Tag Archives: Christianity

Rebuilding

 

Broken,  recently screened on UK BBC2, may seem to have several differences in tone and style from the channel’s earlier Rev. After all, the latter was scheduled as a comedy rather than a drama, in 30 minute rather than 60 minute episodes. However, at their hearts, their two presentations of society, religion, Christian ministers and their congregations are very similar.

In Broken, Fr Michael Kerrigan, a middle-aged Catholic priest from a northern English parish, attempts to help with a number of serious problems suffered by individuals in his local community. For example, Christina is a single parent who loses her job as manager of gambling arcade and then postpones reporting the death of her mother so she can illegally claim her pension income for one last week. Roz is another single parent from a slightly more prosperous background who confesses to Michael of her embezzlement and huge gambling debts and who sees suicide as the only escape from her predicament. Helen is an African mother whose mentally disturbed son Vernon, returned home prematurely, is killed by police during an episode of his violent behaviour.

Three more individuals are involved in the aftermath of Vernon’s death. Andrew, a policeman, knows that the boy was killed unnecessarily but gives into pressure from peers and superiors to compile a false report. Daniel, Vernon’s uncle, supports Helen in his fierce contact with the police, but his conservative views about homosexuality prompt him to insult and assault the compassionate but vulnerable gay neighbour Carl, who immediately makes a formal complaint of a hate crime to the same police.

Inside this multi-stranded plot, Jimmy McGovern’s script still spends a fair amount of time analysing the character of Fr Michael. Studious and interested in literature as a child, abused by a teacher-priest but then disbelieved by his parents, inheriting some of the conventional working-class morality of his 1970s childhood and passing on to others some of the cruelty he personally suffered. Nevertheless, he has sought to assuage early ills by decades of service as a priest, and is depicted as a kind and brave leader of his community even while still haunted by his past.

So the drama’s title clearly applies to its lead character. Also, unsurprisingly, it describes his community, with its areas of unemployment and poverty and a prevalence of gambling outlets, and also his parish church, an old building, architecturally impressive but perhaps overwhelming and unwelcoming, certainly shown to be frequently empty with Masses attended only by small congregations.

A striking visual comparison between Broken and Rev. is that directors of both used repeatedly a shot of high church doors being opened by the priest to let the daylight in. In Rev. this appeared to represent Anglican priest Adam Smallbone’s attempt to address his church’s diverse local community; the equivalent in Broken seems to presage Fr Michael’s regular recall of scenes of past personal anguish.

Michael’s immediate family places heavy demands on him as much as does his parish, although we do see him able to relax at church socials and with his brothers, and his relationship with his frail housebound mother clearly brings him joy. Throughout the episodes of Rev., Adam faces many of the same problems, doubts and opposition as Michael, although he is younger, has a supportive professional wife and benefits from additional administrative assistance in managing his myriad responsibilities.

In Broken, Michael sometimes discusses his problems with Peter, a fellow priest. We learn so little about Peter (despite him being played by a well-known actor) that gradually it is tempting to see him as the personification of Michael’s conscience. Certainly the way in which the camera moves away from him in the last episode also reminds me strongly of the final exit of the angel Dudley in the film The Bishop’s Wife. That further reminded me that Rev., mostly convincingly realistic in tone, also has one notable scene towards its end which seemed more spiritual or fantastic: where Adam, in the depths of despair, meets a friendly stranger in scruffy sportswear (also played by a well-known actor) who already knows his name and who tells him “I’ll always be here” before disappearing.

Both Rev. and Broken have similar conclusions which are encouraging to those of us who believe in the value of religious faith. In Rev., Adam’s church is due to close and he to resign from the ministry, but friends and colleagues coax him back to carry out an Easter Vigil service and his daughter’s belated baptism. Broken shows Michael persuaded out of his vow to leave the priesthood both by his siblings attending Mass and receiving Communion at his mother’s funeral and by those individual parishioners from the previous crises all quietly praising him as “you wonderful priest” as they receive Communion.

Both Broken and Rev. were excellent pieces of television drama about Christianity in modern Britain, and if I find Broken prone to stereotype a little more than I do Rev. it is probably only because I know the Catholic church and the Catholic religion much better than I do the Church of England.

