I have been a member of that strange, British institution, the Church of England, for some thirty years. Yet, have I seen it modernise in that time? Yes, and no. The ordination of women as priests and bishops is great progress. If you think that the Church is in a parlous state now, imagine if it hadn’t made those bold changes…
In terms of participating, as a blind person, I used to feel more included when I organised my own words and where applicable, music, and the hierarchy didn’t have to actually do anything about accessibility. Now, notwithstanding the generous donation of a braille embosser to our branch, Saint Mary Redcliffe Church, Bristol, I feel more singled out as more of an issue is made of it. Braille for meetings tends to go a bit better, when the Diocese is involved to organise it, but they need reminding.
However, getting people to speak to others outside their class or social circle is another obstacle to full participation. I am not alone in having found that people who attend meetings aren’t very sociable. I used to have a lift to Diocesan Council meetings from a lady priest and observed how a lot of people spoke with her rather than with me when we were together in breaks, for instance.
Persuading quite comfortably-off people to give up half an hour of their time, to offer a lift to a meeting has been another on-going battle, over the last several years, whatever committee one happens to be on. “No-one’s coming your way” I am told. When I do charity carol singing in London, among other places in December, I am not on the way to anywhere, but still do it at my own expense because it is a great thing to do, and I do not need a reason to help people.
As the Church has shrunk and attendance has dwindled, I have found it has become more inward-looking or defensive. It is still a cult of admiration around the clergy and bishops – some, myself included, would say it should be based on love of the Almighty. Yet, too many people in the Church worship and pay homage to an institution, not a deity.
Although lay-people are in theory, at the heart of the decision-making and democracy, (as our help and money is sought more than ever) but it seems that the powers-that-be don’t respect the laity, as without us the organisation would not exist. We aren’t respected as equals and partners in furthering their aims or objectives, they want to have their cake and eat it, getting more from us – then subdue us all the more.
The virus crisis has provided them with a golden opportunity to carry this out – for all the e-mails about community spirit, I have received none, at least from official channels, although one lady offered support off her own back. In our church we voted to return decision-making to the full Parochial Church Council, not just the standing committee. Nevertheless, in January, a key decision about closing the building was made behind closed doors. Appeals are still made to us for cash, just at a time when most people are hard up or worried about economic uncertainty, because they haven’t been getting their usual levels of help.
The biggest, and most blatant example of subjugation of the masses came at Christmas. I attended Midnight Mass, at the earlier time of 9.30p.m., on Christmas Eve. The service was well organised, with helpful stewards, who explained the social distancing rules. The congregation was widely spaced, masked, we had sanitised our hands, and the church retained names and ‘phone numbers of all, for the purposes of test and trace. The congregation was allowed to join in with the spoken parts of the liturgy, but singing was the sole preserve of the masked choir. The clergy could talk as much as they wished, unmasked while doing so, yet the congregation could speak only when spoken to. I observed that in spite of the length of the worship being cut, the clergy still had plenty to say for themselves!
Similar participatory double standards have been observed elsewhere in the Church of England and other denominations. I carried out 14 socially distanced carol-sings for Christian Aid in shopping centres, on streets and in the London Underground during December. It is not difficult to wear a mask when singing, use hand sanitiser, to ensure you are at least a metre from customers, except for brief encounters and in well-ventilated locations. Even the most ardent health and safety person struggles to find anything to object to in the practice of solo singing and charity-collecting, provided these precautions are taken. Yet, I was not allowed to sing in a Church congregation at Christmas. Please do not ask me to believe that this has anything whatsoever to do with Covid safety. It is more to do with subjugation of the masses by an authoritarian institution which has long since lost all moral authority or respect in society.
I listened to carol concerts involving the Royal Family – one annual festive extravaganza even featured the playing of brass instruments, another included the sung contributions of an operatic soprano and if anyone could give the breath plenty of welly, it would be a trained opera singer. Singing was good enough for the choir of King’s College Cambridge on Xmas Eve, but not for the congregation, who were absent.
I am all for the upper classes, the robed high and mighty engaging in their religious-themed, festive traditions. Xmas wouldn’t be the same without the afore-mentioned 3p.m carol service, an annual fixture since 1918, commemorating the fallen of WW1 – first broadcast in 1928. It is a splendid retelling of the Christmas story, inviting its listeners to ‘go in heart and mind even unto Bethlehem’ and hear again the message of the miracle that is Christmas. For millions of us, it marks the true beginning of this holy feast tide and I for one would welcome an equally renowned Easter service. But where were the carol celebrations of the lower classes? Well, they weren’t, because they were banned. The Chapel-Royal Choir could have their annual carol concert, but our tower-block dwellers and housing-estate residents were required to remain un-singing and unsung in our churches. Covid isn’t averse to infecting the great and the good, donning robes doesn’t stop the virus in its tracks.
What makes me so annoyed about the lack of congregational singing in our churches last Christmastide, was not merely that the lower classes were inhibited from expressing their faith, but the upper classes could still pursue their annual musical rituals. Equally dismaying is the fact the lower orders acquiesce to this sort of thing – their protests are voluntarily on mute and the population is apathetic to the injustice of it. My working-class friends, you need to sing out. Yes, keep your masks on, keep your hands clean and keep your distance from others, but do not be silent. As God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, one of the Christmas hymns which I illicitly joined in with at the service says: “Now to the Lord sing praises, All you within this place”. I rejoice in the fact I flouted the rules and sang along. I was not alone in having the audacity to sing carols, masked and distanced, in a church this Christmas. If the Church has confidence in its virus prevention measures, surely allowing worship to go ahead as normally as possible, with these in place, is the logical next step. I am not arguing for choral singing to be banned, far from it – but if some can sing, then all must be permitted to do so. Besides which, if the congregation flouts the rules and sings, what exactly can the hierarchy do about it? Nothing! It is noticeable that those clergy and bishops who regard themselves as being ‘down with the people’ were rather quiet on this subject.
I will go safely in this world, but I won’t stop singing and I invite others to sing along.