“Churches ditch a traditional Christmas: Hymns books are shelved for karaoke-style carols” says the Express. They reveal that churches are jettisoning the traditional paper-based worship to move to electronic projection of actual words of songs onto overhead screens.
Well, I nearly spat my gruel out. Imagine the words of hymns appearing on walls like that. What a miracle. Frankly, it’s a wonder nobody got burnt as a witch.
I remember the first time I saw the use of overhead projection in a worship service. It must have been 1989. It was a church at 2 Mile Ash in Milton Keynes, and some kind of combined ecumenical service had been taken over by the headbangers of Furzton Church. Equipped with two guitars, a bass and an overhead projector they were tearing the place. up.
I remember the operator – a chunky, balding young bloke with – as it turned out – clerical pretensions. Clad in a red tea shirt and jeans – in Church! Can you imagine? No three-piece suit? – he was doing his best to stay up with the music group.
The music group leader – a chunky, balding bloke in a sweater – a sweater! Not tweed! – had a habit of repeating verses or choruses, switching songs, jumping up keys and generally doing his best to be led by a combination of the Spirit, on-the-hoof creativity and sensitivity to the congregation. Through it all, the overhead operator – working on acetates with handwritten words, remember – stayed with him. Up to the point at which the worship leader said “and now we’re going to sing that great old song, “Alleluia”. He had a Cockney accent, like many in MK. His overhead-working friend pulled out a fistful of acetates with songs that started with “A”, and another bunch that started with “H”, and looked at him askance.
But my point is – that was the 80s. And even then, admittedly in avant-garde, cutting-edge places like Milton Keynes, they had the technology to project the words of hymns onto a screen or a wall. The acetate-jockey was generally recognised as having the spiritual gift of Overhead Projection, but this was not because he had any great technical know-how – it is because he had the ability to work out what the worship leader was going to do next.
And, when you think about it, when all is said than done, moving from acetates to Powerpoint (or “an iPhone App” – shock horror) is just as big a leap technologically as from hymn books to overhead slides. Goodness knows what the Express would have said if it had existed in the 15th Century (which, if you think about it, it couldn’t – at least not straight away), or when they brought in the new Psalter, or when modern technology changed other aspects of our life…
“Churches ditch a traditional Christmas as illuminated scrolls are ditched for Hymn Books”.
“Churches ditch a traditional Christmas as Sternhold & Hopkins are ditched for Tate & Brady”.
“Churches ditch a traditional Christmas as begging for alms is ditched for Social Security”
“Churches ditch a traditional Christmas as central heating replaces freezing in a hovel”.
You see, I don’t know about you, but when I think about a traditional Christmas: the candles, the nativity, the carols, the donkey, cow, sheep, ox, alligator and wolverine in the manger – mum cooking the turkey for a month to avoid food poisoning and the sozzled aunties and the Queen’s Speech and re-runs of seasonal editions of Last of the Summer Wine on Gold (same as the rest of the year, actually, that one) – and midst the caroling in frost air, the shiny things, the tree, the presents, the decs, the fake snow, the bling, the Dorchester hotel, the girls in slacks – sorry, wandered off onto a Betjeman theme there, centre, Eileen, centre – in amongst all that, I don’t think to myself – “you know, the thing that would really make this Christmas – a real, traditional Christmas – like Dickens wrote about – the one I thing I really need, is to read the words of the carols off a piece of dead, pulped, reconstituted tree.”
No. The materials used to present the words of the carols to my eyes are a very secondary matter. In fact, remembering that dreadful Advent carol service – long and merry ago now – when a young woman from my college set her big 80s hair alight while trying to balance a lighted candle, a hymn book, a service sheet, her handbag and the collection plate – I’m inclined to think that the fewer things we hold in our hands during worship, the better. Obviously, you’d want to keep the handbag and the lighted candle. Otherwise some odd beggar might want to hold hands you during the Peace, and then where would you be? And let’s not forget that there are people – especially at Xmas – who don’t know how to operate hymn books, service sheets and – worst of all – the Common Worship book in all its hideous complexity. For them, the OHP screen is a blessing sent from the realms of glory themselves.
Overhead projection works for me. And the good news is that, in these Cromwellian parts, thanks to our Puritan forebears, we have whitewashed walls in our churches. I loathe the Roundheads with everything that is in me, but at last I have something with which to respond to the old ditty – “Civil War – huh – what was it good for?” Old Ollie, the evil murdering get that he was, got something right. And four hundred years later, we can rejoice and save the money of a projection screen when modernising our churches. The people of past generations with the charismatic gift of Overhead Projection would have wondered what they’d been given it for. Their time has come – let’s enjoy it.