A letter from… Melbourne
Stephen Burns learns from Advent in Melbourne
When I migrated to Australia from Birmingham, the Church year became strange for me. Here, Lent is in autumn, days are getting shorter and Easter is not accompanied by the new life of spring. Advent does not bring darkness, but blazing, glaring, scorching sunshine, so the words and images of so many seasonal prayers and songs jolt. There is no ‘bleak midwinter’ here. Rethinking is needed. Towards Christmas, I’ve seen Australian Christians put ice on the Communion table rather than candles. If light in the dark is supposed to suggest something about lives being illumined for judgment with Christ’s coming, in Australia the melting ice in the wilting heat conveys the experience of standing under God’s gaze. Some Australians send northern-style greetings cards with snow-covered scenes – not because they know snow, but as a plea for relief from relentless, oppressive heat. Ice becomes an image of mercy.
I confess that back in Birmingham I’d written a book about worship and had no idea of just how fragile links like Advent/darkness could be in the southern hemisphere. I suppose I knew but hadn’t thought about how the patterns of the Church’s year are tied in with northern cycles of nature, so that one placed experience comes to dominate, proposing what is ‘normal’ for the whole. Maybe I thought that winter is peripheral to the meaning of Christmas, spring only ancillary in understanding Easter. I still think that, but I am beginning to see how so much in our liturgy dislocates, is disjointed, ill-fit. I had no idea. No idea, certainly, of how the dislocation feels.
This reminds me of what I learned worshipping in Birmingham with a group of elders from the Windrush generation. On their arrival in Britain, these Caribbean people had turned up at church and been told by the minister: ‘This is not your church, and never will be.’ ‘So,’ a wise elder said, ‘we just sat right down and waited for the bastard to die.’ A half century later, that church had become their own, and I was the newcomer. I admired their verve and resilience and felt astonished, ashamed and appalled that people from my own country of origin had been so inhospitable. I also began to notice things that I had never noticed before. Advent worship, for instance, was full of contentions I came to find offensive: ‘God is light and in him there is no darkness at all;’ ‘May Christ scatter the darkness before you;’ ‘Reveal the path from darkness to light.’ My elders didn’t like lines like these, especially out of the mouths of worship leaders who had merrily proclaimed them while trying to exclude their dark-skinned Christian kin…
Stephen Burns is Research Coordinator and Stewart Associate Professor of Liturgical & Practical Theology at Trinity College, University of Melbourne
This is an extract from the December 2016/January 2017 edition of Reform.