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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Spirituality and the Olympic Opening Ceremony

I admit it: I was sceptical.  The more the BBC ramped up the hyperbole in the countdown to the opening ceremony, the less inclined I was to watch.  It will be studded with slick celebs, I thought, cheerfully grandiose and gung-ho, full of the tired rhetoric of sport and nationhood.  Or it will be just plain embarrassing, like the Eurovision Song Contest. I’ll give it a few minutes, I decided, maybe dip in and out every so often.

But it was compulsive viewing.  This was not the theatre of stardom, 'us' watching 'them' dazzle us.  This theatre belonged to the thousands of ordinary people who took part in it.  And therefore it belonged to us all.  I didn’t expect to enjoy it but I did.  I didn’t think I would be moved but I was. 

Everyone said that the director Danny Boyle was faced with an impossible task.  Not simply how to follow Bejing four years ago, but how to present our country to the world.  In that, he succeeded brilliantly.  It was an astonishing technical feat that left so many unforgettable images, many of them of great beauty.  Who will forget the nostalgic rural idyll being torn apart, those industrial chimneys forcing their way out of the ground, the Wagner-like forging of the Olympic ring, or the Olympic cauldron being born out of fire?  Or the scores of nurses with their hospital beds, or Peter Pan and other themes from children’s literature, or Mr Bean (alumnus of the Chorister School here at Durham) at the keyboard during Chariots of Fire? As theatre, ballet, ceremony, call it what you will, it was hard to fault. It was entirely different from Bejing (thankfully), and in its originality, from any other sporting event I can recall.  It was far, far better.

But more important was what the ceremony had to say about us.  Is there such a thing as our national character, a collective British personality type if you like?  The opening ceremony isn’t simply a shop-window for the world: come and spend at GB plc.  It’s a mirror held up to ourselves.  The important question is whether we recognise ourselves in what we see.  And that comes down to telling the truth about us.  That is a far bigger challenge than pyrotechnics and clever effects.

I think we saw some important things that spoke about Britishness in the 21st century.  I’m not thinking so much of pride in the beauty of our landscapes or our pioneering achievements, though it is good to remind the world – and ourselves - about them.  I’m more interested in intangible values like care and compassion, inclusivity and diversity, flair and creativity, modesty and understatement, the confidence to be at ease with ourselves, our ability to question ourselves, our enjoyment of life.  We saw something of our complexity: this was an event to probe beneath the surface and explore.  It was good to see humour play a big part in the show, something we British are surely best at in the world.  The trouble with sport is that it takes itself absurdly seriously much of the time.  The large dose of subversive irony and self-deprecation (involving even Her Majesty) came over as authentic.  But the fun was at no-one’s expense.  It was all done with affection. Of pomposity and deference there was none.  Of respect: plenty.

In this complex, richly textured offering, what about the spirituality of the British?  Here again, my expectations of a completely secular ceremony with religion airbrushed out were surprised. The lone chorister singing ‘Jerusalem’ at the start (an echo of ‘Once in Royal’ at the beginning of the Nine Lessons and Carols?)seemed to announce a spiritual dimension to the evening.  Danny Boyle’s programme note speaks about the vision of ‘building Jerusalem’.  Blake’s great poem is subtly ambiguous: it would have been so easy to blast it out in the arena as if it were the Last Night of the Proms.  Instead, Boyle was true to Blake's text, which is his Christian vision of a just and caring society. But it has to be formed and helped to flourish with the native gifts and characteristics that make us what we are.  This nuanced awareness is, I think, an aspect of the spirituality of our islands that we cherish.  It’s embedded in the way we do liturgy and theology. In its eloquence and simplicity, that moment carried great power.  

The other moment where faith broke through was in the invitation to remember ‘those who are not here’.  After the spectacle and the celebration, what heralded the arrival of the athletes was not a grand rhetorical climax but the silencing of the crowd, an act of recollection, the words of a prayer.  For yes, unbelievably, we had all of ‘Abide with me’ sung quietly while a simple ballet on the theme of being lost and found was performed on the stage.  It was a clever choice because of its Cup Final resonances; and yet once again, it was subverted in a way that restored meaning to a great hymn and personalised it.  ‘Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes / Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies’: who would have thought we would hear such words charged with Christian hope and expectation at an Olympic opening ceremony?  For me it was among the most moving aspects of the whole event.  

There is more to 'spirituality' than when it surfaces and becomes explicit.  It has an intuitive side that doesn't get expressed in words but is still alive in most people's experience of life.  Perhaps in the joy and exuberance of last night, something more about life and about God was hinted at.  Perhaps some may have experienced it as a kind of liturgy.  Perhaps, even, the sight of thousands of people of every age, background and ethnicity throwing themselves into this genuinely democratic celebration offered a glimpse of Jerusalem and of the kingdom of heaven itself. 

