One of Radio 4’s characteristically idiosyncratic gems leftover from another era is ‘Bells on Sunday’, a brief programme broadcast just before the Shipping Forecast last thing every Sunday night – or early Monday morning, if you prefer; for most of us, the day ends when we switch the light out, not when the clock says another day has already begun. Anyway, if half-a-minute of pealing is appealing, this is the show for you. During Lockdown Mk I, when the nation’s church bells were silenced in synch for the first time since the Second World War, the programme continued with repeat broadcasts and you could barely hear the join. Something was definitely missing, though. Even with the absence of traffic enabling the volume to be turned up on the birdsong, the villages that cities briefly transformed into for the first few weeks of that strange period still seemed incomplete without that most quintessential sonic hallmark of the traditional English village, the ringing of the bells.
The nearest House of God to me featured on ‘Bells on Sunday’ a couple of years ago, but not being a church-goer meant I’d never had cause to set foot in it. I hadn’t even seen it up close, for the church stands a considerable distance from the busy main road from which it can be seen; even though I’ve become a virtual annual visitor to the community centre attached to the church when it doubles up as polling station for every election or referendum, this building is not exactly next-door either. Feeling a little stir-crazy the other day, I stepped outside, walked with no destination in mind, and eventually found myself a stone’s throw from the church purely by chance; so, I decided to finally stroll up and take a look. Why not? I always find anything built in the 19th century worth looking at, and believing or non-believing doesn’t really come into it. John Betjeman – who was a believer – seemed to derive pleasure from visiting unassuming parish churches, but he had the option of studying the interior as well as the exterior. I didn’t.
The church building was characteristic of numerous late Victorian urban churches, low on the fancy Gothic trimmings, un-showy but sturdy; it reminded me of those affiliated to some of the early schools I attended. Even someone like me, raised in a relatively secular fashion, has distinct memories of Harvest Festivals and so on forming part of the school year, and we were encouraged to acknowledge them as important, even if our church-going outside of term time was restricted to the odd family wedding. There was a cricket pitch in front of this church that only revealed itself upon approach, and an accompanying sign warning canine visitors were not welcome on account of them leaving distinctive donations to church funds on the field of play. I took a customary walk through the churchyard round the back and couldn’t help lingering on some of the graves; however, I always feel as though I’m intruding upon someone’s private grief if the interred person died within living memory, so I tend to move on to the neglected Victorian headstones where the inscription is crumbling away and wild vines are beginning to drag the edifice into the earth. Yet, that was the extent of my exploration. The church, like so many at the moment, was closed to the public.
It’s ironic in a way for, bar the token triumvirate of christenings, weddings and funerals that draw the punters in, most C-of-E places of worship would serve as ideal examples of social distancing in action. Outside of the big three occasions, general church attendance in this country is fairly pitiful, and buildings designed to hold hundreds often struggle to attract dozens. Maybe the panicky church authorities feared flocks suddenly swelling with those seeking answers in such uncertain times and thus risked being blamed for a surge in infections. Whatever the reason, churches were quicker to close their doors than almost any other institution and did so with a surprising absence of fight. I reckon an England in which the people were deprived of churches as well as pubs would have appalled Orwell. As Eric Blair was aware, both have provided heavenly and earthly bread for rich and poor alike since medieval Merrie England, and both tend to experience a rise in custom during times of crisis because they are needed – and the powers-that-be usually recognise their importance to the people. Not in this crisis, however. The Established Church absolved itself of a role at the heart of the community right at the very moment when it could well have reclaimed some of its relevance.
Having skipped a significant date in the Holy calendar like Easter, the onset of a second lockdown has at least prompted some church leaders to belatedly demand the right to public worship – both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York have signed a letter to the Government saying as much; rumours of ‘secret’ church services taking place without permission of the authorities inevitably summons up the spectre of priest-holes and the enacting of clandestine ceremonies risking arrest and imprisonment that were a familiar feature of British life during the religious wars of distant centuries. Even the observance of Remembrance in small towns and villages across the country last Sunday was policed by overzealous officers keeping the lepers away; alas, if only they’d carried Extinction Rebellion banners (or, better still, BLM placards), the parishioners would have been greeted with compliant law enforcers on their knees. Policing by consent of the few as opposed to the many by the PC paramilitaries formerly known as the police force is pretty much generally acknowledged by the public now; but the Church itself has been susceptible to a degree of it of late.
The old image of the trendy vicar seems to have been upgraded so that his latest incarnation is that of a rainbow flag-waving, gender pronoun-using, white guilt liberal Woke curate more eager to position himself as a cheerleader for the latest fashionable causes than doing his duty. A few have been active online, seemingly oblivious to the significance of the sacraments to committed Christians, busily singing the praises of virtual services via Zoom. Not exactly consolation to those for whom the Eucharist is a sacred in-person ritual that cannot be conducted via a screen; but these left-leaning, right-on clergy are so committed to lockdown – and the most fanatically pro-lockdown voices are largely on the left – that they seem to have forgotten what they’re in the job for. Their narcissistic virtue signalling makes them as blind as police and politicians to the fact that fringe issues affecting a tiny minority of people are not major concerns to their core audience; their obsession with these issues is alienating this core audience at a moment when its ongoing devotion in an increasingly secular society should be rewarded.
The politicisation of certain branches of the Church of England (mirroring some in the Church of Rome) has been to the institution’s detriment during this crisis – indeed, something of a missed opportunity to reconnect with those beyond the devoted flock. Confronted by padlocked gates rendering sanctuary off-limits, the non-church-going public might simply conclude that these stone temples which no English hamlet is complete without actually do just exist to host christenings, weddings and funerals; and competition from registry offices and (more recently) tacky hotels is placing the wedding function under threat as it is. Therefore, if these ceremonies are severely regulated under the new rules and can take place elsewhere anyway, there’s no real need for churches to be open, is there? What else are they actually there for? At times like these, such questions should have been answered by the Church itself; and yet it has blown it. Amen.
And on the subject of religion…
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