By Peter Mullen
Ipropose a new anthem for my beloved Church of England: "Weirder still and weirder shall thy bounds be set." We've just suffered the latest initiative, salvo, gimmick — call it what you like — from our inspired central bureaucracy. It was called Back to Church Sunday, a wheeze to encourage the lapsed, the lazy and the mildly perplexed to dare to darken the church door again. It made me reflect once more on the vast cultural differences by which we are beset these days. I mean, Muslims encourage worshippers to the mosque by promising theological lectures and the corporate recitation of their holy scriptures in Arabic.
By contrast, this is what the Church of England is offering: "A Church Pack. Four A2 posters, 50 prayer bookmarks, 100 invitation cards, 20 welcome booklets, 20 gift bags. Church Pack Free Gift: 20 free bars of Traidcraft chocolate included in every church pack (while stocks last). All for £50 plus P&P."
Oh boy, I don't think our church council would fork out 50 quid for that dolly bag. And it's only a matter of time before the Five Fruits and Vegetables Enforcer gets up and declares that it's a sin to give out choccies when there's a national obesity epidemic. But the whole enterprise is just what gets religion a bad name: it's so churchy — in the wrong sense. It's churchy in the way that, you know, ordinary people have lunch while enthusiastic curates invite us to a simple shared lunch. It's creepy.
I suppose I shall get into trouble again for my cruel mockery of this stunt, but how many more times do we need to be told that aping the commercial media world — only like some prince consort, one dutiful pace behind — is no way to run the church's missionary work? Neither Catholics nor Anglicans should take their agenda from the secular realm. The whole point about religion is that it is something different. In a word, it is sacred.
But for the last 40 years the churches have fallen shy of the sacred. We are embarrassed by it. Bishops and clergy are terrified of being thought stuffy. But I'd rather be thought of as stuffy than plain embarrassing. You don't have enough fingers and toes to count the wheezes that have been bestowed upon us over the years: curates with guitars and motorbikes; the endless repetition of clap-happy choruses so dumbed down they weren't worth singing once; the elevation of after Mass Nescafe almost to the status of a sacrament; the Noddy liturgies; and, worst of all, the re-designation of Sundays after aspects of secular social welfare.
So we get Sea Sunday, Education Sunday, Prisoners' Sunday and now this Back to Church Sunday. I'm only waiting for the institution of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Sunday and Narcissistic Personality Disorder Sunday. The sponsors of these wheezes reply to criticism by saying that their stunts actually bring people in. But in to what? It's like saying that putting on a pop concert at least gets youngsters listening to music. Gimmicks don't work long-term anyway: that's why there always have to be new ones.
Blit the larger issue is that the advertisement and promulgation of the faith in those terms is bound to end up not presenting the faith
at all. Marshall McLuhan told us ages ago that the medium is the message. And so it is. If you advertise and promote the faith in advertising terms, in commercial media terms — if in fact you market the faith — it will not be the faith that actually comes across. It will be something else. And it will be something secular.
This is what the Holy Father understands very well in his strictures against pop music and mindless choruses. There is a long tradition of church music and it is intelligent polyphony. Everybody recognises it when they hear it — even the unchurched. That is why it is such a powerful mission statement: it is identified with the essential meaning of the Church, the very shape and form of the Christian faith. There is such a thing as religious music in the same way that there are religious pictures and (until fairly recently) holy books.
These things are not just what the Pope referred to in another context as "a particular inculturation". They help define the very character of the Church.
They are also a contrast with the secular forms. They inculcate the genuine religious ambience. I am not arguing — and neither is the Pope — for institutional atavism or a fossilised mode of religious expression. The subject here is tradition. And tradition is not something locked in the past: it is the nature of tradition to develop and regenerate itself. It was the most radical and avantgarde poets of the 20th century — Pound and Eliot — who were also most classical.
So, of course church music is Byrd, Tails, Lassus Tomkins, Purcell and Orlando Gibbons. But it becomes Mozart, Haydn and Schubert. It becomes Mendelssohn and Bruckner. And it becomes Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten. But it cannot become the twang of the liturgical guitar and something that sounds like a cross between a strangulated hernia and Cliff Richard without ceasing to be church music.
The same goes for the prayers we use. To take the Anglican example again, at the onset of the latest craze for liturgical innovation, W H Auden said: "It was lucky for us that the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer were made when the English language was at its best. Why spit on our luck?" Much the same can be said of the Latin Mass. The Orthodox have barely changed their liturgy since 1054. The Muslims learn the Koran in the original Arabic. Of course we see that the Orthodox and the Muslims are thriving while the modernised Catholic and Anglican churches are in decline.
In my experience people like a thing to be what it is and not an approximation to some other thing. They don't go to the disco for Boccherini's minuet and to glide across the floor stately as a galleon. When they go to Wimbledon they don't expect to discover that the y rules of tennis have been modernised to bring in the young. And when they come to church they don't expect to find the clergy, brutalised by the most trivial aspects of the popular culture, offering that rubbish as if it were the epitome of Christian faith and worship.
Away with the well-meaning gimmicks. Where the Church looks and sounds like the Church it is thriving.