Peter Mullen on a loss of words in a time of need
I should like to offer you two experiences of the state of the Church today. Two visions, if you like. Recently I was at a conference at St Catherine’s College, Oxford to which the Bishop of London had called the diocesan clergy. It was the usual thing: a trendy yet clichéd title: Urban Ministry in a Time of Change. But what time is not a time of change? The times they are a changin’ and they always were, always will be. That’s what ‘time’ means. Oxford. Dreaming spires over the legendary home of lost causes. Why does it prove so attractive to the more or less unreconstructed Stalinists who lectured us on our duty to the poor and the alienated – and the only remedies they offered were the failed unholy trinity of taxation, taxation, taxation; regulation, regulation, regulation; intervention, intervention, intervention? I looked down from the back of the lecture theatre and beheld in these academics a virulent hatred for all our traditions and institutions and a petulant desire to remodel the world — and particularly our part of the Diocese of London — in the form of the Comintern.
Music the handmaid of Prayer
But one has learnt to expect nothing better from ecclesiastical politicians. The worst of it was the church services. Three each day. Picture the scene: the beautiful medieval church of Holy Cross, just behind Merton’s playing fields. How would you have ordered these services? Some fine organ music. Ancient and familiar prayers. Sermons that betrayed some whiff of intelligence. Come off it! We’re talking about the contemporary Church of England. Not one service from the Prayer Book in three whole days. Let’s deal with the music first and get it out of the way. Over in the Lady Chapel an out-of-tune piano which was itself out of tune with an accidental oboe; a violin that sounded like a cat crying for that someone had spilt hot water on its nether regions; and a sempiternal, grinning modern clergyman – I knew he was a clergyman because he was wielding a guitar.
We sang banal and meaningless choruses to plinky plonky music of the Jesus-goes-to-toy-town variety. Then we sat through horrific sermons. I’m not making this up. The Bishop of Stepney told us that doctrine doesn’t matter: ‘All you need is love’ – reminding us of the Beatles. Gosh! There is nothing more out of date, is there, than an out of date trendy? Now I don’t want to frighten you unnecessarily, but I must tell you what the Bishop said next. He said, ‘In a few minutes, we shall offer one another a sign of peace. I don’t want to see handshakes. I want to see you hugging one another.’
Peace, imperfect peace
Well, the so-called ‘peace’ was announced, and all hell broke loose. Five full minutes of people wandering about sacred space proffering more or less sentimental or lewd greetings. When I was set upon by a vast and enthusiastic lady, I did my usual escape act, fell to my knees and, when she tried to lift me bodily into the furnace of her embrace, exclaimed, ‘No thank you, madam, I’m English’. Now with trepidation I come to the ‘something else’ which the Bishop of Stepney had promised to ask us to do. Well, it makes you think… I had been dreading this for six or seven minutes, as one in the dentist’s waiting room. He bawled out: ‘I want you to turn to the person next to you and put your hands on his or her shoulders…’ – his or her – funny isn’t it how political correctness survives all atrocities? — and say three times, ‘You are everlastingly loved’.
Luckily, I found myself not next to Deaconess Blenkinsop with the hot lips and fiery breath, but Father Alan Griffin who is Rector of St James, Garlickhythe – the national headquarters of the Prayer Book Society. I clenched my teeth and whispered, ‘You are everlastingly loved.’ Alan placed his hands affectionately on my shoulders and said, so far as I could interpret, ‘It’s all right, Peter. I’ll buy you a pint later.’
This was by no means the end of the embarrassment. The Bishop of Stepney went into full pantomime mode. ‘That’s not enough. Again! Louder!’ And he cocked his hand behind his ear. I feared this was going to develop: ‘Where’s the Archdeacon? Has any little boy or little girl seen the Archdeacon?’ Followed by a great chorus of ‘He’s BEHIND you!’
All this folly could, I suppose, be forgiven – except that the date was 11th September. After that ludicrous service – really a disservice – I had a light lunch and walked into Oxford. I went into Blackwells and bought some books then returned to my room and read for the rest of the afternoon. At six o’clock I went, duty bound, back to church again for more of the horrific Noddy liturgy. Only this time the priest was telling us about the attacks on the USA. Then guess what? Silence perhaps? Tears? The General Confession? Not at all. But straight into more of the plinky plonky, happy clappy music and Jesus goes to toy-town again.
A word in season
The trouble is that this diminished sort of spirituality, this bankrupt, dumbed down, blasphemous style of worship could not do justice to the terrible events that were unfolding. There were, however, two redeeming features. The Bishop of London gave a pertinent, off the cuff, short address which was a masterpiece in précis. Then Father Chad Varah, ninety this year, burst forth with, ‘In the midst of life we are in death. Of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased…’ It cut through the whole out of tune, plinky plonky, earringed, sentimental, hug one another, you are everlastingly bored charade like a hot sabre through the flesh of roast piglet.
I escaped from that conference and came back on the first train to London. I put on a Requiem Mass at twenty-four hours’ notice, and 250 people turned up for it. You know what City types can be like: a bit raucous, insensitive, Philistine. I swear no one moved a muscle for the thirty-five minutes from start to finish. No mobile phone went off. There was an atmosphere of the most intense reverence. Here were people, largely unchurched, with more of an idea of the holy than the cream of London’s clergy at a religious conference. And do you know, we had no jogging for Jesus music; no smarmy grins; no creepy introduction of the ‘We are living in tragic times’ variety. No superfluous ecclesiastical chat of any kind. I started off with Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetuam luceat eis….I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand upon the earth at the latter day; and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God…
We are living in dangerous and disquieting times. In times such as these, we need spiritual help. We need words and music that can answer to our sorrow and our fear. We need prayers that can give us strength, courage and hope. We need to rely on prayers we know by heart. The Our Father, the Ave Maria and Lighten our darkness we beseech thee, O Lord, and by thy great mercy deliver us from all perils and dangers of this night. Because the day is far spent and the night is at hand. We are going to need courage to cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light.
Help from ages past
England has been lulled through sixty years of peace to think that war is unthinkable. This thought is at the same level of stupidity as that which promoted the plinky plonky musical drivel and empty-headed choruses, created the godforsaken new service books and, in Oxford, on the eve of destruction, asked grown men to fawn upon one another and bleat six times over in a vainglorious crescendo, ‘You are everlastingly loved’.
We are going to be asked to be grown up, to put away childish things. We may be called upon to suffer for something. When the lights go out, there will be no more MTV or Big Brother or The National Lottery Live – which is indistinguishable from The National Lottery Dead And behold, I lift up mine eyes and saw, and verily there was no more Midweek with Libby Purves; neither the ramshackle Songs of Praise nor the talkative self-righteousness of The Sunday Programme. What is left of Christian civilization is under threat of destruction. That our resolve may be kindled, we need faithful words made more faithful by time and use. There is a drumbeat to this crisis, and this can echo only to the prayers of our fathers: O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come; be thou our guard while troubles last, and our eternal home.
The Reverend Dr Peter Mullen is Rector of St Michael’s, Cornhill in the City of London and Chaplain to the Stock Exchange.