The Les Misérables Mass

As I mentioned earlier in the week, at least one of the Greenbelt sessions I reviewed for the Church Times was worthy of more than the 150 words I submitted to the editor. Nothing over the whole weekend provoked more interest on Twitter than the Les Mis Mass – admittedly, this may be because I live-tweeted it, I’ve yet to meet a single person who hasn’t been intrigued/horrified by the concept. Thus, it deserves a little more of an explanation than I was able to give at the time.

Les Mis Mass Tweets

Anyone who has listened to sermons on a fairly regular basis over the last 8 months has almost certainly heard a sermon in which Jean Valjean and the plot of Victor Hugo’s novel has featured – I heard one (that was fairly decent) in Westminster Abbey the Sunday after Easter. This trend irritated me slightly, what with the novel having been published in 1862 and the musical nearly 3 decades old, these were not new themes, simply a Hollywood bandwagon to be jumped upon. However, the mass was different…

To be honest, I signed up to review it not really knowing what to expect. I went with an attitude of “well, I like Les Mis and I like communion, so what could go wrong?”, and only minutes before it began discovered a little more detail about the format. This was no Les Mis singalong, the mass was a thoughtful re-interpretation of the traditional sung eucharist, using tunes and themes familiar from the musical.

Les Mis is well-suited to such a setting. The themes of forgiveness, redemption and salvation sit well with the similar themes of the eucharist. If you’re a fan of a sung eucharistic setting, then you can’t do much better than the music of Boubil & Schönberg. (Well, with the exception of Bach, Mozart, Handel…) To be honest, I’m rather surprised that no one had thought of it sooner – but it took Transcendence (an alt.worship community based at York Minster) to develop the concept into what we experienced at Greenbelt.

And it was a popular one. When I arrived, ten minutes before it was due to start, the queue was 100’s of metres long – and the room was already stuffed with people. My fabulous Press Pass got me in past through the crowds (I don’t feel guilty about that, it’s exactly what it was intended for) and I secured a spot on the floor that was nearer the back than I might have liked. It was unfortunate that someone took the decision to ask the congregation to stand so that another 150 people could enter, as it meant that only the first couple of rows could see the screens with the rather crucial liturgy on them. [Greenbelt, don’t over-rule your venue managers in such situations. The room was already packed and like a sauna – the event should have been in a larger venue. Rant over.]

Despite the crowds, the temperature, the fact that it was 9.30pm and I was existing on little sleep and low blood sugar levels, I was surprised at how quickly I found myself in a worshipful state of mind. That says a lot for the way in which the service was conducted. It was dramatic, but no more so than worship in a high church context. The singing didn’t feel that much different than singing a regular sung eucharist (in fact, at one point the regular sung responses were used), although sometimes the lyrics were a tight fit to the tunes and occasionally it wasn’t entirely clear what the congregation was meant to be doing (the obscured screens didn’t help). The team could possibly have done with a more confident vocalist leading the congregation, but singing skills aren’t always the most important aspect of leading a eucharistic service.

Les Mis MassLes Mis Mass: celebrated. (Credit.)

For me, the fact that we sang familiar words to familiar tunes (tunes which have always had the ability to tug at my heartstrings) made it all the more meaningful, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the meditation on a pipe cleaner man section. To be honest, given the amount of connection between the readings (Job 33:23-25 & Luke 18:9-17) and Hugo’s text, I’d have preferred something that linked them all together. But the idea of manipulating pipe cleaners is at least one to file for future reference. Oh, and the team missed a trick by not using baguettes as the bread element – baguette and vin rouge would have been genius!

However, there was one thing that destroyed the holiness of the experience for me and left me ranting. (In fact, I ranted so hard in the beer tent afterwards that I was barely coherent in my views on the service itself.) I had the misfortune of sitting adjacent to a group of student-types who appeared to have musical theatre inclinations – given away by the fact that one was wearing a Les Mis amateur production t-shirt, and that the group was singing along in harmony before the service had even started. Now, I am an ardent musical theatre fan and have been devoted to Les Mis since the age of 13, but I also know the difference between a singalong and an act of worship. Singing the liturgy lustily is fine; singing as if you’re on a West End stage is not. I finally lost my rag during the distribution of the elements. For some reason an instrumental version of Coldplay’s Fix You was playing and this group sang along, in not particularly great harmony. When they launched into a second verse, I’d had enough and quietly asked them if they realised that this was an act of worship, that people might be praying and could be disturbed by their noise – they agreed to stop. Seconds later, the band began singing along and one of the boys turned to me with a gleeful “see, they’re doing it now!” to which I felt the only valid response was: “yes, but they’re leading the service and you’re not, so shut up!”. Perfectly reasonable, surely? (I did exchange looks with fellow worshippers before intervening…)

Les Mis Mass screenEnding the service with a ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ recessional.

Annoying MT fans excepted, it was an interesting experience and one I’d contemplate trying to replicate at some point. I really don’t think it lessens the meaning of the act of worship, and if it connects with new people then surely that’s a good thing? For ages, I’ve been plotting some form of musicals-inspired worship and now I think it might be doable. It has to be the right musical though, I suspect Grease would not work.

