Feature: Memory Worship

“How can we sing the Lords song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4)

Julia Peek, from the Wesley and Highlands Methodist Churches, explains some of the thinking, and logistics, that goes into their unique and groundbreaking ‘Memory Worship sessions….

After attending a Methodist study day in June 2016 entitled “The spiritual needs of older people and those living with dementia” my focus was drawn to the difficulties for people living with dementia in expressing and connecting with their own spirituality. I came away with the conviction that, as churches, we should really be doing more. Worship is such an important channel for recalling the past, creating feelings of comfort, familiarity and spiritual fulfilment. We all have a continuing need to worship and experience a loving encounter with God but for people living with dementia it become increasingly difficult to make these connections.

When I broached the subject with my minister; Rev Julia Monaghan, it felt as if a door had opened. She immediately understood and shared with me her experience of a similar ministry in a previous post. From then the planning blocks seemed to fall into place. My first steps were practical ones, networking with the local authority to draft a proposal for Wesley to join the Southend Dementia Action Alliance, and setting out an action plan as to how Wesley could address the spiritual needs of people living with dementia. (You can read the Action Plan here). While a lot of local churches were offering memory cafes or dementia support groups, no-one was specifically offering a dementia “dementia friendly” services. We felt it would be both logical and practical to combine the support of a Memory Café with the spirituality of a church service, and set about trying to achieve this. 

Music

We started with planning how the sessions would look. Music is a very powerful trigger for memory recall and can take people back to a time when they felt safe and held by God. So stimulus can be introduced in the form of music, Bible stories, the Lord’s Prayer and other familiar liturgy. Many times during Memory Worship I have seen examples of the power of music creating a sense of spiritual fulfilment: a familiar hymn has the ability to awaken feelings of wellbeing and a memory for words without the need for a hymn sheet. And, our opening song, chosen by our Memory team, is not a hymn but an uplifting song that raises our spirits: ‘Bring me sunshine’, famously sung by Morecombe and Wise. 

Memory Box

Repetition is key in Memory Worship and nowhere is this more evident in the symbolism in the opening of the Memory Box. The Memory Box contains a red cloth, a cross, a candle and a Bible. We unpack the Memory Box in the same way each service. Firstly we open the box and take out the red cloth with the words “We shake out the red material, red for love, remembering that God loves us.” Place it on the table. This cloth then dresses the table. We take out the cross and give it to a member of the congregation by name to hold saying: “We remember that Jesus died on the cross and we remember that it is a sign of forgiveness.” Then we take a candle and give it to another member of the congregation by name to hold saying: “We remember that Jesus came as the light of the world.” Then we take the Bible and give it to another member of the congregation to hold saying: “We remember that the Bible is the word of God and we remember that through the Bible God speaks to us.”

Lighting the Flame

Then we are ready to prepare the Memory Worship table by returning the cross, and saying: “We remember that the cross is a symbol of hope and we remember that Jesus is alive and with us today.” Then we return the candle saying: “We remember that we all have dark times, but dark times can not put out Jesus’ light.” And, this is where we come to what I find to be the most profound part of the service, when we light the Memory Worship candle. This is when the person leading the service calls to the congregation: “And God said: ‘Let there be Light…” And, no matter how badly our congregation struggle with memory, everyone knows that God said: “Let there be Light,” and they all join in to complete the sentence. Lastly, the Bible is returned, and we then consider: “What are we reading from scripture today?” 

With Rev Julia’s expertise we have devised a programme of monthly services with a regular pattern of welcome, singing well-known hymns, reading familiar passages of scripture and saying the Lord’s Prayer together, built around the Christian festivals. In the past year, our monthly Memory Worship services have been attended by between 25 and 40 people. After worship, carers have the opportunity to share with professionals working in the Memory field and meet with other people in the same situation. Everyone also has opportunity to connect with their own creativity by participating in art activities, where we always aim to reinforce the theme of the service.

Memory Worship has become a warm safe supportive environment for everyone involved where all understand they are held by God. This reflects back to impress upon me the importance to continue to get it right for more people in the future.

“At Memory Worship we believe in a God that meets us where we are today”

Julie Peek is the mission enabler for older people at Wesley & Highlands Methodist churches.