Techno and ambient dub are the major musical influences of PARADOX, an alternative worship team which runs the Visions event in York. Phil Crawley reports.
Paradox in York is one of the hundreds of church-based multi-media initiatives to have mushroomed in Britain since the Nine O'Clock Service pioneered the way in the '80s. Their ambient/techno recordings, the latest of which is 'Lorica And Other Chants', show a technical proficiency far greater than most do-it-yourself recordings.
Theologically though, Paradox would raise an eyebrow amongst the theologically conservative. Their website quotes liberally from speculative German theologians and the infamous Matthew Fox (the theologian excommunicated from the Catholic Church and a major influence on NOS' Chris Brain). Paradox thinkers/teachers also take in Celtic spirituality and medieval mystics like Julian of Norwich. I spoke to Paradox's Sue Wallace.
Give us a run-down of Paradox and the Warehouse service and what you're up to at the moment.
"It all started in 1989 as a result of the Billy Graham Live link mission. We got together then to do a project in a warehouse and ran it as a night club for a month, getting Christian bands in. Back in those days we were more into rock music and graffiti art. It was such a success that we thought that we'd like to do something like it in the future. At that point some of us got together as a group and thought that God was saying 'Put the brakes on' and so for two years we concentrated on building community because when we first met we didn't really know each other, and quite a few dropped out because they were committed to different churches. The resulting 15 of us started doing things in night clubs and it felt right to start an alternative worship service, partly for our sake, but also as a place where we could say to people, 'Come and worship with us.' It would be somewhere that was friendlier to people from a non-church culture. That first service was in August 1991 under the name of Warehouse. We changed the name subsequently because there were lots of events using the name. It's now called Visions which grew out of some of the things we were doing in night clubs with our visuals. At the time we found it a really good way in as it meant we could relax with a beer afterwards with all sorts of people and sometimes we talked about the weather but often conversations got quite deep. The name Paradox came from a fanzine that we hawked around the clubs. Before that they never really knew what to call us and often referred to us just as 'the Christians'!"
What are you doing at the moment?
"All of the services run out of St Cuthbert's in York. Basically, there are three services; the first Sunday is the Communion - that's very ambient. The second Sunday is basically a prayer meeting that we call The Labyrinth where we play plainchant music and hope to provide a quiet space where people can come and pray. We provide a labyrinth layout on the floor for this purpose - they seem to becoming quite popular now as a prayer tool - provoking you to think about where you are and where you're going. The third Sunday in the month is the dance service, the loud one! So three Sundays out of four there are things going on in an alternative worship vein."
What sort of people are involved in putting it all together, who comes, and what sort of people do you think the worship appeals to?
"Initially the age group was young - I don't think it was ever predominantly teens, but definitely young 20s, students I suppose. But now we have the communion service the ages have spread to cover a more normal range. There is quite a good mixture of church-going Christians and non-Christians either coming with people they know or just trying to work out some meaning in life. Often they'll just drop in every couple of months, but we seem to be the contact in their looking for where they're going."
What sort of back-up does your church leadership give you in terms of oversight and ministry?
In the light of the whole NOS thing and the media feeding frenzy that ensued, how were you affected?
"We personally felt very sad and it did throw us in the way that we'd look at a church full of 500 people and think of what could be one day. I particularly felt for all the personal tragedies that happened and I was upset for the people involved. On the church side our people were very supportive. They know about what we're doing and are completely involved. They were more concerned about us and how we felt. They were offering tons of prayer support and we felt really loved. On the outreach side people are now a lot more cautious of alternative worship services, we have to be very careful with our publicity and are consequently working a lot harder than we ever had to, building up trust that we're not some crazy cult. From out point of view we had to re-assess what we were doing. Although nothing was going wrong we felt it important to have built in checks to ensure that those sorts of things couldn't happen. We brought in a friend of ours who is a Christian counsellor. She has experience in group dynamics and how people can force a view even in a democratic setup. It is possible for people to bring in hidden agendas and for quieter people to not have their say. Our other safeguard is that we have an advisory committee that includes the Bishop of Selby - he keeps tabs on what we're doing. He did quite a few TV things when the NOS news broke and has quite an insight."
On the back of that what do you make of Lord Runcie's recent 'happy-clappy' remarks?
"I didn't catch them first hand -I only read what Andrew Brown from the Independent posted on one of the mailing lists (on the Internet). He said that when he talked to Runcie at length he wasn't really referring to alternative worship, rather the Graham Kendrick type of songs. But not having seen the original remarks I'm not sure I can comment."
Another media interest - the Toronto blessing. What effect has this move of the Holy Spirit had on you in the last three years?
"Some quite wacky things have been going on in our parent church and some individuals in our community have been helped by that personally. Other people haven't felt anything but the attitude is very much, 'I'm glad it's touched you.' Within the Visions services themselves I suppose the way we've felt the touch of the Holy Spirit has been in a much more gentle way, it's kind of hard to explain, we've felt renewed love. God's been around. It's been an excitement for what we're doing, and I think God has been dealing with us in a way that suits our personalities."
Obviously you embrace technology as a means to what you're doing. (All of the research I did before talking to Sue comprised pulling down the contents of a large Internet Web site.) What vision do you have for how things are going in that way?
"I suppose technology itself is just a tool, we don't want it to become an idol. We use video a lot but try and regard it as moving stained glass! Yes, it's wonderful to have these things and we really thank God for these things. What we aim to do is to pass it on and share it with other people; we get excited about what God's doing with other people. We take the projectors and gear out to raves and use it for charity so we know that we're helping some of the poorest people. It may sound ironic, all this money spent on this equipment but when we do a charity dance-night we can raise considerable sums of money. The other exciting aspect is that it creates a sense of wonder; we can build visuals of creation in a night club and when people come in you hear them gasp, and the looks on their faces is like a kid at Christmas. If we create that wonderment then maybe people will think about how wonderful God's creation is, and then hopefully how wonderful the creator is. So we regard it as a tool, and hopefully were using it in the right sort of way."
What would you count as your influences from a lyrical and musical point of view?
"Musically I suppose it would be The Warp, some of the stuff that has come out of Sheffield - the listening techno music, ambient dub music, pretty much the ambient side of things. Lyrical influences - well, the Bible kind of rates high! What I try and do with the lyrics and the Bible is to try and phrase things in a new way if I can. Sometimes you can slip into cliché mode and just quote things. I try and paraphrase so as to make people think about what the original concept was. The group as a whole is very influenced by Celtic Christianity and some of the medieval visionaries like Julian of Norwich. Several more recent ones like Jürgen Moltman who strikes a balance when talking about creation and redemption. Other people would include Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa who talks about spreading the Gospel through love and servanthood and not necessarily preaching on street corners."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.