Greenbelt Bingo – explained

Yesterday, I mentioned my preoccupation with something called ‘Greenbelt Bingo’. It wasn’t bingo in the traditional sense of the word – it wasn’t about scoring a full house, more a list of things to do/find/observe, with point scores for each. It was the brainwave of my friend Caroline, a veteran Greenbelter, and much of its content was derived from a Facebook status posted a couple of days before the festival:

Greenbelt Bingo statusNote the 37 compressed comments – they were genius. 

[EDIT] Having posted this, Caroline’s sister Alison pointed out that it was a joint idea they’d had sometime ago – she just wasn’t part of the process of producing it as she’s currently working for Medair in the Middle East. Which is a pretty legitimate excuse really!

I then promptly forgot about this activity until I reached mainstage on the first night of the festival and saw Caroline – who promptly handed me a piece of paper, complete with list and rules:

Greenbelt Bingo Rules Not too onerous…

It was genius and a source of much amusement and debate. Friends who were not participating became intrigued and regularly asked to see what else was needed. There was competition amongst competitors (I love a good competition). There were additions – Clare Balding was worth 5 points, particularly as seeing her at the early morning Radio 2 broadcast required a 5.30am get-up. I pondered whether a boy, dressed as an alligator, unicycling would be worth. It even got mentioned at Last Orders – the nightly round up of Greenbelt’s best bits.

Without further ado, here’s my completed form as it looked at Monday lunchtime’s hand-in

Completed Greenbelt BingoJust after handing it over, I realised I’d neglected to add my name to it. Caroline replied that she’d know mine because I’d labelled it ‘Trainee Vicar’ – I explained this was more an illustration of a t-shirt I’d seen that I thoroughly disapproved of, rather than a naming device. However, mine was also obvious, given its highly annotated nature.

Point counting and prize awarding didn’t actually happen on Monday – it was only last night that I discovered I’d scored 71 points and was the winner! So I’ll have to remember that Caroline owes me a pint the next time I see her. Oh, and the debate hasn’t ended – last night’s Twitter feed was consumed with coming up with a family friendly version, and additional options for next year. One person even argued that as the winner, I should do the work. The jury’s out on that one…

Massive thanks to the Ely sisters and their genius initiative for adding a frisson of competitiveness to GB40!

So, that was #gb40…

I am freshly showered for the first time since Friday morning and boy, does it feel good! It says a lot about my love of Greenbelt that it’s something for which I am willing to become progressively more unclean over a period of four days.

[Ok, so I started this post last night, but got distracted by my desperate need for sleep.]

This year could go down in my Greenbelt-going history as one of the best years yet. (Which, in 16 years, is a pretty good effort.) I attribute this to the combination of several factors:

  • Multiple good people. There are always good people at Greenbelt, but this year I was camping with a crowd from Matryoshka Haus, as well has having my usual group of Greenbelt camping friends around. (Though with some notable exceptions – looking at you Mim & Jenni…) Add into the mix old colleagues, friends of yore, vicar school chums, Twitter followers & followees, and a whole group of people that I met at last year’s festival and who I’ve had the privilege of getting to know better in London over the last 12 months. Good people = good times.
  • A very decent volunteer’s job. Lots of people ‘work’ at the festival – as stewards, site-vibers, youth workers, artists, bar people, the list is almost endless. I’ve worked a few years, either because my day-job was for an organisation that featured at the festival, or, on one never to be repeated occasion, as site-security for the children’s festival. (The only good thing was the walkie-talkie I was issued with.) This year however, I landed a job that turned out to be great – being part of the review team for the Church Times. [Yet another example of why Twitter’s great – I replied to a tweet asking for volunteers in a moment of unusual confidence.]
  • Things to hunt – namely, Greenbelt Bingo [blogpost about this is in the offing] and Gnomes. I actually didn’t bother with the latter as I found out about bingo first, and with the way that I do Greenbelt, it was rather more achievable.
  • The weather. The only heavy rain occurred on Friday night, while I was in the beer tent. I didn’t get wet at all and – most importantly – it was the warmest at night that I’ve ever known it at the festival. No thermals required and no lying awake freezing at 5am, willing dawn to break. Joyous.

I’m hugely grateful to the Church Times for giving me the chance to volunteer with them – it meant that I went to much more stuff than usual, and made an effort to experience a variety of activities – which turned out to be a very good thing. (Specifically, the Les Mis Mass, which deserves – and will get – an entire blogpost in its own right.) If you are a CT reading type person, my 100-150 word reviews will be unidentifiable within the Greenbelt supplement, but my name may appear somewhere, which is moderately exciting. What was also moderately exciting was my Press Pass – the only way in which it was possible to get into hugely popular events:

Press Pass

Resurrection & the worship song

A few weeks ago, while chronicling my Greenbelt experiences, I mentioned a rather retro moment during the Rend Collective Experiment’s fabulous Big Top session. Towards the end of the set, the group began to play a tune that was instantly familiar, yet one that I’d not heard or sung in nearly two decades. I turned around and caught my sister’s expression – she was astounded and seemed to be looking around for someone to laugh with. Only no one was laughing…

