THEY say, somewhat unkindly I feel, that the church is usually around a decade behind the times in the concerns and style it espouses. Well I've just returned from Glasgow, last year's European City of Culture. Only 12 months out of date — or to be fair, since I'm in a scrupulous mood — just over a month en retard.
It was none the worse for the transfer of the continent's artistic affections to Dublin. Less crowded perhaps, but magnificent in its Victorian splendours, and somewhat reminiscent of my home town, Liverpool.
Both are the legacy of a generation of prosperous merchants who in the latter years of the nineteenth century clearly, judging by the architecture they patronised, felt that the world was theirs. While both cities have had their problems since and have taken many knocks to such boundless confidence, Glasgow appears, to the untrained eye of the noneconomist at least, to have bounced back.
While Liverpool languishes in an economic and psychological pit that is not so much of its people's making as many would like you to believe (Whitehall and successive secretaries of state have contributed their share of misfortune to add to the self-inflicted wounds of the local council), Glasgow is ebullient. Its Victorian masterpieces have been lovingly preserved, their facades disguishing a wealth of redevelopment behind the scenes. DESPITE the fact that Britain is a small island, a blip on the world map, and to many 1 am considered a northerner, before my recent trip 1 had only been to Scotland once — and then to the rather Anglicised city of Dornoch with its tiny cathedral and championship golf course in the far north east.
My images of Glasgow were therefore somewhat of a caricature culled from a variety of TV series starring Denis Lawson and Adam Faith. I was surprised, for example, to learn on the journey in from the airport that the Gorbals of folklore with its tenement blocks no longer exists.
What stands proud in the Gorbals area though is the Citizens' Theatre, a smart new foyer fronting the music-hall style building of Victorian times.
Until February 23, it is staging a production called simply The Gospels, based on the four texts in the King James' Bible of 1611. The Citizens has a reputation for the innovatory, and opting for the stereotype as ever, I had decided in advance that this production was going to he less than faithful and rather outre in its images. Once again totally wrong.
The cast of six — two women and four men — simply told it as it was written, highlighting the cadances, rhythms and exquisite poetry of the prose of the King James' Bible. Using very few props, they took it in turns to play the central role of Jesus — the fact that Debra Gillett and Anne Myatt spoke as Christ more than compensating for the notably exclusive language of the ancient text.
It is hard to explain why such a simple idea should be so powerful and in its own stark way innovative. By stripping away all the extras that can clutter our understanding of the gospel message, by linking together in one moment individual stories and incidents in Christ's life that when heard piecemeal at Sunday masses have little coherence, it was more eloquent than any gospel commentary or course of study. And the cast of six — and in
particular Sandy Welch who held me spellbound for ten minutes by the power of his voice and his stage presence as he spoke the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount without recourse to a single prop — were superb.
What The Gospels demonstrated very clearly was Christ's real concern in his teaching ministry. Seldom did he mention the private, sexual morality that seems to so much fascinate our church leaders today. Instead he was a social reformer, a teacher with a message as relevant to how we organise our society today as it was 200 years ago.
And brought to the fore too was his humanity, as portrayed in what I always feel is the most moving and beautiful moment in the gospels in John's account of Mary Magdalen coming to the tomb after the crucifixion. Seeing it empty she asks a gardener standing nearby where they have taken her Lord. She does not recognise the gardener as Jesus, but he simply says to her "Mary", one word charged with so much emotion, and at once she knows him. The Gospels success in capturing the beauty of this single word was the hallmark of a production that should not be missed.
SINCE Glasgow today has such a reputation as a cultural centre, another local character not to be missed was Canon Sydney MacEwan. Now in his 80s and enjoying a well-earnt retirement in the city of his birth, Canon Sydney once toured the world, delighting audiences with his lyric tenor voice, while his recording career spanned nearly four decades.
His singing career began as a student at Glasgow University when, on hearing him sing, the then Lord Rector, Cotnpton Mackenzie, suggested he go to the Royal Academy in London. There the young Sydney MacEwan so impressed the internationally renown tenor John McCormack that he was invited to his borne to sing, beginning a long friendship.
Soon his reputation grew as a fine interpreter of traditional
songs, and Sydney MaeLwan set off in 1935 on one of the great liners — boats have remained a lifelong passion — for New Zealand, Australia and America where his concerts drew enthusiastic notices.
However, by the time he returned to Glasgow a star, he had decided to enter a seminary. "It was no road to Damascus experience. I'd always been around the church".
He went initially to the Scots College in Rome, but returned in 1940 on the outbreak of war. After ordination he spent five years attached to Glasgow cathedral before taking over a vacant parish of Lochgilphead in the diocese of Argyll and the Isles. It was to be home to Canon Sydney for 18 years, and also his base as he embarked on what he now refers to as "my second singing career".
It started up again with an invitation to Cork for a one-off charity event, which lead to his representing the Scottish church in Melbourne, at the Australian diocese's centenary celebrations. While there he was signed up for a 12 concert tour — travelling around at one stage by flying boat — and then he did several tours of America.
The proceeds from one such venture went to pay for the diocese's new cathedral at Oban, and many other charities have benefitted from the canon's generosity. "People think I'm a millionaire", he told me. "But they'll get a surprise when I go".
His final recording was in 1972 — Suffer Little Children — and his retirement came at a time when he realised his voice was going. His interest in music remains keen—although he denies singing in the bath. As well as recalling his own concerts of the past, he keeps an eye on current fashions in church music. The newer charismatic style hymns find little favour with this singer, although the development of the liturgy in the vernacular is something he has championed.
HOMELESSNESS, as outlined by the bishops' in their November statement and in the Lenten series we begin on page eight, is a matter of concern for all of us — not just governments and councils. Catholics in Clevedon, Avon, took the bishops at their word and organised a petition on the subject to the government. Youngsters in the parish designed a poster under the banner "My brother sleeps pretty rough these days".
Archbishop Worlock has commended their efforts and we can only echo that and encourage other parishes, in these bitterly cold months, to do likewise.