George Austin takes more than a hint from Imogen Stubbs

IN 1947, I had a conversion experience. No, not to religion but to the theatre. The English master had returned from the war to find his pupils entirely corrupted so far as the finer points of life were concerned. Literature was tedious and Shakespeare unutterably boring. So he took a party of sixth formers to the Manchester Opera House to see Donald Wolfit in King Lear. For me, it began a love not only of Shakespeare but also of the theatre in general that has remained with me ever since. Over the years as a priest, I have come to realise increasingly the close connection between the theatre and the church. However, a recent article in the Features section of The Times by actress Imogen Stubbs started a train of thought which brought me to new parallels between the two that I had previously not considered.

We clergy are of course all actors. Some weeks ago, our son Jeremy, who is news editor of The Stage newspaper, was covering an event at a drama school. The director of the Institute asked Jeremy if he would like to meet their president who happened to be a well-known actor who, with his wife, is a long-time friend of ours.

‘Ah’, said the actor, ‘I know his father.’ The director turned to Jeremy and asked, ‘Is your father an actor too?’ Jeremy and the actor looked at each other, burst out laughing, and said in unison, ‘Well, you could say that!’ Why it should make them laugh I cannot imagine.

But we do of course act, Sunday by Sunday, on a stage. That is not to suggest for a moment that it is all a pretence. But we are speaking and moving and in a sense performing under lights and before a large audience whose interest we must gain.

I have vivid memories of attending a joint service at a neighbouring church at which the bishop was the preacher. As he mounted the pulpit, one of the standard candles began to gutter and spit. There was clearly a fault and really the only thing to do in the middle of the service was to extinguish it.

The server, new to the job, thought differently. She processed slowly and with dignity to the candle stand and attempted to dam the flow of melting wax with her hands. The candle went out, and so she processed very solemnly to the vestry for a new candle. This she carried to the candle stand, removed the faulty candle and replaced it, only to find she had left the matches and taper back in the vestry, to which she then returned.

So it went on, and the effect was precisely the same as a leading lady on stage deliberately upstaging a fellow actor, except that in the case of the server it was done out of ignorance rather than out of malice. The attention of the audience/congregation was completely diverted from the bishop’s sermon to this little charade that was being played out in front of them.

That of course is an extreme example, but a choirboy chattering to its neighbour or for that matter a vicar searching through his hymnbook while someone is taking the prayers or reading a lesson can have precisely the same effect.

As for use of our voice in church, we clergy need the same training and discipline as any actor. Of course we should not aspire to be able to read a story from the Gospels as if we were presenting Listen With Mother, or a passage from St Paul as if we were Henry V at Agincourt or Lady Macbeth seeing a dagger before her, but too often we read the word of God as if we do not even understand it ourselves.

The use of modern language translations seems to make no difference whatsoever, and there is little merit in scrapping the Authorised Version if our incompetence makes for equal incomprehensibility with a more modern version. Moreover, as anyone knows who has had to write broadcasting scripts, what is perfectly all right in print is not necessarily equally easy to read out loud. I have come to believe that it is something to do with a right variation of vowel sounds and a suitable combination of consonants. The Authorised Version has this and so does the Revised Standard Version, but the New English Bible, good as it is for bedside reading, does not.

All this is of course pretty much in-house and perhaps superficial. Imogen Stubbs’ excellent piece in The Times however picks up on a church/theatre parallel which is much more profound and important, based on a conversation she had with her god-daughter that left her seeing a great gulf fixed between herself (hardly middle-aged even) and the younger generation. And if Imogen Stubbs feels that, what of those in their Fifties and Sixties or, worse still, a wrinkly like me who next year will be 70?

I have to say that when I recently read a criticism of Terry Wogan by the head of the digital channel BBC Choice in which he proudly claimed that the BBC broadcasts ‘the best in hip-hop and speed garage’, I did not have the faintest idea of what he was talking about.

Much like my old English teacher, Imogen Stubbs complained that kids today were missing out on a kind of knowledge that today’s society does not seem equipped to offer.

‘As miracle and mystery are rapidly being emptied out to science, reason and technology,’ she wrote, ‘it gets harder to explain that scientific literalism is not the only way of “knowing”, that there is a different way of knowing involved in faith, love and works of art, the meaning and value of which obviously can’t be measured by price or an inventory of their particulars.’

Yet for her god-daughter, theatre and ‘all that crap’ was simply ‘a mega dose of dust and blab blah for the sad freak loser brigade.’

The church shares exactly that same problem with the theatre. There are of course exceptions. The church we attend in downtown York attracted over a hundred children for a week’s summer holiday course this August, and when my wife and I pay one of our regular visits to Stratford, the theatres are so well attended by young people in their teens but we are made to feel our age. But it is not so everywhere, and anyone who regularly worships in different churches Sunday by Sunday, as I did as Archdeacon, cannot but be deeply troubled by the almost total absence in many places of anyone under the age of 50. And with the possible exception of Stratford, the same is true of the theatre.

Miracle and mystery are still there in the theatre as great writers, directors and actors explore human nature in dramatic form, but unfortunately both have tended in the past 30 years to be ’emptied out’ by the church itself. Too often spirituality has been transmuted into a superficial touchy-feely, with conviviality encouraged at the expense (unnecessarily) of any sense of mystery. We have been too satisfied to lose the baby with the bath water.

Imogen Stubbs deserves the last word. Spirituality and the arts, she suggests, seem less necessary than a mobile phone. ‘If religion and the arts and love are the areas where civilisation expresses its highest aspirations, that puts an awful lot of pressure on love.’

Amen to that.

George Austin has retired from the boards and enjoys being part of the audience.