Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Betjeman's C of E: an elegy to a lost world

We've enjoyed an hour of nostalgia watching a TV documentary by John Betjeman called A Passion for Churches.

Made in 1974, it's an affectionate portrait of the life of the Church of England in Norfolk. There is no county in England richer in beautiful historic churches. Whether they were great or small, urban or rural, famous or obscure, Betjeman loved these buildings. He often wrote about the church's architecture, arts and crafts. Church visitors are indebted to his comprehensive county by county gazetteer of English parish churches. To lovers of our built heritage, he is a hero.

I look back to 1974 as the year I came of age. Late in time, you may say, for someone born in 1950. But in that year I left college, got married and rented a first home. I was ordained less than twelve months later, so it was a year of milestones. Now that I have (just) passed another of life's thresholds, retirement, I'm keenly aware of how significant the rites of passage were that launched my grown-up working life. So this documentary about life as we lived it in the 1970s has recalled things I only half remembered, and reminded me how far we have travelled in the past forty years.

If you'd asked me earlier what church life in that era was like, I'd have said in a lazy way: much like today, only a lot more confident. However Betjeman's film makes it clear that it was, in fact, very different, another country where they do things differently. This is not because of JB's native melancholy, the elegiac register he falls into as he contemplates lost worlds in immaculate poetic prose. The evidence speaks for itself. You watch parish life in full flow. Churches are respectably full. The clergy still have their fair share of 'characters' and eccentrics. Many of them live in large historic vicarages fit for squires. Surpliced choristers sing Prayer Book evensong in remote country parishes. Sunday schools are bulging, even when they meet on a Wednesday. Clergy wear robes de rigeur. Men wear jackets and ties to go to church, and ladies wear hats, at least in comfortably-off Norfolk, as they sing from Hymns Ancient and Modern or, if they are high church, The English Hymnal.

True, there is Series 3 by now, and the Bible is read from the RSV or even New English, and the parish communion is replacing sung matins. The 'bombazine and bonnets of the Sunday morning congregation' is not the flamboyant fashion show it was a generation before. There is a genuine and well-intended attempt to popularise: Youth Praise has made an entrance, as has the Twentieth Century Church Light Music Group (who can forget the frantic rush of words to O Jesus I have promised or that heady slide down a seventh at the end of Living Lord, still sung today?). But worship songs are yet to come, as are mission action plans, fresh expressions, messy church, the decline in clergy numbers, female priests and bishops, alternative episcopal oversight and much else.

It's startling to look back and realise that like steam engines (also beloved by JB), the lost world of the C of E in 1974 belongs to my own life time. I guess that's down to my reluctance to accept that I'm getting old enough to have bridged different eras. After all, what I have lived through can't be that distant, can it? So why did I begin this blog by talking about nostalgia? That word, literally, means an aching for the past, but I'm not sure that was quite what I felt as I watched this delightful film. It's more to do with our attachment to our own memories. The older we get, the more important memory becomes. We invest in memory because it is so bound up with our own personal identity. That's where the 'ache' lies, because our memories are always receding from us and that means loss and even sadness.

So, forty years on, what have been the gains and losses in the life of the church? Here are some plusses. (One commentator thinks I'm being too cheery about these but judge for yourself.) In some ways, the church as an institution is probably in better shape even if it is considerably leaner. The tasks of mission are more intelligently contextualised and understood, and embodied in more versatile ways. The commitment to social justice is far more consistent and explicit (and publicly recognised). The role of 'public faith' is more clearly articulated. The leadership is better trained in strategic and policy matters and the church's processes are more transparent and accountable as a result, not least in what it is learning from the terrible failures in safeguarding in the past. Church buildings, in Norfolk among other places, are being opened up to a wide diversity of community uses alongside worship.

What about the minuses? I worry that the C of E is less comprehensive than it used to be, more uniform and less tolerant of diversity. It is perhaps more fractious and defensive. I worry that the founding vision of the cure of souls of 'the parish' is being narrowed to little more than chaplaincy to committed congregations. I worry that serious biblical study and theology are less practised than they should be, not least by a relentlessly busy hierarchy. I worry that because language shapes thought, marketing and management speak are at risk of eroding theological, pastoral, spiritual and mission-orientated ways of thinking and acting. I worry about the unspoken pressure to 'succeed', and the risk this poses to the spiritual, emotional and physical health of clergy. I worry about the decline of an institutional sense of irony. I worry about whether the church really believes it exists to promote a truly Christian wisdom to our world rather than just survive.

Better minds than mine have charted the immense cultural shifts that have taken place in the time I have been ordained. There is a lot to welcome, even if we may regret at the loss of what seemed like the more innocent, less baffling world of our youth. I guess this is as much about growing up and learning to embrace complexity as it is about the external environment. When we have lived long enough to be bewildered, or to suffer, or to know for ourselves the power of fear, loss and shame, life will never again be easy or straightforward.

I blush to think how little I knew of these things in the 1970s when I climbed up into the pulpit for the first time and cut my teeth as an interpreter of the Christian gospel. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn't go back to 1974. Neither, I'm sure, would the Church of England. Living in the present can feel like an ambiguous gift at times, but a gift is precisely what it is. And the more we seize the day, the better able we are to see the past for what it is, and learn to put away those rose-tinted spectacles in order to understand its ambiguities, learn from its failures, but also, in the spirit of eucharistia, to be thankful for all the benefits it has bequeathed to us.

You can find John Betjeman's film on the BBC1 website. You will love it, I promise!

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for the tip off - I loved it!
    "There is no county in England richer in historic churches"
    I remember some years ago William Rees Mogg writing in The Times an article about which county in England possessed the most most and the best parish churches - it was, in his view, a competition between Norfolk and Somerset. In the end he opted for Somerset but that being his home county - he was biased in favour of that West Country county.
    1974 - a golden year, the year I too was married to another Jenny - 7th September at Fenny Compton parish church in Warwickshire by Canon Raymond Cyster. Whatever happened to ladies wearing hats in church?
    Worry not Dean Emeritus - relax and enjoy your retirement - for me, a pleasure yet to come.

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  2. I would give the award to Norfolk for sheer variety, despite the splendour of Somerset's towers. Yes, 1974 an annus aureolus. Ours was 27 July in Hawes, N Yorks. Still getting the hang of retirement. When does your case come up?

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  3. I also think that the churches of Lincolnshire would be in contention for the award - Boston, Grantham and Louth leading the way.
    If I went right up to the wire I could still be in harness until 16th June 2023. So, my case doesn't come up for a few years yet, although I have been ordained for the past 38 years, with no remission for good behaviour! Having only been Rector of Bexhill for less than three years and enjoying it all enormously, there will be a good few years to go before I approach the C of E Pensions Board.
    The new Choral Evensong Blog is excellent - my choir did enjoy dinging in your former cathedral for a week in the summer of 2014.

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  4. Funding from public and private sources to keep parish churches in good repair and to install modern facilities is essential for their survival, as costs are beyond the reach of most local churches. Since 1953, the National Churches Trust has played its part by providing over £90 million of funding – in today’s prices - to help repair and support Christian places of worship. That is money well spent as church buildings are a major national asset which deserve support to ensure they survive for the benefit of all. They are places of beauty, indispensable hubs for community activities or simply sanctuaries for quiet contemplation. Churches may be historic buildings. But they can be part of our future, too.

    Eddie Tulasiewicz National Churches Trust

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  5. Thank you. NCT does great work, as I know from my chairmanship of two diocesan DACs. I welcome the growing recognition that church buildings are huge national and local assets, both 'heritage' buildings and those that are more modest historically or architecturally, but which are still a gift to their communities.

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