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Hallo again to all.

We remember some years ago being on holiday in Greater London and, on the same day, worshipping in one of England's great stone cathedrals and seeing in an IMAX cinema a film about volcanos. Or should we say 'experiencing it in an IMAX cinema', since IMAX facilities are as much about weapons-grade audio as they are about vertigo-inducing imagery. During the years since then, we've seen motion pictures in which explosions, scary monsters, awe-inducing demons, and angry wizards are featured as much as sweet music, pretty pictures, and a romantic plot. If the motion picture includes a train crash, you can be sure that it will look and feel as though a real, larger-than-life train is crashing violently and uncomfortably close to where you are sitting. The cinematographer shows us the raw power of a hurtling train, and the sound effects help us feel what happens when that power goes astray.

We also remember (and have discussed here on occasion) attending Mass in our travels that felt very different, bordering on feeling very wrong. Once in our own parish there was a twelfth-night service featuring two drummers and an electric guitar. In Australia we attended a service that had a four-piece rock band in lieu of a choir. Once in the southern part of the USA we heard a sermon by a man who literally shouted every word of it, pausing at times in the style of Baptist preachers to wait for the congregation to affirm 'Amen'.

Today, after decades of attendance at Anglican churches, it all suddenly made sense. We heard a superb Pentecost sermon whose point was that the Holy Spirit is not always meek and subtle. The Spirit, said the preacher, can be powerful and explosive and forceful, and doesn't necessarily whisper waiting patiently for us to hear and understand.

It's all about bombast.

A wall of loudspeakersThink back a thousand years to the golden era of cathedral construction in Europe and Britain. The designers of these great buildings weren't merely trying to make them be holy or gentle or artistic. They wanted them to be monumental and awe-inspiring, to be bombastic, to remind us more of God's power than of God's grace. Beauty was important, but the goal was never to make a cathedral be as beautiful as flowers or sunny days. The goal was to make everyone who looked up and saw the cathedral cringe a little and think 'God is not to be trifled with'.

When the pipe organ came along a couple of centuries later, it could make the loudest sounds that anyone had ever heard save those involving gunpowder. In the 17th century, the pipe organ was the absolute height of bombast. Make those stones shake, baby. Show 'em who's got the power.

We're completely certain that if in the 14th century, progress in musical instruments had created electric guitars and megawatt amplifiers, that Europe's cathedrals would have had banks of speakers and the mediæval equivalent of Pete Townshend wielding the axe. The pipe organ didn't become the instrument of choice for cathedrals because of the sweetness with which it could play love songs. You can get sweetness from a violin. The pipe organ was chosen because it was loud, because it could shake the rafters (well, shake the vaulting) and inspire awe if not outright fear. A 21st-century performance sound system can be so much more in-your-face powerful than a mere pipe organ that it's almost an unfair comparison. We once attended a pop-music concert at Parc des Princes (near Paris) at which the audience thought a helicopter was landing (presumably to deliver the star performer) but eventually realized that it was just someone showing off the power and phase precision of the sound system.

We wonder whether one reason why we haven't enjoyed the addition of electric guitars to an Anglican Eucharist is that they didn't go nearly far enough. Adding an electric guitar to a worship space designed for pipe organ and robed choir is a bit like watching and listening to a train wreck on an iPhone video. Why not think big? If a big cinema with a muscular sound system can demonstrate the power of the X-Men, why can't it demonstrate the power of God?

Maybe the next time a major church or cathedral is burned down or washed away or blown up, why not replace it with something that can deliver the maximum bombast that modern civilization can achieve? Pipe organs are so last-millennium. Rebuild that cathedral as an IMAX dome with a 200-kilowatt sound system. Create 'Common Worship in IMAX 3D'. Hand out 3D glasses along with service leaflets or encourage the faithful to buy and bring their own. Help with church finances by renting out the space for commercial movies during the week, but tuck into every movie an advert for the IMAX 3D Sunday service. Call the hymns 'karaoke' if you think that will be well received. For about the same price as a good bicycle, you can buy an electronic box that connects to a microphone and makes Walter Mitty sound like Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Bombast. Another denomination has claimed the name 'Pentecostal', but we Anglicans can be powerful like the Holy Spirit if we want to.

We're thinking of buying tickets to a Cirque du Soleil performance to see how we think their performance space would work for Anglican worship. They certainly understand bombast.

But wait! Can you be Anglican and bombastic at the same time? Would this turn us into Baptists? Is an Anglican church supposed to be a respite from the growing bombast of everyday life? If it is, then will anyone born after 1980 bother to attend? What do you think?

See you next week. And we'll hear you too, because we'll wear earplugs around loud sounds.

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Last updated: 12 June 2011

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