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What can we learn from the ‘Viral Vicar’?

Kate Bottley, who trained at St John’s five years or so ago, has been getting her fifteen (or more) minutes of fame as a video of her leading a ‘flash mob’ dance routine at a wedding she was conducting. If you haven’t seen it yet, enjoy!

Predictably, there has been a range of reactions. From what I can gauge, the overwhelming responses have been positive—though of course there have also been the ‘shocked of Canterbury’ responses too. ‘How improper!’ But it seems to me there are some important things to learn from this.

For one, the video suggests that church can actually be fun! This might seem like a trivial point, but in fact it is deadly serious. One of the two main reasons people give for leaving church is that it is dull and boring. As a lifelong churchgoer, and having been ordained nearly 20 years, I have a lot of sympathy with this. On the rare occasions when I have tuned into the Sunday Service on Radio 4, I have found it for the most part dull, dull, dull, and turned off. The last really high profile church service to catch the attention of the nation was William and Kate’s wedding. And what was the lasting impression (apart from the obvious)? That church services are stuffy and boring. Boring liturgy, boring sermon, dull prayers.

Whatever other impression we have from the New Testament, one thing is clear: being with Jesus was never dull! You wouldn’t believe that from some of the ways we do church. How on earth have we managed to make following Jesus seem dull or predictable?

Secondly, I think the flash mob wedding makes some interesting connections and breaks down some barriers. It breaks down the barriers between the solemn and the celebration. It breaks down barriers between the timeless and the timely. Importantly, it breaks down barriers between the culture of ‘church’ and the culture of the contemporary world, which is no bad thing.

Of course, as many have commentated, the whole media event is addressing stereotypes which are actually a long way from the reality of how church actually is in many local congregations of many different traditions. When I was in ministry in Poole, I remember one of those on the fringe of our church saying ‘This isn’t like the experience of church I grew up with’, and there are many lively, engaging, connected congregations around. (That’s why I though Vicky Beeching’s comment about what we can learn from druids and such was just rather silly and off the mark.) BUT the perception that church is dull, out of date and irrelevant is there in the public arena, and it does need addressing.

As others have pointed out, this was just a three-minute clip from the service, and we have little idea from this what else was going on. Watch the interview with Kate and the couple, Gary and Tracy, on the Breakfast Show to learn more. (I will embed it if someone can show me how!)

When I watched this, I was impressed with how aware Kate was of the danger of misinterpretation, and although there was little opportunity to raise questions of faith, Kate communicates well the importance of other aspects of the service. But I was also struck by both the awareness of the issues on the part of Gary and Tracy. Even more, it was really clear that Kate and the couple seem to have developed a good relationship and shared understanding of what was going on.

A high profile event, a positive media impact, a message that church is fun and relevant—and all undergirded by some strong and responsible pastoral relationships.

What’s not to like?

(Andrew Brown adds his ever-so-slightly-cynical comment here.)

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7 Responses to What can we learn from the ‘Viral Vicar’?

  1. Kate Wharton June 26, 2013 at 10:43 pm #

    Ian, I totally agree with this, & am often to be heard wailing “how on earth have we managed to make people think Jesus is dull?”! I think this was a fabulous, fun thing which has given loads of people an opportunity to see church slightly differently – because Kate is funky, because everyone involved was clearly having fun, & because all of that still took place in an environment of reverence & worship. So many of my non-Christian friends on facebook (& in real life!) have been talking about this – if nothing else, it’s great PR amongst young non-churchgoers! Great stuff!

  2. Philip Mounstephen June 26, 2013 at 10:46 pm #

    Posting as requested! I accept that the (royal) wedding was exactly edgy and pioneering, though it would have been hard to do a flashmob in the middle of it, so maybe the comparison with the one in Blyth isn’t really fair. I also agree that the prayers as i remember them were fairly clunky and grim (Kate’s brother’s reading was great though). My main impression, though, was greatly coloured by watching it in France, where of course such a thing would be quite impossible – not just cos of the lack of royalty but because of the separation of church and state. Watching it in that cultural context I was struck by how very deeply Christian the liturgy is. I know that seems like an obvious thing to say, but I think that in England we take it for granted. But I was very struck – and indeed moved – by that. It wasn’t perfect – but it certainly could have been so much worse! (But as I said that was really a by-the-by comment – it was the depth of Kate’s pastoral care for ‘her’ couple that really impressed me.)

  3. Ian Paul June 26, 2013 at 10:51 pm #

    Philip, thanks. Ironically of course, in France the state pays for church building maintenance, whilst in the UK the government is reluctant to give the church even a basic tax break.

    But in William and Kate’s wedding the liturgy (however Christian) was incomprehensible to most; the sermon was opaque; the prayers were formal and dull. It was a massive missed opportunity to say something clear and relevant. I couldn’t help feeling that this Kate’s 15 minutes of fame communicated something rather more useful…

  4. Rachel Hill-Brown June 27, 2013 at 10:57 am #

    Knowing Kate, I am not surprised by her desire to communicate joy in a culturally appropriate way and I think she has handled her 15 mins really well. Well done Kate! I agree there is lots to learn from this – Kate’s care for this couple will no doubt have a long term impact and it is clear to all that this was much more than frivolity. What I find sad in this is the on-going public perception that somehow church has to mean dull. I guess I am fortunate in that the place where I minister church is rarely dull. The challenge to the church is how to get across the message that Jesus is far from dull in ways which retain integrity and don’t water down the essence of the gospel – something which Rev Bottley has managed to do well here.

  5. Alan Strange June 27, 2013 at 4:36 pm #

    Kate and Will’s wedding boring? Surely not – who could forget the acrobatic verger cartwheeling down the aisle afterwards?
    (I was walking last in a procession in Norwich cathedral once, and, nearing the vestry; I can confirm that cartwheels can be performed in choir robes, although more Eucharistic vestments may be a little inhibiting.)

  6. Ian Paul June 27, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

    Thanks Alan. But, er, why do we remember the cartwheels? Because it was the most exciting thing that happened!

  7. James Pennington June 27, 2013 at 7:36 pm #

    I should say that I thought Chartres’ sermon at the Royal wedding was rather good.. but forget one cartwheeling verger, perhaps the Royal wedding could have looked something like this (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kav0FEhtLug) if ‘The Botley Effect’ had been present though?

    It’s a shame that the clip of the wedding we see doesn’t show more of the balance which Kate surely did give in the service itself, as Rev B points out, that of the solemnity of marriage, with the fun and celebration too. If people are genuinely put off by the perception of church being dull, they can be excited by Kate’s video, and can go and discover for themselves at their local parish church that.. well.. it often is dull sadly. I hope reality doesn’t all too quickly knock out the good PR work!

    My only reflection is that.. well.. great that the joy of a wedding can be expressed in this way, so long as, as Rev B points out, the seriousness is not undermined.. But all this does to me is remind me of the trick we’re missing here.. One of the reasons that Jesus is so exciting is because of the joy of knowing Him and the incredible difference He can make to our lives through the indwelling of His Spirit. Perhaps if we danced with such passion after Communion or a sermon (no pressure on the preacher) then we might better convince folk that the faith we proclaim really does do what it says on the tin.. and we can’t stop dancing (or equivalent) because our faith really is THAT good.

    Agree 100% about Kate B on the news.. she has handled it uber well, and surely will have helped people to have a more positive view of vicars.. which hopefully won’t be entirely destroyed the next time they meet one for real!

    My musings re the marriage of non Christians in churches I shall leave for another day altogether. 🙂

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