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Saturday, May 13, 2006

Bishop Rowell on Dancing I've often excerpted from the "Credo" columns of the Rt Rev Geoffrey Rowell, the Anglican Bishop of Gibralter, but I never thought that this would involve dancing. Bishop Rowell is here writing for the centenary of the English Hymnal, and expressing encouragement, despite what he terms the "mantras of modernity," for "drama and movement and symbol." A while back, I posted from an article by his fellow Anglican bishop, NT Wright, on liturgy. Bishop Wright also cautioned us against a disembodied liturgy, since St Paul told the Romans “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Rom 12.1) and we worship with the rest of creation. Bishop Wright went on to caution us against the dualisms of the Enlightenment focus on ideas, the Romantic emphasis on feeling instead of form, and the Gnostic preoccupation on "who you really are." These prevent us from fully grasping what really is going on in liturgy. Wright told us that the ritual, visible, and communal qualities of baptism and the Eucharist help remind us, “The biblical story from Genesis to Revelation is a great drama, a great saga, a play written by the living God and staged in his wonderful creation; and in liturgy, whether sacramental or not, we become for a moment not only spectators of this play but also willing participants in it.” And, so, we are back to dancing. Here is Bishop Rowell, clarifying what all this might mean (the first example will remind you that the learned bishop is Anglican, I think): Brides enter churches in procession in a symbolic movement into sacred space, in which in traditional marriage liturgy the father — the old family to which the bride belongs — hands the bride over to the priest, who hands the bride to her husband as a sign that he receives her as the most precious of gifts not only from her own family but from God. One of the oldest parts of funeral liturgies is the procession — obviously practical to take a body, the mortal remains, from the place of death to the place of burial, yet invested in countless funeral rites with prayers that speak of a greater and deeper journey. This is summed up in the ancient Proficiscere anima christiana! — “Go forth upon thy journey Christian soul!” — immortalised for many in Elgar’s powerful setting of Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius. Pilgrimage and movement, journeying to shrines and holy places, people in Ancient Israel “ going up to Jerusalem” singing the Psalms, which are “songs of ascent”, are found in every culture and in every place. Patterned movement is sacred dance. In the ancient Orthodox church of Ethiopia the choir of debteras, holding their T-shaped monastic crutches, dance in a rhythmic pattern to haunting drums and the metallic beat of the sistrum reminding worshippers of the hammering of the nails into the hands and feet of Christ at the Crucifixion. In the cathedral of Auxerre in medieval France the bishop and clerks danced to the plainchant of the Easter sequence over the pattern of the labyrinth in the floor of the choir, tossing the Easter ball to each other in a sacred pattern of rejoicing. Stern Christians, nervous of corybantic excesses, disapproved of dancing. But others saw in the drama and movement of the sacred dance of worship a real rejoicing in God. St Gregory of Nazienzen, one of the great early theologians, tells his people that they are to dance the dance of David before the ark of God. His contemporary St Gregory of Nyssa speaks of the round dance of love as the very life of God the Holy Trinity, a dance into which men and women are to be caught up and transformed. St Paul speaks of Christ leading the powers of evil captive in a triumphal procession, and St Patrick praises the risen and ascended Christ “riding up the heavenly way”. Christ is, as Sydney Carter wrote, “Lord of the dance”. In Victorian England, when there were protests against the revival of ceremonial in the Church of England, a recovery of the dance, one of the celebrated “Ritualist” priests, Father Mackonochie of St Alban’s, Holborn, replied that it was only “the barest alphabet of reverence for so divine a mystery”.

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