 

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One version of the 20th century

 

 

The drawing of Anthony Burgess by David Levine on the cover of Burgess’ journalism anthology “Homage to QWERTYUIOP“.

 

So finally, after owning a copy of the novel since 1983, I got around to reading Anthony Burgess’  Earthly Powers.

650 pages is a long volume for me nowadays, although it is certainly a readable 650 pages since its structure is largely chronological, as octogenarian writer Kenneth Toomey recounts his life, friendships and travels between World War One and the 1970s.

In many ways the novel is especially characteristic of Burgess both as writer and man, which perhaps explains its celebrity and its Booker Prize nomination. The narrative moves through many locations, and locations which Burgess knew well: Malaysia, North Africa, London; Italy including the Vatican, the USA including Hollywood, France including the Cannes Film Festival. The lead character name-drops many famous artists: James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Havelock Ellis, Peter Warlock, JB Priestley, George Orwell. Literature and music are widely discussed. There are many detailed descriptions of food and drink, of fashions and furnishings.

Many characters and incidents are based on real-life examples which even the less informed reader enjoys identifying. Toomey is related through marriage to Carlo Campanati, the Catholic priest who becomes Pope Gregory XVII at the exact same time as did John XXIII, although his international fame also hints at the Pope at the time of the novel’s publication, John Paul II. The fictitious Nobel laureate Austrian writer Jakob Strehler whom Toomey greatly admires has written a novel sequence Vatertag which seems rather reminiscent of Earthly Powers itself in some ways – and certainly also of The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil and Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, both rediscovered and fashionable at the time of Earthly Powers. The exploits of religious cult leader God Manning are clearly modelled on those of Jim Jones and Charles Manson. The Poet Laureate Dawson Wignall seems very similar to John Betjeman with his “themes derived from Anglican church services, the Christmas parties of his childhood, his public school pubescence…” A musical The Blooms of Dublin based on Ulysses is almost identical to a play by Burgess himself.

Although, as mentioned, Earthly Powers’ chronological structure makes it easy to follow and to stay with, it does include a few modernist flourishes which show off Toomey’s and Burgess’ Joycean influences. Vocabulary which is unfamiliar and demanding, some which may well be invented, omissions of punctuation, invented onomatopoeia like “at the card table, flicking a new pack of cards skrirr skrirr with powerful gambler’s fingers”, selections of Toomey’s own writing in different genres.

 

Waiting for Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Square, Rome on Easter Sunday 2002. “Carlo…told the crowd briefly why he had chosen the name Gregory. It was primarily because of Gregory the Great, who had reformed the Church and spread the gospel.”

 

The entrance to Graumann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollwood, USA in 2010. “My situation in Hollywood was a comfortable one. I was glad to get money out of the industry but I did not really need it. I did not have to bow or yes or cringe…I was Kenneth M. Toomey, distinguished British novelist in distinguished early middle age…”

 

For me, one especially absorbing part of the narrative is the section about the Vatican as Carlo Campanati moves towards the Papacy. Campanati’s plans for the Catholic Church as revealed to Toomey could be seen as similar to John XXIII’s ideas: “the unification of the churches. The vernacularization of the liturgy” and the awareness of “capitalistic enemies, but … Marxist enemies too”. Around the time of the writing of Earthly Powers in 1978 came the drama of the deaths of both Pope Paul VI and John Paul I and the accession of John Paul II, the first non-Italian Pope in 400 years, a period which prompted regular discussion in the Catholic Church about the pontifical legacy of John XXIII. The vivid African image on the cover of my Penguin paperback edition seems out of place at first since it seems to give undue prominence to a tiny incident from a novel which takes place more often in Europe and the USA, until you notice that the figure in the wooden statue is undergoing a Christ-like crucifixion.

 

 

The night-time exterior of Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 2006.”I… telephoned La Scala to ensure that a ticket for the gallery was available for me and would be waiting at the box office.”

