Saturday, July 02, 2005

A lukewarm believer explains his religious observance

From the Telegraph:

I'm not 'devout', that's why I'm an Anglican
By Quentin Letts
(Filed: 03/07/2005)

Last Sunday 150,000 people went to Glastonbury, la-la'd about love and peace, heard a sermon (from Bishop Geldof) and were given hours of airtime by the BBC. Also last Sunday, up and down this bruised old land of ours, at least eight times that many souls quietly entered Anglican churches and dropped to their knees, as they do every week of every year.

Loose-shirted formulators of fashion do not think much of the Church. That is, they neither approve of it nor do they afford it much thought. It has been this way for perhaps 25 years....

[I]t is time we realised how lucky we are in our official Church. It is time our vicars were thanked for their good works, their stoicism and their general lack of hysterics....

I go along every week primarily because I love singing hymns. There's little to beat a good blast of Praise My Soul or the Cathedral Psalter setting of the Te Deum before lunch. I suppose I also go because I love the Book of Common Prayer, which the churches in our part of Herefordshire still use, and because I want Cranmer's cadences to drip into my children's minds. This is partly a cultural thing, partly aesthetic. Religion is there, too, in the background, but I would not dare claim to understand or believe fully in every part of the liturgy.

Churchgoing is a communal affair. I don't meant that sign of the peace nonsense, which makes me feel awkward, but the sense of slow-burn fellowship that can develop with one's fellow parishioners. A pressure group was recently sniffy about how some parishes are now little more than "clubs" for their congregations. What's wrong with that? "Clubs" (a Bad Thing in 21st century-speak) are no more than another way of saying "strong communities" (Good Thing).

I go to church for the smell of the flagstones, the Rizla rustle of the Bible, the flicker of candles, the shiver of pride when the priest blesses our youngsters, the taste of the fortified wine and the sense of completeness when returning to one's pew after Communion. All these things say "Sunday" to my body and my being. In a world so full of false prophets, they help guy the week to something solid. And then comes the moment when the service is over, when the children can dash into the graveyard and skip around tombstones. It is something I did as a child and I am glad my children do it, too. It lends harmony to the chime of passing years....

Critics often accuse the Church, particularly the Archbishop of Canterbury, of failing to show moral leadership. They say that today's Anglican clergy are weak. Archbishop Rowan is mocked not only for his beard but also for failing to froth like some fundamentalist mullah.

I prefer it this way. Maybe this is a very English and Protestant thing, but I want my relationship with God, if it exists, to be a private thing. I don't so much want to be told what to believe as to be shown how. Rowan Williams seems rather gently brilliant at that.

His stance on sexuality, tolerant but discreet, suits the age. In our area last year we welcomed a new curate, a jovial, big-haired woman who spoke up well in the pulpit and seemed a thoroughly good egg. Then a national newspaper reported, excitedly, that our new curate had started life as a man. I half expected the parish to be outraged but quite the reverse happened. Nonchalance is but another way of saying tolerance, and tolerance is a proper Christian characteristic. That's what happened.

Our curate, with her rich tenor singing voice, is exceedingly popular and is soon to be ordained. (A traditionalist friend of mine opposed to female vicars, meanwhile, is still trying to work out whether or not it is doctrinally OK for him to take communion from her.)

Fire and brimstone is still there in the Book of Common Prayer, should your taste run to that sort of thing. "Cursed are the unmerciful, fornicators and adulterers, covetous persons, idolaters, slanderers, drunkards and extortioners," growls a commination just before the Psalms.

To this the response, if not "Amen", is either "blimey", or a mumbled, "now you put it like that, Lord, is there any chance you could perhaps please have mercy on our fragile, flawed beings?" None of us, not even our priests or archbishops, is perfect. But I reckon the dear old Church of England is a fine and forgiving institution, and way less feeble than strangers and critics presume.

I believe he has hit upon the reason Jews flock to the synagogue over the high holidays (but on no other days).
The sounds of the cantor, the beautiful and noble sound of the Hebrew prayers, the hush, the sight of children wiggling in their seats--it gets in your blood.

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