The song in question was a Graham Kendrick classic from the 1980’s. One that had been sung over and over again. One that middle-aged flautists had played with glee, and that teenage girls liturgically danced to in an alternative worship services across the country in the early 1990’s. The song? The Servant King.
[Wondering about that liturgical dance? Think about the line: “hands that flung stars into space” and I’m sure you can begin to imagine it.] 
It may not be up there with Shine Jesus Shine, but it’s most definitely of its age. However, in that tent, on a hazy August morning, several thousand people sang it with enthusiasm, passion and real meaning. It seems that a song, relegated to 1980’s naffness, can make a comeback – and perhaps we should be a lot less cynical about the songs of yester-year…
Lately, I’ve been fascinated by the fact that many of today’s worship song writers are returning to old hymns, either in terms of song-structure (more verses with theological content, less repetitive choruses/bridges), or writing new tunes to old words. A current favourite example of this would be Hillsong’s Cornerstone. Last year, our worship leader introduced a new song with the words: “this uses familiar words, but a new tune – prepare to have your minds blown”. The song in question – a reworking of Be Thou My Vision – may not have actually blown my mind, but it has apparently become my mind’s go-to song in moments of quietness. In fact, it was written for an album (currently in production) entirely consisting of new interpretations of old hymns. 
The irony is that while certain songs and hymns of a bygone age are coming back into fashion, others of the more recent past are fading into naffness. Take Here I Am to Worship – a song that’s in the top 25 of CCLI songs, i.e. the Christian songs that have been most played in churches. Once upon a time it was the epitome of contemporary Christian music and it’s certainly one that’s meant a lot to me over the years. [The song’s author is in the year above me at Vicar School and as many of you know, is still producing high quality stuff, so I’m really not trying to do him a disservice.] However, when it was played at church last week, I was overcome…
…no, not with the power of the Spirit, but with the giggles. The problem was that it brought back a very vivid memory of a night in France, with a guitar and a lapsed charismatic Christian who could only remember the chords of one song – the aforementioned worship hit. It proceeded to be played on an out of tune guitar, in a darkened room of a chilly gite, with random people joining in in a semi-ironic fashion. Obviously, I struggled not to join in, particularly struggling with the fact that I wasn’t sure I could sing it in a semi-ironic fashion given that my natural instinct was to join in with the harmonies. But the whole scene amused me greatly and it’s clearly stuck in my mind. 

Hopefully it won’t be there forever as otherwise I’ll get the giggles at even more inappropriate moments than I do already.

So that was Greenbelt 2012…

Greenbelt 2012 will forever be known in Greenbelt history as the year of the mud…

The result of no wellies…

Muddy guy lay down in the mud for a free pint.
Graham found his hiking boots didn’t quite cut it.
Always good to see the purple wellies being well used.
So, so much mud. And obviously, you don’t get that much mud without a decent quantity of water. Like the river that ran through G:Source (the exhibition area, which my friend Shannon frequently referred to as the G:Spot – awkward) ending up a foot deep in places.
 That water was moving at quite some speed.
At every single one of my previous 14 Greenbelts I’ve come prepared for mud. Some years there was *some* mud – I remember a particularly quagmirish beer tent three or four years ago – but never has there been so much of it. But you know what? It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I thought it could have been. Admittedly, I managed to be under cover during every single one of the torrential downpours that occurred on Saturday afternoon; and yes, none of my tent mates informed me that water was coming up from the ground into the tent until after they’d sorted it all out; but I still had to navigate the fields of deep sludge for two days. Even friends with children said it wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be – everyone was cheerful and the only people I heard complain were those sans wellies. 

As ever, there are many highlights from my own experience of the festival – the silent disco has already been documented, as has my day of doing absolutely nothing from the programme, but there was more. For a start, hanging out in the Performance Cafe is always well-worth doing, simply because of the quality of the performers. Saturday night was a particular highlight thanks to Harry Baker and his poetry. Hot on the heels of his highly commended Edinburgh Fringe appearances, his set at Greenbelt had the audience in stitches, even when performing in German. (The ever fabulous baby Jacob was particularly delighted by the German rapping – that child clearly already has a thing for hip hop.) Lost? You need to watch some videos…

A slightly more musical and spiritual highlight was the Rend Collective Experiment. I tell you, it takes something special to get me into a venue for 9am at a festival, but these guys are something special. Somehow I’d missed them live previously, but had seen enough YouTube videos to know that I wanted to experience them in the flesh. For years and years I’ve found spiritually enlightening worship at Greenbelt hard to come by, but this was absolutely the best worship experience I’ve had there in a long time. You could say that they were the Mumford & Sons of worship bands, but that would be doing them a disservice. They’re creative, Norther Irish, have an awesome collection of instruments and a percussionist to whom I have awarded the title of ‘best beard and jumper combo at Greenbelt 2012’. Oh, and they resurrected a classic Graham Kendrick tune without a hint of irony and did it much justice (an entire blogpost is brewing on this topic).
To be honest, nothing says Greenbelt more than slam poetry and folk worship. Roll on 2013…