 

Barcelona in 2002 with Gaudi’s building La Pedrera on the left. “Ralph and I were at this time more or less domiciled in Barcelona… Why Spain, or rather Catalonia, which is not quite Spain? Because mild fascism seemed to me at the time to be better than confiscatory socialism. Because of the architecture of Gaudi…”

 

Another favourite strand throughout the novel is the descriptions of food and drink which showcase Burgess the bon viveur as well as the descriptive writer. For example, the expensive Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo where its restaurant serves “Saumon Fumé de Hollande, Velouté de Homard au Paprika, Tourte de Ris-de-Veau Brillat-Savarin, Selle d’Agneau de Lait Polignac…”, or “the crowded smoky (Paris) restaurant (with) potted shrimps, lobster Mornay, a carafe of house Chablis” followed by all brands of cigarettes such as “Gold Flake, Black Cat, Three Castles, Crumbs of Comfort” or Moneta in Italy with its “thick bean soup, tripe stew with gnocchi, fat sausages from the grill, the black wine that is Moneta’s pride”.

Although I did enjoy the belated company in a writer of whom I used to be such a fervent fan, I did feel just a little sense of anti-climax at the novel’s ending. Perhaps because it is the sort of novel which impresses an eager younger reader rather more than a jaundiced older one, and perhaps because of another stronger sense, that this reader and the world in which he was reading were so very different from what they would have been at the time of the book’s original publication.

Reference: Burgess, Anthony (1982)  Earthly Powers  Harmondsworth: Penguin

 

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Home, sweet home

 

Why did people go to the cinema to see Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter  in 1978 and 1979? Because it was the latest film starring Robert De Niro, one of the big new stars? Because it was a highly praised adult drama – a little reminiscent of those by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, other Italian-American directors of the time? Because it dealt with the still pertinent issue of the Vietnam war? Because of its widely publicised and controversial scenes of Russian roulette? Perhaps yes to some or all of those questions.

Why is it worth seeing now? Because it is a rare example of big-budget Hollywood presenting the lives of the America working-class, and of a working-class experience which has been since the Vietnam war largely decimated through industry closures, unemployment, “globalisation”. A political issue correctly identified by Donald Trump during his US Presidential campaign – although possibly not, as argued by J.D. Vance, one which can be suitably tackled by him.

The Russian-American community of Clairton, Pennsylvania, depicted in The Deer Hunter is one of modest prosperity, mutual support, religion, hard work and hard play. The wedding of a young steelworker, Steven, is the main event of the first part of the narrative and the banner at his wedding reception which also marks the departure of him and two friends Nick and Michael to serve in Vietnam reads “serving God and country proudly”. Many scenes are shown of the church wedding service (presumably in a Russian Orthodox church) and religious choral music serves as a backdrop elsewhere. Several scenes of the location show a landscape dominated by smoking factories, which make people and other buildings seem small and insignificant. Steven and his friends are presented as bound together by work, the wedding, hunting in the mountains and the continual drinking of alcohol.

The Deer Hunter is in many ways similar to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2  – a largely masculine narrative, with the male characters involved in physical activity; the depiction of collectivist values; the influence of Christianity as practised through weddings and funerals; the acting presences of Robert De Niro and John Cazale. However, there are differences. The collectivist values of The Deer Hunter characters tend to be civic and religious rather than family values; the church is genuinely the centre of the community whereas in the Godfather films it is more marginal; characters’ parents are distant or intrusive or violent rather than supportive or influential.

However these positive community values are threatened by forces elsewhere. Two scenes of foreboding intrude into the wedding reception. The friends meet a soldier in uniform to whom they offer a patriotic toast but he brusquely replies “fuck it” – which hints that their eagerness to join the US forces in Vietnam may be misplaced. At the wedding it is traditional that the bride and groom drink from a dual loving cup and must spill nothing in order to guarantee good luck– but Angela the bride spills a little red wine down her white dress. We are reminded of this when we see the blood dribbling down Steven’s face after he is forced by Vietcong soldiers to take part in the Russian roulette game on the Vietnamese river and the fired gun shoots a bullet which grazes his temple.

