Because this column has signed up to the global anti-boredom directive, it will not be discussing our Easter holidays in any detail. You may simply visualize us at four different village churches (which would be six if I had voted for woman priests) and then whisking away to an evangelical Christian jamboree at the seaside. The rural congregations averaged two dozen, while Caister’s Carousel Club and Neptune’s Palace drew several hundred.
The welcome was warm everywhere. We rejoiced in our risen Lord, and in the amazing privilege of being such diverse members of the one Body. It was less disturbing than I expected to be transported from the stained glass and monuments, the walls and pillars centuries old, to the stage microphones and spotlights, the plush seats and amplified music, the glitzy holiday-camp trappings, and then back again. Comparisons are beastly. But I knew where I was truly at home.
We even sang two of the same hymns in each environment. But the contrast to pinpoint is the way we saw them. In the parishes, where else but the hymn book? The holidaymakers had books too, but the preferred method was by digital projection on two big screens and some small ones. The New Directions verdict on these alternatives? No contest.
In a book you can see the hymn whole; its shape and size, its pattern of stanza and metre, its beginning and end. On screen, we got one verse at a time, for some reason centrally aligned to look like a succession of verbal Christmas trees. In the book we can see what we are about to sing and what we have just sung, whether by our own choice or the leader’s suggestion (Look again at verse two!).
We can even peep at other items of interest, always resisting the temptation to do it throughout the service. Goodness, we could even ask a churchwarden if we can we can borrow the hymnal, or (more daring still) buy our own copy. Methodists have long valued their hymn books as devotional helps at home; so have I. Books have a contents page, a plan and an index; however the texts are arranged. The plan of the book is a constant reminder that ‘worship’ did not start with us, or even the day before yesterday. It is one generation’s snapshot of the communion of saints.
On screen? The words zoom in and out, not always punctually (frames arrive late or stay put for two stanzas) and not always accurately. Hymns in books should be free of printing mistakes; I have yet to sit through an error-free hour of screen projection. I mean the spelling, not the theology, but there is that too. Who knows what heresies the projectionists have in store on their next slide?
Most nitty-gritty of all, while some can stare at three screens at once, those in rows one and two, centre, have a blind spot where none is visible at all, and rows nineteen and twenty can’t see anything unless everyone sits down. So we remain seated to sing ‘Thine be the glory’. With that concluded, the camera takes over and helpfully reproduces a multiplied giant image of the flautist picking his nose.
These, as CS Lewis used to say, are the prejudices of a dinosaur. But behold, we dinosaurs exist; we pay our quota, say our prayers, and keep the light burning in many rural heartlands where screens and spotlights rarely venture. We are a growing segment of the population, and we have a vote.
I write in an election year. I vote for the printed page. Real hymns need, and deserve, real hymn books.
Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.