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.
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?
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?
As an institution, the Church of England can sometimes seem rather like retail banking: as soon as you get to cultivate a good relationship with the local rep, they get moved on. No doubt it is all for the best. There must be quite a few parish priests who would make good bishops. Better that the institution should benefit from their qualities across a slew of parishes than restricting them to just one or two. So it is with distinctly mixed feelings that the congregation ‘losing’ a beloved pastor knows that the diocese to which he (or she) is being transferred is thereby receiving a singular stroke of fortune.
So it was in the 1990s, when the parish of St George’s Parktown, Johannesburg came to realise that their ‘man of God’, and the very model of a vicar,Gerard Sharp, was being considered for the succession to Duncan Buchanan, Bishop of Johannesburg. In the event, it didn’t happen. There came a Sunday when Gerard addressed us on the matter, disclosing the fact that he was against his name going forward; he would rather stay with us. God, how we stood and clapped. Tha applause went on and on, and he was clearly moved by it.
Now, some 20 years later, there is a rumour in Hanslope that our outstanding vicar, Fr Gary Ecclestone SSC, is ‘coming under pressure’ to accept some important benefice elsewhere. He has said that he has no plans to move on; we know he loves the two parishes in his cure and we love him. He wants to stay.
But I can’t help feeling that as soon as the idea is made known, it generates a momentum of its own. It is a proposal which sotto voce persists and is not going to go away soon. It will happen. The best get moved on so that others may be blessed as we have been blessed. Please God, not yet.
And Gerard Sharp? Well he’s now Dean of Johannesburg. We miss him.
We watch a lot of TV series from the US, most of it very well written and illustrative of America today. At least we assume so. But one hole does appear in the fabric. For a society supposed to be so religious, America on screen rarely seems to darken the doors of places of worship except to attend weddings and funerals or chase people.
Of course there are exceptions. One episode of The West Wing shows the anguished president alone in the National Cathedral; another has Toby attending temple and talking with the rabbi afterwards. In ER, a troubled Dr Susan Lewis is shown in one episode entering and leaving a church at Christmastide. The NYC Police Commissioner in Blue Bloods visits his parish church for hard words with the priest, and I seem to remember Jack Killian doing the something of the same in an episode of Midnight Caller. I can’t think of any others. Brody worshipping on his prayer mat in Homeland is not quite the same thing.