Improvising Church?

In February I attended the Bloxham Festival of faith and Literature supported by the Church Times.

The last ‘talk’ I chose to attend was ‘Future –Present’ by two pioneer minsters and teachers. I was interested in what they had to say about how we shape a church in the present which is looking to the future . But I came out of their talk feeling deeply uncomfortable. Of course you weren’t there (probably) but I’d like here to explore one of the metaphors they used and explain why it just doesn’t quite work for me.

It relates to Jazz: suggesting that the church, like a great jazz musician needs to leave behind the old and improvise a ‘new song’.

It suggests that although young jazz musicians know the work of the jazz ‘greats’, they leave it behind as they explore the new thing. Their improvisations are all excursions into the unknown. (and, by implication therefore exciting).

My youngest son is a budding jazz musician and has friends who are also setting off on the path to ‘jazz’ stardom.  He improvises and composes but he also knows the ‘greats’. He can recognise most tracks within the first few bars, he knows the work of pianist s Bill Evans almost inside out. He plays piano or trumpet for hours every day (as do his friends).  He hasn’t thrown away anything – this weekend he’s deputising for a Big Band pianist who is ill. He’ll play jazz standards all evening.  Because he can do that he can also stand in front of hundreds of people and improvise.

He can only do this improvisation because he knows the tradition so well. He knows how the notes work together, he knows the licks, he knows the character of the great men (and women, but mainly men) who have gone before. What may be surprising (and contradicts the argument I heard at Bloxham) is that he’s not really making something ‘New’, he’s just reconfiguring something that was there already – he just might be paying attention to it in a new way.

I prefer to use this understanding of jazz improvisation for how we might be ‘future-ready’ as a church.

I don’t want to start again, to tear up what we have been. I love the Church as the Body of Christ. I have been formed in a normal parish church and hope that we’ll find a way of being there for future generations. I think that’ll happen by us falling in love with our tradition – every aspect of it: until we know the nuanced chords, the jarring chords, the soaring melodies.  As we become steeped in the tradition then we can use it to create something new, something for this generation. Something which acknowledges all the great things our tradition holds and builds on it (but doesn’t replicate it) in search of something new.


Author: Revd Dr Allison Fenton

CCL IME Vice-Principal

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