When I first encountered Godly Play, I was working on my MSc dissertation in Scottish Ethnology. The overall course looked at how communities expressed (and, to a greatly diminished extent, continue to express) their identity through the stories they tell, the songs they sing and the names they give to the places around them.
My dissertation was a response to some of the feminist critique of traditional tales and was questioning whether, in changing traditional tales to rid them of gender stereotypes or the gory bits or whatever other parts shake our contemporary sensibilities, we are actually missing the meaning of the story, robbing it of its integrity, or changing it to something entirely different. In Godly Play terms, I was basically asking the question: ‘I wonder what part of the story you can leave out and still have all the story you need’.
So when I walked into the church hall one Sunday morning for a family service and instead of the sermon there was a Godly Play story, my heart leapt with joy. I was hooked.
Ten years on when I learned entirely by accident that there was to be a three-day Godly Play core training course in Edinburgh, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I have heard these courses described as the most exhausting retreat one will ever go on, and so it proved. The three days were emotionally, spiritually, mentally and physically draining. As a consequence of the early starts, no free time and very little space to process anything, I found myself deeply weary by the end.
But I also felt so deeply refreshed. Old, forgotten stories appeared like long lost companions emerging from the mist. Too-familiar stories shifted shape to take on new meanings and raise new questions. There was laughter and learning, fellowship and friendship, challenging discussions and childlike play . . . and really good cake.
One of the key parts of the training is having the opportunity to tell a story yourself. And it is truly terrifying being given a script, the materials, and an hour to learn it all before telling it back to the group. But we were put in small groups to learn together, to talk one another through the words and actions, and there was a great sense of camaraderie which came out of that shared experience of support and fear.
I found it surprisingly like leading worship. Once I had repeated the words over and over and over and over to make them my own, I surrendered to my liturgical instinct to trust it to determine the pacing when I was telling the story. I found that my nerves quickly subsided as I became immersed in the story and heard it speaking back to me. Parts which seemed odd and needlessly repetitive on paper and in the rehearsal made sense in the actual telling, and I began to appreciate the deep wisdom inherent in the phrasing. Like good poetry, it truly came alive in being spoken.
I have since spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the course, particularly as I turn my thoughts to presiding at my first mass in a couple of months. And although celebrating a High Mass during the Edinburgh Festival, on the Feast of Mary, Mother of God will be an entirely different experience from kneeling on the floor in a basement room telling a story to a small group of people, many of the same practical questions are there: where to look, how to pace myself, how to breathe deeply, find my voice and develop my own style of storytelling, how to allow the story to tell itself back to me.
But the experience of Godly Play has also helped me to ask different sorts of questions about our liturgy and what it is we think we’re doing up at the altar. And I can’t help but wonder if perhaps it would do us an immense amount of good if clergy, liturgy committees and church communities occasionally asked themselves the basic Godly Play questions about their worship:
- I wonder what part of the liturgy you like the best?
- I wonder what part of the liturgy you think is most important?
- I wonder where you see yourself in the liturgy?
- I wonder what part of the liturgy you can leave out and still have all the liturgy you need?