28 May

The beauty of holiness

I can’t dispel the nasty taste produced by my reading the Church Commissioners’ Annual Report and particularly its description of what the church is up to in Liverpool. A project called “Zone 2” which features “cafe-style worship” for the poor on Sunday mornings while the rest of the Christians attend the regular Eucharist. The Commissioners say they aim to extend this Zone 2 stuff into other impoverished areas. Thus the poor will be impoverished yet further.

As I brooded on this travesty, I thought to myself that things don’t have to be like that, and indeed there was a time when they weren’t like that: a time when the poor were not patronised and singled-out for dumbed-down substitutes for religion, but were offered only the best. Throughout the 19th century, priests went into the slums, lived among the industrial poor and adorned and beautified their churches with lights, colours, music, incense and sound theological teaching. We can name names. First there was the Clapton Sect of High Churchmen, followed by the Guild of St Matthew and the Christian Social Union. The priests in the ritual movement conducted worship to the highest aesthetic standards – not out of any culture-vulturism but because they believed that all worship must be to the glory of God and to the edification of the people

There’s not much glory and no edification in Zone 2.

Standards in worship were maintained for the first two thirds of the 20th century too. I was brought up in a Leeds slum without benefit of cafe-style worship. The Parish Eucharist was celebrated according to The Book of Common Prayer and the musical setting was Merbecke, sung by the whole congregation, a hundred and fifty and more of us. Choral Evensong was also as set in the Prayer Book with readings from The King James Bible, with fifty attending. None of our priests presumed to offer us something trashy just because we were poor. I suppose we churchgoing slum-dwellers of the 1950s would be regarded as “elitists” by the present shambolic regime.

The rot started in the 1960s with the first of the modern services and the proliferation of new hymns and songs of stultifying banality. Merbecke was dropped in favour of Lloyd-Webberish musical clowning which recognised no chordal progressions beyond tonic-dominant-subdominant. The disastrous invention of the General Synod in 1970 and parliament’s abdication of its control over forms of worship ensured the triumph of trash. And now in so many churches there prevails a new tradition – one of intellectual and aesthetic bankruptcy

The fact that some people are poor doesn’t mean that they are also stupid and incapable of an appreciation of beauty and the finest things, along with a response to the articulate teaching of the truth. It is beyond demeaning, it is shameful to patronise those who are materially poor and to deprive them of the best things of the mind and heart.

“Or which you, having a son which asketh for bread shall give him a stone?”