You could have called it Presbyfest. Music, food, face – painting, balloons and bubbles floating on the breeze, tents and stalls along the pathways, crowds of people glad to be together in the sunshine.
It didn’t feel like General Assembly at all.
The Church of Scotland General Assembly had opened the day before on a Saturday. Sunday being Sunday, the work of the church was put on hold. Traditionally, Sunday afternoon had been reserved for a garden party for the invited few. Last year, the church decided to try something different—something more inclusive and more in line with how the church wanted to represent itself in today’s Scotland.
They decided to throw a free festival. One afternoon in the park—a time to play and pray together in an open public space. Everyone was invited. And it was a hit.
So they decided to do it again with double the space. This year, the festival was themed Heart and Soul: A Celebration for the Whole Church, and it really was. Wonderfully, the weather co – operated. It was gloriously warm and the sky was as blue as any Presbyterian could desire. Just gorgeous.
Which meant that the park was full of people. I found it amazing to watch the church being the church in such a public space. Everyone who came through the gates of the park was welcomed and invited to join in however they liked. Some lounged on the grass and enjoyed the music. Families with children soon discovered the face – painting stall and took their place in line. Others had a look at the stalls and exhibitions, run by a whole variety of congregations, committees and projects, and para – church groups and missions, too. Some groups ran workshops—everything from discussions about right relationships with money to a presentation about twinning churches around the world. Others served tea and scones. A massed choir rehearsed. By the closing worship service at the end of the afternoon, there seemed to be dancing everywhere.
I had volunteered to help with the children’s events and was scheduled to divide my time among the various tents and workshop spaces for families. The first session was a drama workshop in participatory storytelling. The Spouse was there with our kids so, as I did the adult chitchat and sorted out my responsibilities, I watched my family in the background finding their feet with the drama games. They lived the story of the Good Samaritan. My three – year – old Blue loved acting out first his I’m – very – terribly – afraid – of – robbers face and then his scariest I – am – a – robber one. Horrifying. I love watching him imagining. And I love that this was how our General Assembly afternoon began.
I spent much of my afternoon in the Children’s Marquee where the Messy Church was encamped. In the middle of the space, there were tables stacked with craft supplies—sufficient pipe cleaners and glitter to sink Italy. The storytelling space sat at one end of the marquee with a simple puppet theatre and a large ground – sheeted space on the grass for the audience. A very enthusiastic group of young teenagers led the songs and puppet skits and everyone had a ball. A full volume, big grins, bouncing toddlers and crazy kids kind of party—exactly what the space had been designed for.
But in the midst of all this, one far corner of the marquee was set – aside as the quiet space. There, a loving prayer tree sprouted with paper heart – shaped leaves inscribed with prayers. From time to time, I watched as people went over and quietly took their time to add their prayers. I’m always amazed at how open people can be when writing prayer requests for this kind of public project. I suppose that when they walk away, their prayers are anonymous so some people feel ready to leave amazingly private and vulnerable prayers—prayers for a baby, for more patience with the children, for specific healing, for real forgiveness—posted boldly among the big – lettered children’s prayers for more fun and the grandparent’s prayers of thanksgiving for family.
This was the church providing space where we could all stretch a little, and where we might take a chance and mirror the Creator’s own bold and vulnerable creative love.
Throughout the park, there were four stages showcasing jazz bands, gospel choirs, pipe bands, wedding music organ recitals, and a teenaged Battle of the Bands. The assembly’s moderator was interviewed on stage, as were various other Church of Scotland leaders. Behind the youth stage, there was a soccer pitch with games all afternoon for those keen to play. At the other end of the park, there was a heart – shaped labyrinth lined with stones from congregations around Scotland. Storytellers popped up everywhere with old and new stories. Some were told simply, just spoken into a microphone, creating quiet pools where people stood still and listened together. Other stories were absolutely physically involving, like the storyteller dramatizing Jonah. She had a vast group of children making “socktopuses” and garbage bag seaweed, which ended up underneath a parachute in the belly of the whale—along with the storyteller and all the children! For a moment or two, there was quiet. Then one child bellowed to all outside the “whale” that there were bubbles in the belly! Of course there were! How else would Jonah reappear?
That afternoon at Heart and Soul in Edinburgh felt full of wonderful creative witness, and the vibrant, diverse gifts God gives the church were on parade. When my kids think about church writ large and about denominations, I want them to remember these moments. Sure, we Presbyterians are an institution, but that doesn’t have to mean there isn’t space for play. I want my kids to think of the church as a family of congregations who can gather together to play faithfully. I want them to think about the beautiful chaos this can bring. I want them to be amazed and joyful at the differences among us and ready to take chances, moving outside themselves, to meet others.
You can watch a video of the day’s highlights at heartandsoul2012.org.uk/about/video