One of the things that fuels my interest in communication is my love of interpreting things that I observe going on around me. This past Easter I had absolutely no church/work expectations, and I was in London. I churched it up in a most eclectic way, and I share my experiences here. I would love to hear some of your Easter church experiences – sharing this stuff can help us learn and reflect on our own practice.
I went to The Passion of Jesus play in Trafalgar Square, a Tenebrae service at Moot, a family Easter Sunday celebration service at Christ Church Fulham, and Hillsong London’s Easter production. Keep reading to see what I learnt.
The Passion of Jesus play, Trafalgar Square, 12pm Friday
Imagine cosplay for biblical times enthusiasts in an amphitheatre of urban awesomeness with red double-decker buses passing by and background noises of police sirens and the occasional busking bagpiper playing the Star Wars theme, as well as several thousand spectators.
This performance in Trafalgar Square by the Wintershall Players started in 2010 and is among other biblical reenactments in their annual programme. Founder Peter Hutley says:
We demonstrate publicly our Christian faith to illustrate the benefits of faith in God; to show those who may have forgotten; the way to return and for those who have never known the truth; the existence of our Christian God.
I had high expectations for the experience, but a fairly low bar for the performance based on the feedback on the website that had Christian people stating how good it was to have the message of Easter out in the public for everyone to see – I was a bit worried it would be cheesy and preachy. I was wrong to think that. It had some particularly good moments in the 90 minute portrayal from Palm Sunday through to the resurrection.
There were moments when the crowd of us watching became the crowd in the story, and a really interesting conclusion where it felt like the risen Jesus was inspiring us all with his great commission.
The bit that caused me the most pondering after the event was one conversation between the High Priest Caiaphas and the Roman Governor as they negotiate the fate of Jesus. I have heard and read the conversation many times, and seen it portrayed on film. In this particular take the characterisation of these two men were such that I had a totally new realisation of what it might have been like.
Caiaphas the high priest, not dressed too dissimilarly to a Church of England bishop, a Babyboomer-actor with obvious political nous, in conversation with the military-clothed Roman governor, a seemingly honest military man with clear boundaries of rank and purpose, clearly not able to come to terms with the demands of the Priest so washes his hands of the situation. You can see this bit from about the 50 minute mark in the video below.
For me this interaction was a House of Cards moment: I could have been watching the priestly-Frank Underwood carefully manipulating the situation for his own purposes… For me, at that time, those performers on Easter Friday nailed that scene in a kindof ah-ha way. There were a few other moments like that, such as when Jesus healed a few people.
I suspect most of the audience were Christian – by the applause when Jesus came to life. I’m not sure the performance illustrated the benefits of faith in God as suggested by Peter Hutley, but it certainly portrayed the story well. English accents and plastic helmets aside, there was something moving about being part of this performance with that particular crowd in that particular space.
At the end of the performance a senior clergyman said some final words and prayed. I felt the words here were far too in-house and church-centric for that very public setting. My choice would have been a person half the age, wearing normal clothes, who came across as friendly and warm and not ‘official’, who explained briefly what The Lords Prayer was and why Christians often pray it…
Tenebrae service at Moot, 7pm Friday
I’ve only been to a few of these types of church services since my tradition and experience has largely focused on the singing/sermon genre of gathering together. There’s something in my personality that finds great meaning in sitting with the darkness of the Easter Friday event, and I haven’t come across a better way to do this than some form of Tenebrae expression.
Tenebrae (Latin for “shadows” or “darkness”) is a Christian religious service celebrated in the Holy Week within Western Christianity, on the evening before or early morning of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Tenebrae is distinctive for its gradual extinguishing of candles while a series of readings and psalms is chanted or recited.
I have a lot of time for Moot, a new-monastic community whose home is the Church of St Mary Aldermary in the heart of the City of London (I’ve blogged about their Host Cafe…). I really appreciated the slow pace of this service attended by a small group of people, full of readings from the Bible and long periods of silence for contemplation and prayer. It could have been an hour later to really capitalise on the literal darkness of the occasion.
