notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Tuesday, May 20, 2003
On carnival and pageantry
The fairground trucks rolled onto the park opposite today; preparing for another Bank Holiday weekend. Maddened by the hairdryer tones of a scooter which three roustabouts were riding ceaselessly around the park, I sat down to The Ecologist and discovered an article by Jay Griffiths (writer of Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time) 'Rejoicing in the irrepressible and uncontrollable resurgence of carnival' in our time. She writes:
Carnivals are one example of what IÕd call the Ôpolitics of timeÕ. They reverse the norm, inverting the established status quo in the spirit of the Ôlords of misruleÕ who traditionally toppled the conventional rulers during the midwinter festival. The powers-that-be have always been nervous about that subversive beastie carnival; consider the UKÕs (black) Notting Hill Carnival, which has been so jumpily and aggressively controlled by (white) police.
She's doubtless correct in pointing out that 'Christianity sniffed out the earthy politics of carnival.
Britain once had hundreds of carnivals: blessing-of-the-mead days, hare-pie-scrambling days, mischief nights and cakes-and-ale ceremonies, hobby-horse days, horn-dance days and cock-squoiling days Ð each area tootling to its own festive tune. Many of these carnivals served an important political purpose, upholding common peopleÕs rights Ð rights of access, land use, gleaning or wood gathering. The common people had a common time for celebrating common rights on common land. But these customs were effectively crushed by one thing: enclosure. Once the literal commons were stolen, the metaphoric common time disappeared.
'Missionaries outlawed the Native American potlatches, and banned traditional festivals from Burma to Borneo. In Australia, Aboriginal peoples had held corroborees Ð festivals vital for the life of the land and which ÔsustainedÕ the dreamtime Ð but these were forbidden by both church and state. Christianity destroyed what earth-based festivals it could, tried to co-opt those it could not Ð tried to turn festival into pageantry that exaggerated the powers of priests.'Pageantry, she says, waxes strong today.
'Think Royal MayorÕs Show, openings of Parliament or BushÕs cheer-leading in the US. Militaristic and hierarchical, frequently royalist, nationalist and church-based, pageantry is the enemy of carnival time. ... Carnival reverses hierarchy, mocking those in power. Pageantry exaggerates social dominance; servile to genealogy, its coats of arms are all snob-rampant. Pageant is ceremony organised from the top down, rather than the Ôbottoms-upÕ celebration of carnival; it is based in capital cities not localities.This is awkward reading for one wrapped-up in pageantry these days, yet appreciative of the resurgence of Carnival , 'profoundly political, streamer-fluttering and transformative; vulgar, mercurial, raucous, loud, rude as hell with bells on'. I enjoyed, for instance being on the March 22 anti-war demo; I love the energy of grassroots activism when it emerges in creative ways.
Trying to find something redeeming in my tradition to align with this celebration of the pagan, I find it in an article from The Times, Christians 'greedy and bored' says Williams:
Members of the Western Church exhibit boredom, greed and indifference, according to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
He doesn't quite go in for sun-dancing but does '(urge) the Church to learn from the Orthodox Church, which describes the Eucharist as Òlife, light and fireÓ. Dr Williams says: ÒIt all feels rather different from a little piece of bread.Ó
Dr Rowan William says that too many people are ÒhereditaryÓ Christians who have inherited their belief from their forebears as if it were Òsomething obviousÓ.
Western Christians must recapture a sense of joy and wonder in the nature of God and to learn from countries where faith is newer and more vibrant to recapture the Òexpectant joy of ChristÓ, he says.
When the sense of being astonished by God has fallen away, he continues, Òwe look at one another with boredom and anxiety rather than with the expectant joy of Christ.
Well, that's a start. As even Jay Griffiths may agree.
"And we look, of course, at the world around us with boredom, greed, indifference, exploitation or whatever, and we donÕt look at it first and foremost as the Earth God wanted.Ó'