffield and the Third Sunday Service in Bristol, (now called Resonance) The group had a desire to do something similar in their own area.

One Sunday a month is the service, “city prayers”, another Sunday is a music night, currently called “tchac!”. This is held in a cafe, and features live music or DJs, with visual images projected behind them. The evening also has a variety of other things, such as pub quizzes, or various competitions, which are normally well received. The focus is on people getting to know each other. On two Tuesdays a month, graceland meet as “home base”. This happens in a home and the focus is on praying for each other and for various wider needs. It also involves discussions, based on the bible or on topical issues. Some of the services take a theme or a bible passage as a starting point, such as “Travelling”, “The Ten Commandments”, or “Machines”. Others are more liturgical, using material from the Iona community, among others.

For a taste of a graceland service, read the following description of a service on the theme of “Desire”

People are (mostly) sitting on the floor round a blanket in the middle of a room. The blanket is laid with food, baskets and other items, as if for a picnic. The solemn, slightly edgy atmosphere is set by music, which includes tracks from “100 Windows” by Massive Attack.

After a short gap the service begins with a welcome and prayers are read on the theme of desire. After the prayers people are encouraged to explore what lies on the blanket. There are pictures from magazines, for example, lingerie adverts, with the pictures of the models cut out and discarded, leaving the pages with the cut out blank in the middle. There is also a picture of Mel Gibson with the slightly ironic title “What every woman wants?” There is also a large picnic basket with crockery and cutlery, cups and drinks.

A bowl of apples is also there. One has a bite taken from it.

In another corner there are other “objects of desire” represented by pictures of goods taken from catalogues. There are bottles of nail varnish, guest soaps and make up. In a third corner there are items reflecting more positive aspects of desire. There are piles of books and software to do with careers, job applications and so on.

People wander around looking at the objects, maybe picking them up, tasting or smelling them. Some are drawn to one area, others to something else. Some read extracts from the books. After a while people gather around the blanket once more, for a period of silence. This is broken by everyone reading together a version of Psalms 42-43,

“As the deer pants for the waters, so my soul longs after you, you alone are my hearts desire and I long to worship you…”

Another period of silence is followed by 3 voices reading bible verses about desire. These are interspersed with short extracts read from other books, and prayers. Some extracts are given here, but more were used in the actual service.

You hear, O LORD , the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, Ps 10 v17

If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” Gen 4 v 7

Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you by the gazelles and by the does of the field: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires. Song of Solomon 2 v7

He longed for female company and the ability of women to forgive, to care about hurts and their readiness to laugh and be amused…. Women, he thought, had so many more ways to connect themselves to the world – children, families, friends…. Sometimes he’d see a woman watching him as he walked from a Denny’s rest room back to the counter, or in a grocery store, tending to squawking kids and errant grocery carts. What were they offering? A meal and a dose of love to get him to the next way station? Women became to him portals back into a better place he’d always seem to have overlooked.” (from “Miss Wyoming” by Douglas Copeland)

“You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbour’s house or land, his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” Deut 5 v 21

My days have passed, my plans are shattered, and so are the desires of my heart. Job 17 v 11

“We live alone, we die alone; the frustration of our lives in this world – all our broken relationships, our betrayals, our murders – are because we know we shall never be understood by one another. It is our grief, the ‘human tragedy’ that, knowing this, we still so badly want to be understood and accepted. The classic faith statement is that it is only in God that we shall find the intimate relationship we long for, the absolute mutuality we crave. ” (From “Seven Words for the 21st Century”, By Helen Cunliffe) I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labour. Eccles 2 v 10

I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me. – Song of Solomon 7 v 10

But each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. James 1 v 14

Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You – St Augustine

The longings that people have, fulfilled or not, our desire for a purpose in life, and how we strive to achieve that, our desire for God, and our desire to serve him are all touched upon.

Towards the end of the service, people were invited to drop dissolving Vitamin C tablets into bowls of water, as a symbol of bringing their desires, good or bad, to God and letting them lead us to him. During this time, “Wash my Soul” by Tricky was played as a backing track.

A final prayer was read:

“Whether it’s worship of women or their designer The world or its destroyer Whether it comes from that ancient place that we call soul Or simply the spinal cortex Whether the prayers are on fire with a dumb rage Or dove like desire… The smoke goes upward To God… Or something you replace God with … Usually yourself.” (Taken from “Soul Music: Selections From the Book of Psalms”, by Bono from U2)

The service ends gently to the sound of “Fragile Happiness” by the Super Furry Animals. Afterwards, people start to chat, and share some of the picnic together. Some take the opportunity to read the Bible passages and extracts of literature used earlier, which have been placed on the blanket.