A case for churches as performance spaces

With a Catholic mother and a Protestant father, I was exposed as a child to two sides of a Christian coin and was later sent to a cathedral school. During my teenage years and early adult-hood I had no belief or interest in religion, although later, having developed an interest in yoga, I did a bit of delving into Eastern religions.

After many years of having nothing to do with Christianity of any kind, I recently found myself visiting twenty six churches within a period of nine days for the Tuning Out Tour. The main focus was on finding suitable spaces containing small tracker action organs.

In the course of these visits, I have met parish secretaries, church wardens, caretakers, reverends, Fathers, priests, vicars, curates and even a self-proclaimed Archbishop. As a consequence, there’s been some pondering on these experiences almost with the eyes of a sort of ‘lay anthropologist’. Some observations are set out as follows:

What are Church Spaces for?

Perhaps churches have always been performance spaces.

Have these spaces, then, been exclusively for religious leaders?

And do singers, choirs and instrumentalists function specifically within this sacred and devotional context to reflect and enhance the religious message?

What are the differences between an audience and a congregation?

Well, a congregation often only speaks prescribed words in the ‘script’ which is the service, whereas an audience, although recognising certain cues – appropriate times to clap, gasp or laugh – has more leeway to respond with a touch of spontenaity.

So perhaps the role of a congregation is to be part of a formal, prescribed service, whereas in the performance scenario, a product is presented in all its newness and surprise, for audience consumption.

It is common knowledge that for most people these days, church services are redundant, given our current secular lifestyle. For a large percentage of the population church-going on Sundays is no longer a necessary part of the weekly routine. So, these days, while congregation sizes are declining, visits to the theatre or concerts remain the same, if not, increasing.

However, despite the differences, there is one similarity between the two scenarios: the proscenium or stage is the focus of a performance just as the altar is the focus in a church.

The third dimension: Africa

Religion, ritual and belief were at one time a part of the social fabric of society and this helped with social cohesion. This cohesion can be similarly observed in some of the rural African rituals involving, music, dance, costume and text. So folk ritual and religious ceremony do have similar functions for helping to bind communities, the former often being a threat to the latter – which is why the missionaries in Africa often tried to discourage the indigenous rituals, declaring them to be pagan and primitive. When we involve ourselves with music, dance, costume and text, we give it a name, which is ‘art’, whereas this word does not exist in rural African culture.

One possible reason for this difference is that in rural African culture there is no specific separation between performers and audience. Unlike a church congregation, African participants congregate in order to connect with each other.

A simple list of similarities and differences could look like the following:

Similarities

  1. performers at front

  2. participatory

  3. social cohesion function e.g. a meeting place

  4. involves music and visual stimulus

  5. celebratory

Differences

  1. interaction differences

  2. content: sacred versus secular

  3. formality differences

But despite the differences, there are now many individuals connected to the church who are trying their hardest to break down the barriers between them (the clergy) and us (the congregation), so the whole experience becomes more interactive. This allows more varied activities to take place in the space, and with this lessening of formality attempts are made to attract a greater diversity of people.

Not only is this happening in Anglican Christian communities but on 14th April 2014 on BBC Radio4 Today programme a news item grabbed my attention because it was about the same kinds of issues in connection with the fact that fewer people in Jewish communities now have the orthodox faith and the people who run the Synagogues are beginning to realise they need to use their buildings to create positive spaces for communities to meet and socialise, except in that instance there was no mention of art and performance events taking place in them…..yet.

So what does a church have?

The sacred perception of the space that holds more….what gives the church a spiritual ambience?….a kind of energy which is possibly tranquil and quiet like a library….do people bring with them this perception of it being ‘hallowed’…or is this a placebo effect?….or does it have a really different atmosphere?…..how different is it as a public space compared to a railway station, concert hall, restaurant, jazz club, public swimming pool?….my brother has a B&B which used to be a Methodist chapel….it feels that it is completely dissaffected now, without the slightest trace of ‘church’ about the place inside.

So human day-to-day activity and its accompanying noise is far removed from the quiet emptiness of a church space where thought and contemplation can be allowed to wander and untie the many contradictions of daily life outside in the world of noise, speed and over-production.

So maybe it is good to actually keep that quiet and hallowed vibe….so something like acoustic improvised music might suit a context where the interaction between the players could be interpreted as a devotional activity in the mutual sharing of sounds with other musicians.

New venues

So it seems that certain members of the church community are catching on to this idea of diversifying. The picture below is of All Saints Church in Kirby Overblow. The Rev. Stuart Lewis’s church no longer has pews. These have been replaced by very tasteful free-standing chairs on a refurbished stone floor which looks great. Also in the picture you will notice on the top corner a whole lighting rig….the space can open out in a diversity of ways for performance.

Image

Where the music and art industry has become so pyramidic and consumer-orientated, I feel church spaces can offer a really healthy opportunity for people to work and develop creative ideas using spaces that are both incredible and special.

Veryan Weston 14/4/2014

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