At the end of Steven and Angela’s wedding, Nick says to Michael that he loves their home town – so it is essential that, if anything happens to him in Vietnam, Michael must not leave him there but must bring him back home. Tragically Michael is not able to do this. In the final fateful Russian roulette game, Michael does use such language to reach out to Nick – “Come home”, reminding him about the “trees” and “mountains” – but Nick’s memory has been fatally damaged by his war experience.

It is perhaps ironic that the one character who travels away from the home community to the battlefields of Vietnam yet does return safely is Robert De Niro’s Michael, since he is shown at the start as something of an isolated outsider. During most of the wedding reception he is observing events while other male friends join in dancing, and, while he loves the group hunting trips, he is still willing to risk spoiling the last one before Vietnam with an argument about sharing equipment. When he returns from battle, he at first rejects his friend Linda’s succouring advances with “I’ve got to get out, I feel a lot of distance, I feel far away”. However, he and Linda do later become intimate and at the end he appears to have found some sort of calm and composure.

The collectivism of the characters is also represented several times through music. “You’re Just Too Good to be True” by Frankie Valli is featured twice, sung together by the friends accompanying the jukebox in a bar, then performed as part of the wedding celebration by a guest singer: Valli and the Four Seasons is appropriately energetic pop music for a 1960s/1970s narrative about a group of male friends from an ethnic working-class neighbourhood just as it was in Sleepers. The deer hunting trip before leaving for Vietnam evokes a more spiritual mood. This is shown, first, by the use of religious choral music while Michael and Nick hunt, then, again, when the group return to the local bar with a deer corpse, by the playing by John, who has already been seen as part of the church choir, of a tuneful but sombre piece of piano music which silences the others into rapt attention – a moment of group harmony and empathy which contrasts with earlier scenes of argument and competition. Finally, at the funeral breakfast for Nick at the close of the film, John leads ensemble singing of “God Bless America” with its final line of “America, my home sweet home” which the group of friends do find consoling.

The Deer Hunter is a flawed film by a director who had an erratic career. The time and money spent immediately afterwards by Michael Cimino in the making of Heaven’s Gate, another narrative about American immigrant communities at a time of conflict, is one of the best-known stories of Hollywood self-indulgence. Although The Deer Hunter was publicised as a film about the Vietnam war, its best parts have long outlasted Hollywood’s fondness for that genre.

The Deer Hunter is one of the many topics of history, politics, religion and culture covered in the excellent weblog of Ross Ahlfeld.

 

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The world of Winterson

 

Because Jeanette Winterson are I are close to the same age, I can remember the fuss around her arrival on the literary scene. Furthermore, I had a bit more interest in her than in other writers who may be similar but who came later. For example, in 1990, I watched the BBC adaptation of her debut autobiographical novel Oranges are not the Only Fruit, which is the type of “misery” text which I would normally abhor and ignore.

An audience should of course always concentrate on a writer’s work rather than on his/her personality, but Winterson was always a high-profile and intriguing public character. She was overtly lesbian several years before the celebrity of Carol Ann Duffy and Jackie Kay; she was fiercely proud of her regional and working-class roots but equally a successful member of the metropolitan literati from a young age, with her famous friends and partners and homes both in the countryside and in London’s historic and gentrified Spitalfields.

I had not actually read a complete Jeanette Winterson book until her recent Christmas Days,  which alternates 12 Christmas themed stories with 12 pieces of mixed history, personal reflection and recipes of Yuletide food and drink.

One of my two favourite stories is “The Mistletoe Bride”, in which I felt sure I detected similarities with the type of sensual fantasy story Angela Carter wrote in The Bloody Chamber. Interviews from earlier in Winterson’s career suggest she would scoff at such comparisons – she pointedly rejects the term “magic realism” which was often applied to Carter – and indeed it does look as if she was an independent player in such genres as early as her second and third novels The Passion and Sexing the Cherry .   

 My other favourite story is “Dark Christmas” , which seems influenced by the stories of  M.R. James, several of which were dramatized on BBC in the 1970s under the heading  A Ghost Story for Christmas.  It is possible of course that entertainment like that was not encouraged within the highly individual family Christmases which the young Winterson experienced with her Evangelical Christian family.   

