Mark Porter, University of Erfurt

“Where there is unity, God commands a blessing”:

Power and the Performance of Difference in Irish and UK Blessing Videos

Still from "The Irish Blessing." Used by permission.

While the vast majority of The Blessing recordings put together by different national groups follow a similar pattern in their use of the same song from Elevation Worship, the Irish blessing follows a different path. Indeed, on the website for the project, whilst the project organisers acknowledge the inspiration that other recordings of the blessing provided, they specifically emphasize that:

“There is a strong consensus that this should not be directly replicated in Ireland, but instead it should be a song based on our shared heritage.”

The use of traditional Irish tunes and blessing texts can be seen as offering a much stronger element of national distinctiveness to the recording. Whilst many of the recordings of the Elevation Worship song connect both to a strong sense of church–nation relationship via their style and organization and to an international spiritual imaginary through their use of repertoire, the Irish choice points to a national religious paradigm less caught up in transnational evangelical imaginaries. In their choice of song, the organizers attempt, instead, to find an element of Irish religious heritage which has appeal across a range of denominational boundaries.

The contrasts extend much further than the choice of song, however; and one of the most-obvious points of contrast is the recordings’ different approaches to questions of musical diversity. It is interesting to compare the framing of diversity on the UK recording with that exemplified in the Irish version. In an interview with Premier Christian Radio, project-organizer for the UK recording, Tim Hughes, says that:

“I think the Spirit of God on it, the sense of unity, the diversity, you know you’ve got the Coptic Orthodox church, the Catholic church, the Pentecostal, Church of England, you know, AOG, it’s just stunning and so I guess I feel God’s gonna do with it what he wants to do with it”.

In the song video, this diversity is made visible via on-screen labels indicating the church which individual singers come from. However, aside from these labels it would be hard to tell – individuals sing in a common popular music idiom filmed against cream-coloured walls which serve to erase any other sense of distinction. In contrast to this, the Irish version doesn’t seek to touch-up diversity to such a great extent via production values or through a single musical style, but provides space for a range of different voice-types, generic competences and visual styles knit together by the musical and visual producers into a space that is unified but not uniform. The organizers display a very different kind of sensitivity to markers of difference and what it means to participate in a common musical project.

The two projects were compiled using very different processes which are the result of contrasting religious landscapes. The UK project seems largely to have taken place via individual invitation, and is framed by organizer Tim Hughes as a hastily-completed almost spontaneous project. The organisers of the Irish blessing, however, display a high level of self-conscious reflection as to how they navigate the complexities of their national religious, social, and musical landscape. They write that:

“To accomplish this in Ireland, with its well documented history of religious division, had many unique challenging aspects to it, not least working across two political jurisdictions. While Christian music in Ireland is rich and diverse, not all parts had worked or connected fully together before. Therefore there was a challenge to bridge huge sections of Irish Christianity and its musical traditions, in a new and dynamic way.”

Whilst the UK recording fits smoothly into a relatively homogeneous transnational evangelical imaginary enabled by an ascendant and successful multi-national worship music industry, Gladys Ganiel describes the Irish religious landscape as a post-Catholic one, which is still profoundly shaped by Catholicism in navigating its current identity, but which has left behind a strong deference to Catholic institutional power.

It is a landscape which has been wounded both by religious divisions and by religious power and which, in seeking to respond to current events in a way which has meaning for the broader population, is unable quite so easily to simply present a pre-packaged product within an established generic mould.

In this landscape Ganiel draws attention to the role of extra-institutional expressions of religion in providing space, which still refer back to institutional religion but define themselves anew over and against institutions which are perceived as lifeless or problematic. Ganiel suggests that

“Extra-institutional expressions of religion have greater flexibility and scope to address diversity, reconciliation, and ecumenism than traditional institutional churches”.

We can, I suggest, see the Irish blessing as embodying precisely these kinds of extra-institutional impulses. An institutional aspect inheres in its organization by religious leaders, its reliance on a variety of different Christian groups and its incorporation of traditional Christian texts. However it also goes beyond this in seeking to connect with local community groups beyond the church, both through its incorporation of a range of different musical spaces and in creating a space beyond what might be found in individual churches themselves. It does this by incorporating a range of different musical spaces and in creating a space exceeding what might be found in individual churches themselves. This work is not necessarily unique to this project. However, in making these impulses particularly visible within a global set of The Blessing recordings that rarely do the same, this recording emphasizes the distinctive dynamics of the Irish religious landscape.

The Irish blessing, I suggest, helps to make visible one possible alternative to evangelical worship music’s frequent erasure of difference, to the uncomplicated coming together of groups and individuals which downplays their distinctive characteristics and the tensions which difference might serve to create. It does so, in part, out of necessity and in a manner which could cynically be read as a deliberate appeal to romantic imaginations of Irish culture. However, in doing so, it has the potential to ask whether the national imaginations of other Blessing recordings too-easily skate over the tensions inherent within other devotional landscapes, and whether the ascendancy of particular institutions might serve to enable the easy erasure of difference which often only becomes visible when that power has begun to wane.

This waning of religious power in Ireland can, in turn, be related beyond religious institutions to longer trajectories of imperial domination. Timothy White has written on how Catholicism in Ireland has been greatly affected at every turn by Ireland’s relationship with British colonial power. Distinctive Irish religious identities developed under colonial governance in reaction to attempted impositions from abroad, before nationalist religious projects slowly gave way to more-pragmatic concerns within a post-colonial national landscape. The form which the Irish Blessing is able to take on, then, is not simply a product of a post-Catholic society, but of a society which continues to develop its traditions and rituals in the wake of UK colonial impulses. As such, its contrast with the UK recording is an apt one, performing not simply the contrasts between two divergent religious landscapes, but the changing political conditions which have shaped those landscapes in relation to one-another over their long and still-troubled history.