Sunday, 11 September 2016

It's not about the 99%

"Normal people scare me"
This week, I've been taught a lesson in humility. The press caught wind of us applying for a  entertainment and alcohol licence, and I hoped to tell a straightforward story about a parish church trying to serve its parish’s people: which in our case includes the thousands of alternative music lovers who throng Camden Town. Putting on gigs would also help to fund our mission of service to Camden’s poor and vulnerable people, building on the Legal Drop-in to start offering debt counselling, a homeless drop-in service, addiction services and whatever else we might need to do. 

But the story ended up being about me. Flattered by a question about my own musical taste, I threw into a press interview a few kinds of music I like. Funnily enough, of those I mentioned, the genre that caught the media’s imagination was heavy metal, and out of the bands I mentioned on the spot, they managed to pick one out which in its early days released some seriously anti-Christian songs. I said that it was not the kind of music we would be having in the church, and making the mistake of having a sense of humour joked that I wasn't worried about damage to the building, but inevitably the headline ended up being not about a church putting on a bit of live music, but about a heavy metal-loving vicar turning his church into a boozy nightclub. That’s a misrepresentation of our mission here: but I do still think that engaging with the alternative music scene of Camden Town is the right thing for us to do.

I suppose what sold the story was the implication of scandal: this supposedly upright man of the cloth is inviting atheistic, anti-Christian metallers into the church; worse still he is inviting them to drink with him, and to put the icing on the cake, he even listens to their obscene music. 

In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees complained about Jesus, saying "this man receives sinners and eats with them." His response was to tell three parables, the first one being the parable of the lost sheep: and the key is, that it's the lost sheep who matter.

It's easy to be complacent about this parable. Of course, you might think, if you've got 100 sheep and you lose one, you're going to worry more about the one that's lost and go out to look for it. But that is missing the subtlety of Jesus' point. We are not the shepherd: we are the sheep. And what Jesus is saying is, if you think you are one of the 99 sheep; if you think, Jesus says with heavy irony, you are one of those "who have no need of repentance," if you think you are one of the 99% "normal" over against the 1% who are not– you've missed the point. Think again. You are the lost sheep. We all are. And it is only by realising just how lost we are, just how incapable we are finding our own way, that we can know the joy of being found by Christ, the joy of heaven itself. 

When somebody says to me, "what is a priest doing listening to that awful, godless heavy metal?", I can completely understand where they're coming from. I don't mean to offend anyone with my musical tastes. But I must say: the parable of the lost sheep shows that we would be going completely against the Gospel if we considered ourselves the righteous 99%, and dismissed the metallers, or the Goths, or the Emos as the lost 1%. Rather, Our Lord is trying to get us to understand that we ourselves are lost - you and me both. He is trying to get us go out to our brothers and sisters who are just as lost as we are, trying to get us to go out to where they are, to understand what makes them tick, why they love the music they love - and he is saying that this is where we find the joy we seek. 

Metal is rebellious. It's angry. It's sometime godless. Perhaps that's why it's so popular in the tumultuous Camden Town. But that anger has a reason. Metal bands are angry with injustice, angry with being rejected and the feeling of being lost, angry with the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of the 99% who think they are the "normal" ones. And yes, that anger often comes out in abusive language, in anger at the Church, even anger at God. But God can take it; and so must we, daring to take up the challenge to show that the God so much metal despises is not the God we worship: not the God we know in Christ crucified for the lost, the outsider, the rejected, the despised. 

Put all the metallers, Goths, and black-clad fans of other alternative music together, and we are talking about a vast, international, mostly youth movement of millions of people who feel rejected and alienated and are often angry about it: and if we want to talk with them, to seek Christ with them and in them, first we have to listen to them and welcome them, however hurtful we may find the way their music communicates their grievances with God. Maybe they've got a point. The Church has certainly lost its way often enough to benefit from some of that anger against injustice and hypocrisy. As much as we might come to know God in the still small voice of calm, the peace and sanctuary of our church, perhaps we also need to believe in a God who rocks in the stormy hubbub of the streets and clubs of Camden Town.

Again, it would grieve me terribly if my musical tastes have offended my Christian brothers and sisters: but if we are really the parish church of Camden Town, then I stand firm in my conviction that we need to receive and eat and drink with the thousands of music fans who make Camden Town their home, with the humility to hear them— in full knowledge that we are no less lost than anyone, and trusting in God to bring all his flock home.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I saw the mention you got in The Times.

    How does it feel to embody that great popular archetype, the rocking vicar?

    I think Varg Vikernes should make St. Michael's in Camden his first ever live performance.