Several parts of the book refer to the religious origins of Christmas, and Winterson’s knowledge of (and perhaps even affection for) the Bible shows in some vivid imagery like the animal narrator’s observation of the Nativity in “The Lion, the Unicorn and Me” and the perspective of the Annunciation  from one untitled story on her website:  An unmarried woman sits at a table…The table trembles…As she crouches (under the table) she sees beautiful feet, strong like an animal, bare like a dancer…”

 Until Christmas Days my most recent acquaintance with Winterson was her BBC Radio 4 series in 2014,  Manchester: Alchemical City , still available on iPlayer.

 

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Three photographs which reflect topics covered in “Manchester: Alchemical City”: here, Victoria railway station, below, part of the canal network through the centre of the city, and, at the foot, the interior of the independent Portico Library.

 

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My listening was prompted by a memorable visit to Manchester and I found the programmes overall a stimulating review of history and culture. The title summarises her argument that the people of Manchester have always been gifted with the ability to turn dirt and base materials into gold and riches, whether they were the medieval alchemist and scientist John Dee, the builders of the first ever canal the Bridgewater, the textile manufacturers and traders of the 19th century Cottonopolis, political visionaries like Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, the Chartists and the Suffragettes or Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker religious sect. (Mind you, the argument was stretched too thinly in her episode on popular music!)

Christmas Days led me to Winterson’s own website with its archive of her journalism. To single out only one, her piece about darkness has some alluring sensual details about different physical appetites for this time of year.  

 

 

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The personal benefits of looking outwards

 

Often society can agree on a problem without agreeing on a solution. In recent times, many people across all age groups have been felt to be suffering from anxiety due to a range of causes, and mental health is a great social and political concern.

Although we might hesitate to apply blame too specifically, especially if it would make us seem too conservative or old-fashioned, there is often a general shared diagnosis that some of the forces which used to help keep society calm and healthy  – family, employment, religion, community – no longer, rightly or wrongly, are able to do so in the same way.

Carol Craig, in a post from her Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing, encourages a move away from materialism and towards spirituality as one step which would reduce anxiety in modern life.

Interest in conventional religion has dropped significantly in the UK in recent decades, so it is striking that often we try to hold on to elements of spiritual and religious life even as we re-characterise ourselves as secular. One of these elements which has come into vogue is mindfulness, being aware of yourself and your thoughts and feelings with a view to striving to develop senses of calmness, gratitude, pleasure and kindness.

Some educationalists have gone so far as recommend the practice of mindfulness in schools as they feel that the decline in Christian or other religious assemblies has made pupils less aware of the importance of reflection and spirituality. 

Although media reports usually mention the Buddhist origins of mindfulness, it bears similarities also to Christian prayer. Those of us who are Christians know we should pray to God to thank him for the physical and spiritual benefits he has already given us just as often as to seek help and support for the future.  I was struck to read a Christian minister and academic, Dr Ian Bradley, recently make this point explicitly.

 “Mindfulness is a profoundly Christian thing”, he said, so “the Church…should be encouraged to get more involved in pilgrimage, spiritual adventures that focus on mindfulness and meditation.”

Moving a little from the personal to the public space, Carol Craig suggests another valuable way to improve well-being is to look away from yourself and your immediate feelings and problems. Instead, take part in community activities, or in the work of organisations which share your views and values – a church, trade union, charity or political party.

Mindfulness was among many ideas covered in Swapping Psalms for Pop Songs, a rather non-pithy title for a recent BBC Radio 4 programme on the Sunday Assembly. This organisation, which launched itself as “the atheist church” which celebrates life and helps others, identifies itself specifically with community and social co-operation.  Its various local branches have allied themselves with food banks, health groups and housing associations.  

Ministers from different Christian denominations were both supportive and critical of the Sunday Assembly and presenter Mark Vernon suggested that this might mean that the organisation was “refreshing” a modern concept of spirituality. In the programme, academic Linda Woodhead emphasised that many people nowadays who see themselves as non-religious are not atheist. In the past, church congregations regularly included people of modest faith who saw them as “hospitable…filling stations” at certain stages of their lives. Nowadays, she argued, churches are seen primarily for the strongly committed and the more agnostic do not feel they have anywhere to go.