ChristChurch Fulham, Easter Celebration, 10.45am Sunday
I need to mention that this was my first ever Easter experienced in the northern hemisphere – the location where Easter was invented. For a long time I have wanted to experience Easter in a place where the season is also seen to be participating in the hope that resurrection brings: Spring, with its longer warmer days, trees in blossom, daffodils and tulips bursting with colour. It’s the total opposite in New Zealand with the dying leaves of autumn and the onset of colder darker days. I wasn’t disappointed! The photo above was taken walking down a street to church in Fulham on Easter Sunday morning.
I would describe the ChristChurch Fulham faith community as a charismatic evangelical Church of England parish church. This Sunday morning service was very all-age focus, warm, and pretty happy about the idea of Jesus coming to life a couple of days after he was killed.
This was a well done sing-along-and-sermon format church service with a friendly, happy and inclusive vibe, among a group of people where there were signs of obvious relational depth and consistency, reinforced by the modest size of the gathering. I felt this service provided everything I would expect from a traditional family church.
One thing didn’t sit with me well: during the sermon, which was about resurrection power, one of the video clips used to illustrate immense power was a military fighter jet taking off. I had never seen such a display of warfare as part of a church service before. While I can technically see the point of the illustration, the pacifist within me was distracted away from the point, and the preacher/communicator within me thought of several other illustrations which would have been just as ‘powerful’ with the potential for less offence. Isn’t it interesting, the things that can derail a person’s engagement with the intended message?
Hillsong London, Easter production, 7pm Sunday
I would describe Hillsong London as a pentecostal megachurch part of the Hillsong franchise of churches around the world. I don’t use the word “franchise” in a derogatory way, it’s just the best adjective that comes to mind to portray the impression I get from their stunning image, branding, and marketing, which is clearly a very important part of their modus operandi.
I think the Easter production was performed 5 times on Easter Sunday, at the usual Dominion Theatre venue. We arrived early for the 7pm performance, and joined a queue that went half-way round the block. I felt like the oldest person in the queue and a tourist. The marshals were friendly. There was a positive vibe outside as the queue grew. I wondered if we might have been too far back in the line to be let in. We did get in. Before the show the vibe was like any other theatre production – for a predominantly young audience.
There was a sing-along to begin with and some other usual church service stuff, including a great prayer-for-others slot where regular punters had somehow submitted their prayer requests, either by social media or some other online way, or by writing on cards. Many of these were scrolled through on the big screen, all sorts of things: health, jobs, relationships, world issues, many random topics for prayer – it’s one of the most participatory prayers-for-others slots I’ve seen in a church service.
I was a little surprised with a couple of things by how the pastoral staff came across on stage: Firstly, a bit flippant and perhaps ill-prepared to be speaking to such a large crowd, and second, the age of the lead pastor surprised me – he seemed very old compared to my perceived much younger average age of the audience. That’s not intended to be an ageist comment, in fact I felt like he wasn’t acting his age and I wish he was.
Then the production began. It was an amazing contemporary retelling of the Easter event showcasing drama, multimedia, music, and dance (including a dance-off between the disciples to see who was the greatest). We should have all had to pay 30 pounds for a ticket. it was West End production at it’s best (appropriate to the West End location of the venue). The amateur video below shows the first 15 minutes:
Like any good theatre, the audience were taken to another place, and our emotions were played with in order to give impact to the logic of the story.
At one point there was a montage of media reports showing news clips and newspaper headlines some of which had the authorities portraying Jesus as a terrorist, a clever contemporary comparison – this too can be seen in the video above.
The hanging-on-the-cross moment had a verbally graphic medical narrative of what happens to the human body throughout the process of crucifixion – it was horrible.
Comparing this telling of the story with the Passion of Jesus play in Trafalgar Square, this one had much less dialogue and much more to be visually engaged with. The Passion play relied on a continual dialogue. For the Hillsong production I was sitting in the dark and might as well have been on my own, the Passion play made me feel like I was part of a massive crowd – at some parts even part of the story. The Passion venue was public and spacious with a juxtaposition of contemporary location with historical costume, the Hillsong venue could have been any theatre in the western world.
Both were amazing, provoking thought in me for days afterwards.
Your Easter church experience
Easter is often a time where non-regulars or new people might join in with the things going on in a church community. Reflecting on your own church’s Easter stuff, can you think of things that might have been helpful for new people, or differently engaging for regulars? Did you learn something from attend something new?