Oxford doubts

Religion seems to be having rather a hard time in Oxford, according to a recent article in the Catholic Herald (05/06/2015 p21) by Jill Duchess of Hamilton.  In it she quotes Charles Vaughan of the Oxford Union as claiming that many students now at Oxford describe themselves as only ‘culturally religious’ to some degree, and do not practice any religion; “real belief in an interventionist supernatural being – particularly the Catholic conception of God – is viewed with deep scepticism and sometimes contempt.”

I daresay that such an attitude has been commonplace at Oxford since the days of Newman and Matthew Arnold, if not before, and held by many,even, who later became ordained.  The obvious tagline is “And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief (Mark 9:24).”  I would also not be surprised if it was ever discovered that it is a stance privately held by many in the pew. Doubt is real – a permanent challenge to belief.

I have no problem with that.  Nowadays we are all individually entitled to hold our own convictions, secretly or not, and it shouldn’t be any of my concern that any fellow congregant of mine believes this or that, even as I kneel with them at the communion rail. 

The last time any fellow worshipper whispered such doubts to me was during a First Communion mass in a church in Rome. But who or where doesn’t matter. We were not there to worship.  We were there to witness the first faltering steps along the way of belief. “In the midst of the congregation I will praise you (Psalm 22:22).”

Back home in Hanslope it is enough that twice a week I am there at the communion rail, as an agnostic Anglican bearing witness to what I believe to be a profound truth about the human predicament.  It is enough. I know what I believe, and God knows it too. He helps my unbelief.

One of life’s greatest pleasures must surely be watching one’s first grandchild grow up.  Day by day, he shows beguiling signs of physical and mental development.  The fact that he can now do or say this or that new action or verbalisation is continually fascinating.  Most of all, I think, how wonderful it is to see the individual appear, in all his uniqueness and emerging personality.  There can never be anything quite like him, even a sibling; a new human being commanding our attention and respect.

For the individual to lay claim to this singleness, it is not at all necessary for him or her to be rich or famous in worldly terms.  All that he has to do is exist.  No matter who he is, I remember reading once, he will leave his footprints in the clay we all walk on, and they will be inextinguishable.  The universe knows who he is; who each one of us is.

As so often happens, the Bible gets there before us.  “And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them… [but] their name liveth for evermore” (Ecclesiasticus 44: 9,14).  The conviction that each one of us is known to the universe – that we can never live or die in secret – is the impulse propelling the perception that faith being essentially a human work of art tends to favour those parts of faith which acknowledge this intermingling of humanity and the rest of creation in particular ways, and celebrate it.  More than Judaism’s communitarianism of the people (Genesis 28:3) and Islam’s emphasis on the ummah, the collective, Christianity is attentive to the ever-shifting, often painful  balance between humankind and “God”.  The whole New Testament is a meditation, in various styles and different emphases, on this aspect of humanism, entranced by the concept of “God” appearing to us as an individual.

Our grandson can believe what he likes, of course, but I hope that over the years he will always be willing and able to exercise and celebrate his individualism, meshing with ours. We love him for it.  Day by day that interaction grows like a plant.

Giles Fraser in the Guardian writes “For God is the story of human dreams and fears. God is the shape we try to make of our lives. God is the name of the respect we owe the planet. God is the poetry of our lives. Of course this is real. Frighteningly real. Real enough to live and die for even. But this is not the same as saying that God is a command and control astronaut responsible for some wicked hunger game experiment on planet earth. Such a being does not exist.” Exactly.

Sweet Christmas

Victorian sentimentality still pervades the Church of England, never more so than at Christmastide.  Sometimes the imagery threatens to overwhelm the message, or even common sense, and collides with itself.  A good example of trying to get both feet into the same sock is presented by two much-loved Christmas carols.  Away in a manger coos over “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”, while Once in Royal David’s City assures us that, through out his childhood, “tears and smiles like us he knew.” Which is the soppiest?

Anglican hymnody is full of such clunkers (rhyming ‘God’ with ‘sod’, for example) but it is often difficult to sacrifice the whole hymn just because part of it refers to some obsolete belief, is written in arcane language or is just plain ridiculous.  Hymns have a long shelf life. We treasure them still, because they still – just – get away with it.  Victorian sentimentality gets us over the difficult bits.