When words of faith do get uttered, especially when we are not expecting them, we should listen not only to what they say but how they are said.  This was what I did not foresee last night.  And for once, I’m prepared to trust how I responded as I watched.  I believe there was spiritual truth to be glimpsed in what we saw and heard. Yes, it was a performance and a great one.  But the trick was to make it more than a mere performance, to enable it to say something intelligent and interesting, even profound, about how we are to ourselves and to our world.  And, the ceremony seemed to be saying, how we are before God too. 

  

17 comments:

  1. A great review, for something I found intensely spiritual and emotive. It drew so much from me, particularly the WW1 theme (I'm a former soldier) and the 7/7 theme, my spouse was working at Kings X when the bomb went off.

    There is so much more I could write, but found Jerusalem, a hymn and poem which is often derided as war mongering and Abide with Me totally gut wrenching.

    It was a liturgy, an offer of worship and thanks to God in a performance which pointed us towards him in so many ways.

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  2. Insightful, thank you! Just one small correction - it wasn't Blackadder during Chariots Of Fire, it was Mr Bean...

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  3. thanks - good thoughtprovoking writing

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  4. Thank you, Michael, for a very thoughtful reflection.

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  5. Thanks for encouraging comments. Have corrected Mr Bean (I confess that nuance was lost on me: kept thinking of Captain Blackadder in the trenches). As I've also now said, he is an ex-pupil of the Chorister School here at Durham. Without the first-rate musical education he had in the precincts of our Cathedral, I doubt if he could have risen to this one-note challenge.

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  6. I too thought of God often during the opening ceremonies. As a Canadian Christian living in the States and going to Britain in late August I was very excited and proud. The whole thing was wonderful.

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  7. Thank you for this excellent review. I have reposted it to both my "Soulistry-Artistry of the Soul" Facebook page (www.facebook.com/soulistry) and my personal FB page (www.facebook.com/junemaffin) with a personal introduction and hope that reposting brings more people to your blog. :-)

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  8. Thanks Michael, I scoured the papers for an original, insightful response to Friday eve. Here it is.

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  9. Thanks for further comments. I'm glad this has stimulated discussion. I am grateful to June for re-posting it.

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  10. I should have said that I'd reposted it to facebook than a follower of mine in the US, posted it to here page. She mistakenly described you as the Bishop of Durham. :)

    When I corrected her, she said, well, he should be a Bishop!!

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  11. I totally agree with this review!! I too was moved and inspired by the amazing spectacle, the portrayal of our social history and a very spiritual dimension. Wonderful

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  12. Yes, and the spirituality translated very well across the pond. We loved the inclusion of hymns. I felt Boyle's Catholic backgroud was showing through very well. And I personally was thrilled with Glastonbury Tor as a central image. I'm hoping people will want to know more of the history and will find my book: GLASTONBURY, A Novel of The Holy Grail http://www.amazon.co.uk/Glastonbury-Novel-Holy-Grail-ebook/dp/B00846FWYG/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1343751285&sr=1-1

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  13. Thanks for the review, it helped me to understand better in words something of what I had felt seeing this excellent event.

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  14. It wasnt actually British: it was London/English in the pastoral/sentimental vein of "Larksfart to Candlerise" with a token sop thrown to the Celtic nations through a couple of seconds of "Flower of Scotland" thrown in as an afterthought. That said, the Director had no choice but to go along with the pretence that there is such a nation as "Britain" in terms of either spirituality or indeed, sport. There isnt. But not a bad try.

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  15. I felt the opening ceremonyhad a spiritual feel to it. Thanks. You articulated everythinh I felt but couldn't say. All I managed was "Wow!"

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  16. Dear Co-clergy colleague and friend - Thank you for your insightful comments. The meaningfulness of this particular Olympics was, for me, sadly undermined by the International Olympic Committee's purposeful avoidance of acknowledging the murder of the Munich Eleven 40 years ago. The anniversary of such an attack on the Olympic ideal and tragic loss of Olympic athletes was in some measure sanctioned through silence thus allowing the terrorists to feel twice successful. I am encouraged by the sentiments expressed by sportscasters and individual Olympians and Olympic national teams who expressed their sympathies and those who joined the 2012 Israeli Olympic team for its own bittersweet memorial prayers, the bitter aspect being the way in which this memorial tribute was isolated so as to ostracize the Israelis and all those ‘round the world who are supportive and sympathetic to their great loss, a loss much easier to bear if not borne in isolation. The great tragedy is to bear tragedy without consolation and comfort, without friendship or kindness. What memorial tribute would you have suggested were you to have been consulted as to how to honor the memories of these souls who were cut down before their time? With shared appreciation for Great Britain's ceremonial gifts in honor of this 2012 Summer Olympics.

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