There is an apocryphal prayer attributed to a university Christian Union of the 1950s which asks quite simply, ‘O God, make slack chaps keen.’
The ‘slack chaps’ are those who are perfectly happy to go to church at Christmas and Easter, and who know how to behave if they are ever inadvertently caught up in a harvest festival, but who are sadly never zealous enough for the ‘keen chaps’, the sort who get ordained, or involved in the plethora of quasi-clerical lay-ministries that constitute part of today’s strategy for keeping God’s memory green and the church pension fund in the black. It is the forerunners of this group whom Evelyn Waugh satirises as ‘those with a lay interest in ecclesiastical matters [that] is often a prelude to insanity.’ (Decline and Fall, I.8)
But the stand-off between the utterly committed and the less obviously devout is rarely a laughing matter. In the early centuries, it was partly the fear that the legalisation of Christianity would result in a lower quality of witness (now that the risk of martyrdom had ended) that led to the development of monasticism. The churches might be filling with all sorts of spiritually-negligible parvenus, but standards would be maintained by the mothers and fathers of the desert who battled with demons and wrestled with their own self-will and thus safeguarded the purity of the faith. As Plato observed in the Phaedo, ‘many bear the emblems, but the devotees are few.’
This disparity between ‘slack’ and ‘keen’ is exacerbating the current challenge to the churches. In her 2016 lecture on The rise of ‘no religion’ in Britain: The emergence of a new cultural majority, Linda Woodhead suggests that it is partly the expectation that people who come to church should be fully involved —in a way that, historically, most Britons never have been— that has driven a wedge between England’s Church and people. The C of E has become a ‘sectarian’ rather than ‘societal’ Church: as Britain has become less religious, ‘religion has become more so’; the people have ‘moved away from the churches’ and, by fostering a culture of conversion and wholehearted belonging, ‘the churches have moved away from them.’
This is borne out anecdotally by experienced clergy. A friend of mine recently celebrating his diamond jubilee of ordination reflected that, when he was a curate, couples came for marriage and children for baptism quite naturally and without the expectation of anything more. They were not expected to start talking about Jesus in the post office or praying with people in the cake shop. Things are very different now. Practically before they are through the church door, they are asked for their email addresses, standing orders and gift aid declarations; they’re invited to sign up for the Bishop’s Certificate, and to make at least a provisional agreement to attend next month’s Vocations Day, bringing with them three very good reasons why they shouldn’t be selected and packed off to ‘Vicar School’ forthwith.
And one can see why some in the Church might welcome the disappearance of fellow travellers, leaving behind only the true believers. The Revd @liambeadle for example has tweeted that ‘the death of nominal Christianity —moralistic therapeutic deism— is good news’ (14 April 2017), perhaps because it is felt that in dealing only with the enthusiast there comes a liberation, a scraping off of carbuncles and a shaking off of a barely-Christian half-heartedness that holds the Church back in its gospel mission.
Ruth Gledhill, the freelance religious pundit, would perhaps agree. On her ‘Christian Today’ website she recently suggested (24 April) that the way to help cathedrals turn their midweek attendance success into financial security is to ask churches like St Helen’s, Bishopsgate and Holy Trinity, Brompton (both in London) to plant their brand of religion, with its dedicated and faithfully-tithing adherents, into a cathedral. She imagines Canterbury ‘rocking to crashing drums, rhythm guitars and the fabulous Hillsong at 6pm every Sunday.’
It’s not quite Rose Responses or Howells Coll Reg. I think she also misses the point that a cathedral already is a place of great musical and liturgical variety, hosting many different national, diocesan and regional events, both sacred and secular. To hand cathedrals over to a single church constituency would immediately rob them of their broad appeal and drive away those who love the beauty of the English choral tradition, who provide the high numbers of visitors and worshippers (‘up to 40,000 a week’) and are hailed as the great success of an institution not often dripping in good news stories.
All of which explains why a recent report of a lecture by Sir Simon Jenkins (Daily Telegraph, 5 June) caught many an ecclesiastical eye. He suggests that the cathedrals are doing so much better than the parish churches because they don’t ‘bang on about God’ all the time, but ‘bang on about beauty instead’.
This is, of course, arrant nonsense. Cathedrals ‘bang on about God’ ceaselessly. Their very architecture is a massive theological statement; their extensive programme of daily worship is as abundant a theological proclamation as you will encounter, all of it either directly scriptural or based on scripture; and even the driest, most fact-laden spiel to the weary tourist will include something on the religious significance of the artefacts they are duly admiring. So cathedrals certainly do do God, and do God extravagantly, but with dignity, discretion and reserve, and in beautiful 17th century language set to sublime music, expertly performed.
What makes cathedrals different is that the congregation is under no obligation to do God back. Sitting behind the proverbial pillar, a person may be tourist, visitor, enquirer or believer: no one can tell, and no one will much care. The worship rolls on through the days and centuries, more than willing to draw you Godwards in its wake, but not at all offended if you’d rather just sit quietly and wonder. Evensong, the weekday service that pulls the biggest crowds in most cathedrals, is best suited to this sort of gentle undemanding invitation. Simply by virtue of offering everything but requiring nothing from those who attend, it provides people with the ‘social, spiritual and moral goods’ which even Linda Woodhead’s ‘nones’ desire, but in which ‘the religion on offer in late modern Britain’ is sadly deficient (Woodhead, op. cit.). Whereas much of today’s worship expects a wordy and animated splashing around (having fun and being seen to be having fun), Evensong by contrast is the liturgical equivalent of floating on your back and soaking up the sun’s rays. Your mind is free to think; perhaps your heart will be moved. Conceivably, you will utter silent, half-formed snatches of what might well be prayer. But no-one’s checking. Unlike the ubiquitous Parish Eucharist or Family Service, Cathedral Evensong makes it easy to exercise the right to silence. But be clear that something will surely be happening, even slowly, in heart and mind. The excellent Theos report of 2012 —Spiritual Capital: The Present and Future of English Cathedrals— showed that of those who visited a cathedral mainly for historic or cultural reasons (‘secular tourists’), 84% then found that a sense of the sacred had been communicated through the building, or by the cathedral’s music (79%) or through the peace and quiet of the place (56%). Clearly, whatever it is that cathedrals do, they do exceptionally well, and the Church risks much by changing it significantly.
So let’s hear it for the slack chaps. As the C of E loses 12 members for every single convert, it becomes clear that the future may well lie not with the beaming and the bold who sign up, show up and pay up. It might rather be that the mystery of God is pursued, and the concerns of the Kingdom eventually transmitted by the much broader base of those more modest men and women who jump up and down neither literally nor figuratively, but who sit quietly wondering in quire or nave, disinclined to dogma but moved by the beauty of a Gothic arch or Tudor motet. We cannot know what will develop from this slow propagation of the Word within them. But the keen chaps should know that the Spirit works wonderfully well in all ways and types and times.
Let them be patient, and let hands that would meddle be folded in prayer.