It’s not really a big problem, not least because this Christmas, our local church choir here in Hanslope is booked to sing carols in a local pub and no-one there will think any the less of us if we merrily trill “Seraph quire singeth, angel bell ringeth” over the real ales.  We’ll all be part of a joint, gladsome conspiracy to suspend our disbelief, for once, and genial bewilderment at some of the expressions used.  Hey, it’s Christmas!

So the Archbishop of Canterbury says that he sometimes has doubts about God.  So what?  If God was knowable, He would not be worth knowing.  The Most Reverend is intelligent enough not to have to be told this and I am sure that he is aware of all the latest thinking on the subject, including the wrong-headed ideas of Prof Dawkins. As Andrew Brown says, the revelation shows that he is human. But would other congregants of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) agree?

Spiritual fitness

For the believer, worship in the formal religious setting is not unlike going to the gym.  In both cases, the building is fit for purpose.  Arriving there, you’re welcomed by expert staff.  The place is filled with an atmosphere of common determination towards achieving a greater good.  One is surrounded by people who want to enhance their quality of life and are prepared to put in some time and effort with which to do so.

There are various routines to be gone through, familiar to regular participants, with or without specialised equipment or tools;  some are benign and enjoyable; many are less so.  Personal trainers are on hand to help those who need incentives to work at the discipline as well as lose the baggage they came in with. There are fees to be paid (gyms expect to be paid; churches, synagogues and mosques are always looking for money).

There are downsides, of course. Worship precludes, as get-fit does not, watching Sky News as you work out. Listening to your own stuff through headphones is no problem in the gym, whilst in church taking phone calls – and making them – on your mobile phone is definitely frowned upon.  And, unlike possible behaviour in gyms, flirting with other participants in worship situations, whilst not unknown, is absolutely forbidden.

But there is at least one major thing in common between the settings.  It’s why you’re there.  In church as in the gym, you are committed to the deal on offer.  Work with us, goes the message, and your life will improve. Failure to turn up regularly loses you points. Stopping is not an option. After a while – some weeks, perhaps – you see how this could be so and you relax into the discipline.  You get fit.

On Sunday we attended the first communion mass for the daughter of a friend, in an RC church in one of Milton Keynes’ 77 neighbourhoods.  Like every other Roman Catholic mass we have attended recently, this one took place in a modern building designed in Brutalist style – plate glass everywhere, light-coloured conference centre-type wooden furnishings, exposed beams, painted concrete – lifting up a single enormous skylight bathing the whole interior in natural light.

All the usual depressing details of the decorative mis-en-scène of the church today are present: Stations of the Cross in sub-Gill semi-cartoon format, Sunday school murals and, suspended above the free-standing altar, a modernistic but faceless (!) depiction of the Risen Christ.  The music is all evangelical songbook ditties – folksy tunes you can’t get out of your head, banal words, guitar accompaniment.  The flow of the service, too, as I have seen elsewhere, seems all too provisional, improvisational, laid back: unexpectedly, disturbingly unserious.

It’s not helped by being subject to numerous sotto voce asides from the priest himself.  Their purpose seems to be to reassure all those present that what we are collectively involved with here is a temporary suspension of normal behaviour in order to accommodate the outlandish, scarcely credible demands of the eucharistic liturgy before we can return to normal daily life.  Its effect is that of a let’s-get-this-over-with lack of any profundity of thought or intensity of experience.

Except for the communion in both kinds (when did that happen?), the questionable aspects of modern Catholic worship – at least, from an Anglican perspective – are on full display.  Confusion in the sanctuary; gabbling of the text; the constant feeling of routine.

Queuing to receive communion, one after the other down the line, is oxymoronic; we should be in it all together, instead of participating in an individual, semi-automatic box-tick proceeding.  Where is the majesty, the quiet engagement, the sense of bringing the burden of our sins to rest upon the altar?  Where is the quality in this routine enactment?  Where is the mystery? Where is the feeling of God Shared?

What goes on in church, especially at the altar rail, is supposed to elevate us, or bring us up short.  If the Roman church itself fails in this duty, what is the point?


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