Emptying the Churches

The recent news story about the vicar who imposed his own views on his organist and destroyed his excellent choir in the process strikes a chord for those of us who keep a (jaundiced) eye on local politics. What is it about minor power which blinds people to the need for consensus?

My assertion in the Vicar and the Organist that the young do not want to be patronised by the “anodyne tosh” of modern hymns is challenged by a university chaplain.

It may be true, he says, that most young religious people are conservative, but traditional services in his area attract very few students whilst those which offer the Shine Jesus Shine style of worship can draw 100 of them.

Whilst it is not the case that “pissing the organist off = hordes of young people”, he goes on, “it is certainly the case that Common Worship Order 1 + cold Church + dirge like hymns + servers and vicar in albs = complete absence of young people”.

My primary target was vicars who destroy what is attractive about their churches in the hope of enticing new punters – bugger off to a church which suits you, I say, and don’t tamper with one which suited its present congregation before you arrived. The context was the music, but the sentiment applies equally to the meddlers who vandalise fine old buildings with lavatory blocks, debase the service with the Janet and John Bible, or who patronisingly think that the “Common” in “Common Prayer” is licence to vulgarise the prayers to make them “accessible” to people less educated than themselves.

I did not really intend to stray into the question “how to attract the young into church”, beyond the implication that since everything else, from A levels to television to politics, has been dumbed down to fit the new notions of accessibility, the church’s original role (the societal and cultural role as well as the religious role) in maintaining standards was worth clinging on to. Is it possible that those standards might themselves be an attraction in an age so devoid of standards?

My correspondent’s picture (“cold church + dirge-like hymns” etc) reflects a deeper (and, I accept, a common) failing – these are churches which would be unattractive to anyone. But I did not argue that no church should be changed by its new vicar, merely that they should respect what they find, and subdue the reflex to behave like a new regional manager sent to improve the profits of a failing subsidiary.

We are lucky here in Oxford. You can find bells and smells or guitars and sandals, everything in between and every extreme beyond. Those who want the church to be a youth club with prayers can find it, and old buffers like me can go (occasionally) to a church which Cranmer would recognise, and mouth the comforting words and rituals learnt at school.

The conservative in me treasures places where the old values are retained. The liberal part of me is happy to let people sing Shine Jesus Shine as long as I don’t have to hear it. I would, as it happens, be quite relaxed if a half-decent local rock band turned up occasionally to give their spirited rendition of the Magnificat, so I am not entirely deaf to the idea that modern things may have their place in the service. The key words are “half-decent”, “occasionally” and “spirited”.

So it is not black and white. We don’t have just a three-way choice between my high-quality traditional choir singing to a grateful congregation of traditionalists, my correspondent’s “cold church + dirge-like hymns” or his implied vision of happy, smiling faces belting out syrupy tat. What we have, up to a point, is room for everyone’s tastes.

Up to a point. There are two main limiting factors – the rules and a consensus on the part of any one congregation – plus a third, which I acknowledge reluctantly, bums on seats.

A clergyman’s guidance as to how to run his shop comes not only from above. Committees of the good, if not necessarily the great, toil incessantly, nay wearisomely, to work up the next set of rules and ordinances. Like civil servants, they only keep the job next year if they produce lots new “ideas” this year. To my jaundiced eye, their chief work-product is a debased form of words which loses the spirit of the original and replaces it with chew-free pap for the Blair generation.

It is not just rules, but debates about wider issues – women and homosexual bishops, for example. Here is an extract of a report on Synod business of 10 July 2006:

“Having voted in favour of the principle of having women bishops on Saturday …”

Presumably, it is gays on Friday, the obese on Thursday, thick ones on Wednesday, blacks on Tuesday, a combo of all the minorities on Monday and back to the regular chaps on Sundays. Personally, although I draw the line at the thick ones, I don’t care what gender, colour, size or orientation they are as long as they speak properly and not for too long, use the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 and any edition of Hymns A&M between 1889 and 1950.

I digress. My theme was the constraints which limit the right of a clergyman to impose his views on his congregation. The main limitation on a liturgical and practical free-for-all is a set of rules which govern the form of service and the ethos of the place. They allow room for some latitude within which the incumbent can range – do we have a choir, should we turn the heating on, do I wear an alb or a pullover, do we sing Onward Christian Soldiers or Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam? They are not, however, the only controlling factor.

What does the congregation want? One assumes that some attempt was made at the time of the appointment to match the needs of the parish to the aspirations and views of the applicant, but they seem quite often to fall out of love with each other. Perhaps they were not quite honest with each other. Perhaps the choices on offer on each side were not very inspiring, so each put up with what they got, hoping to be able to mould the other.

Much like politics, then. And with the same effect on the interest of next generation.

More will follow on this.



About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
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