Theatre in the Church (or The Struggles of an Indecisive Undergraduate- part 1)

I am writing this blog post partly as a request for help: I’m starting to think about writing a dissertation for FHS but I have found myself with the interesting problem of having three possible topics that I would really like to write about. Since Bill tells me it’s not actually possible for me to submit three dissertations (a real shame…) I have written an outline of each of the areas I am interested in in the hope that the readers of this blog might be able to help me decide which would be the best choice.

I’ve tried to keep each one fairly short (the others to follow soon…) so that some people might read all three, but even if you only read one of them I’d be really interested to know your thoughts on whether or not it would be a good choice. (That said, I reserve the right to entirely ignore your opinions if I feel like it!) Thanks in advance!


The first topic I am considering relates to my recent interest in liturgy. I am interested in a description and, I suppose, justification for what I would call ‘sacred theatre’, whereby I outline how we could understand the variety of ritual and ceremony employed in the Church of England at the Mass – as a model applicable to the church more generally – in terms of their being examples of ‘sacred theatre’.

This label is based on the belief that if we can have sacred and secular music, the former of which has an established place in worship, there should be no reason why we could not theoretically have both sacred and secular theatre.

The OED definition of ‘theatre’ is “a play or other activity or presentation considered in terms of its dramatic quality”. My use of the term ‘theatre’ in this context then picks up on aspects of this definition and concerns the re-creation or communication of a story.

Stories, generally speaking, are incredibly important for us, indeed I believe that they are our instrument of meaning, that is to say: something becomes meaningful to us when it can be understood as a story, or as part of one. I don’t think it is irrelevant or accidental that our stream of consciousness writes itself like a story; I think this is tied up in the way that we view our experiences as stories and attach meaning to those things as far as their narrative intersects with our own.

Stories are therefore a powerful medium of the communication of meaning to us, and Christian worship has long made use of stories of testimony or insight, Bible stories – in particular the story of the passion of Christ, amongst others, to communicate the message of the Christian faith in a more powerful way to its congregation.

Similarly, the sacrament of communion is told through a story: the liturgy surrounding the act, indeed the whole service, is the retelling – the re-communicating – of a narrative into which we are taken up. When we receive the sacrament we become part of that story, part of that process which repeats itself again and again.

And so when we talk of sacred theatre we are discussing the re-enactment of that story, the participation in that story, the dramatic activity through which that story is communicated. This is how we should think of the ritual, or lack thereof; of liturgy in a more general sense – as different choices of how best to tell the story.

How that story is best communicated will depend on the person experiencing it, for example: at my regular Sunday morning mass there is always a highly aesthetic element – the beauty of the ceremony a reflection of the beauty of the gift we are to receive.

The thing about theatre is that every element of it – be it costumes, actions, lighting, sound, music, dance, speech or anything else – is essential because it is essential to the telling of the story as powerfully as possible.

Different people will choose to tell a story in different ways, and no one choice can be objectively classed as better than another, but is merely evaluated on its accordance with criteria individually judged to be important or on its subjective impact on those who wish to live that story.

It would be possible, and indeed interesting, to evaluate each aspect of the ritual – considering its role in this sacred theatre and how it serves the purpose of the telling of the story. What is most important, however, is that each and every detail of ritual or ceremony or worship is purposed by the bringing to life of the narrative. Intricate vestments or loud music or beautiful words are only valuable to this project insofar as they bring to life the story of the sacrament which is the substance of the rite.

This is how I think we justify the importance of the multiplicity of approaches to the performance of the Mass in the Church of England: each person must find the way in which that story is communicated to them most powerfully, so that they may find themselves taken up in it.


4 thoughts on “Theatre in the Church (or The Struggles of an Indecisive Undergraduate- part 1)

  1. I don’t know if it’s the same in CofE as in the Catholic Church, but in the Catholic Church there are various theatrical elements throughout the year e.g. on Maunday Thursday the whole sanctuary is stripped bare, on Easter Vigil a veiled crucifix is brought into the Church and is uncovered during the walk from the back to the sanctuary as the lights come on.

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  2. Sounds like you’ve got some great ideas. I graduated in July and did my dissertation on film and the Eucharist for similar reasons to you, it seems. I was really interested in what you said about the role of storytelling in human perception (“Stories, generally speaking, are incredibly important for us, indeed I believe that they are our instrument of meaning”); have you read Rowan Williams’ ‘Resurrection’? All four essays in there (and especially the fourth) have a lot to say about that, maybe you’d enjoy it. Good luck!

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  3. Sounds interesting and makes sense. If you are able to read German, there are some protestant theologians who tried to describe the Sunday service as ‘Inszenierung’ – the verb ‘inszenieren’ means ‘to stage’ or literally ‘put in scene’ (e. g. Michael Meyer Blank). And the term ‘sacred theatre’ reminds me of liturgy in Baroque times designating the ‘holy theatre’ in the roman catholic church aiming at ‘staging’ and hence realising the celestial events or celestial world in the sanctuary. Good luck!

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