Long before a band adopted the name lona and went on to counterculture stardom, another band of musicians, THE WILD GOOSE WORSHIP GROUP, were exploring the origins of Celtic spirituality. John Irvine reports.
It was St Columba's fault really: in 563 AD he started a community on the remote and desolate Scottish island of lona from which Christianity spread throughout Scotland and Northern England. The Community flourished and eventually an abbey was built in the 13th century by Benedictine monks. The abbey fell into disrepair after the Reformation and was abandoned until 1938 when George MacLeod invited unemployed workmen from Glasgow and trainee ministers to lona to rebuild the Abbey and create an ecumenical community inspired by the examples of the early Celtic Christians. This community has flourished and grown and is today a famous place of spiritual pilgrimage. Musically, the lona community has not been without influence either, lona's Wild Goose Worship Group have seen their gentle, meditive, acapella music spread around the worshipping world. I spoke to John Bell, founder of the Wild Goose Worship Group, at the 1993 Greenbelt Festival.
How did you get involved with the lona Community?
"Through youth work. After I was ordained my first job was as a youth worker and I worked with a lot of kids who were unchurched or on the fringes of the church and I wanted to take them somewhere where they could feel they belonged, where they wouldn't be judged because they weren't respectable Christians, and where they might come into contact with the Christian faith, lona was the only place that did that. It was a Christian community and great things happened in people's lives there, so that attracted me. I took kids there and eventually became a member."
How did you get into the musical side?
"Again, it was partly through working with young folk and realising that within the church you had either the standard diet of Victorian hymnody and metrical psalms which were turning people off, or you had a brand of very English or very American upbeat evangelical choruses which didn't say all that much about God apart from how we had to praise him, or how he was marvellous, and said little about the reality of people's lives. So that encouraged me, along with other people, to begin tentative efforts at writing songs that talked about things other than just praising God."
How does new music get written within the group?
"That's a funny thing, I really don't know! Well, there's a process. It happens often after a conversation or after a Bible study, or by being confronted with a lack - what do you sing when you're dealing with people who are dying of AIDS? Or with people who have been abused? And when we see these gaps that sometimes encourages us to write for that. So I might get a bit of a tune or identify a tune that's already written, work out some lines, share it with my colleague Graham (Maule) who has a very good eye for sloppiness and irrelevancy, then we'll take it to the whole group where it goes through a third or fourth revision. Corporate music to be sung by the Body of Christ should have people in criticising, shaping, changing it from the beginning."
Why don't you use instruments? Generally it's just the voices.
"There're two reasons: one is that everyone else does! The other is that the principal instrument in the praise of God is the human voice. We in Britain have almost given up on the human voice of the people - the congregation just mumble along to what the music group or choir are doing. I believe that renewal in music starts when you say to all the people 'You can sing'!"
Why does the group use so much Third World music, particularly African music? How did it all start?
"Someone gave us a book of songs about eight years ago called "Freedom Is Coming', a collection of African songs. So we sang them and we discovered a number of things: one was that when you sing songs from another part of the world, you begin to engage with the people there and you begin to feel more for their plight. We discovered also that in singing the songs of another country, you stand in very intimate intercession for them."
What do you think we can learn from the World Church?
"To be brutally honest with God, to offer our complaint as well as our praise, and not to be afraid to do that. We can learn that sometimes an important Biblical phrase or statement which is repeated, chanted or sung has a potential for enriching worship which hymns of five stanzas and eight lines a stanza don't have. I've found in a lot of these songs tools to make worship develop. The music can liberate you by the limitations of its words and the liveliness of the rhythm, to do that which you could never do if you were singing a conventional hymn.
"I never realised until I was confronted with it that much reformed worship disenfranchises those who are illiterate or mentally handicapped because it relies on so many words. Simple music from the Third World which is rhythmic, which has an emotional intensity about it, which has a scriptural word in it, is used freely and with great delight by folk who are mentally handicapped. "I think praise has to come from the depths, the bowels of our experience as well as from the peaks, to be addressed to God as the maker, the redeemer, and as the God who weeps for us, who loves us as a mother, who provokes and disturbs us. Songs that say "this is what I'm like, God, and I need to offer you how I feel'. All of our human emotion should be presented to all of God."
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