I do tend to share the view that any individual who has been a practising Christian all his or her life has probably become more strongly committed as the years have passed. It is also true that different times and events in your life might attract you towards or discourage you away from an organised religion. However, I definitely do not think that most Christian church leaders nowadays are dogmatic. Most whom I have observed have a very strong sympathy towards human frailty and inconsistency, and they both speak and practise the language of compassion.  They are very happy for people to join or rejoin their congregations at any time when those people feel that God is speaking to them.

I strongly share the view of Carol Craig and others that a way for any individual to reduce personal anxiety and to increase personal happiness is to practise a positive appreciation for the things which every day are going well in your life, and to share your talents and interests with others.

And to apply anew that dictum which was often quoted among political and social activists in the past:  think globally, but act locally. 

  

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The blessed tightrope-walker

 

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The Basilica of the Annunciation, built in Nazareth in 1969. According to Christian tradition, the church’s location is close to the place where an angel appeared to Mary, telling her she would give birth to the son of God.

 

Although Christian churches celebrate the feast of the Annunciation in March, the event is an essential component of the Nativity and therefore of Advent. “Gabriel’s Message” is just one popular carol whose words focus on it: “thy son shall be Emmanuel by seers foretold, most highly favoured lady.”

When I was younger, the Christian approach to teaching about the Annunciation was usually from a female perspective, such as on the ideals of motherhood, the sort of image which only a woman was expected to empathise with fully.

In later years the Virgin Mary’s acceptance of God’s instruction in spite of her fear has been presented as a timeless example of courage and faith which applies to both genders. I really responded, for example, to the argument and language in an article written by Sally Read in The Tablet in 2012. 

 “(Although) modern women can often mistake Mary’s submission for weakness… her life is (actually) a courageous quietly hair-raising navigation of God’s will… Mary knew too well the tremendous discomfort of difference, and its agonising finale. Her earthly walk through maternity has the breathtaking dare of a tightrope walker, never taking her eyes from God.”

Radio 3 excellent Words and Music series once had a programme about Mary which featured  several engaging and profound poems which I had never heard or read before. One was “Prayer for a New Mother” by Dorothy Parker which looks forward and back between Nativity and Crucifixion in the same way as does her “The Maidservant at the Inn” . Another was the narrative of “Mary and Gabriel” by Rupert Brooke, which, although more old-fashioned, contains many strong images.  

The Annunciation has been the subject of some wonderful visual art down the centuries. For example, the classic Fra Angelico Henry Ossawa Tanner’s highly modern and physical Mary and Arcabas’ more sinister visitor.

 

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According to the New Testament, Mary, after learning of her pregnancy, quickly travelled to her cousin Elizabeth who lived in “the hill country of Judea”. These statues of Mary and Elizabeth are in the forecourt of the Church of the Visitation, in the village of Ein Karim near Jerusalem.

 

 

 

 

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Music for beautiful buildings

 

A church-going Christian would be used to the practice of ensemble singing alongside prayer and contemplation, but exactly how and when the idea of religious practice blended into artistic appreciation?

Possibly from my earliest TV Christmas carol concerts, and certainly enhanced by discovering Radio 3’s Choral Evensong on midweek afternoons some time in the 1990s. Although that programme broadcasts all year round, it seems particularly suited to the dusky and dark afternoons of autumn and winter, possibly because of the format’s similarity to the Christmas Eve broadcast of lessons and carols at King’s College Cambridge.

 

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The chapel of King’s College Cambridge.

 

I would agree with Tom Service that the musical pleasures of choral evensong are inevitably associated with the medieval churches and cathedrals which still retain professionally-led choirs able to perform it.  If you love to visit a historic Christian church it’s surely easy to listen to some of the music which has been designed to be sung within it.

 

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The medieval choir stalls at Chester Cathedral.

 

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Sainte Chapelle in Paris.

 

My most memorable personal experience of attending a religious service involving such a choir was at Mass in the Gothic style (but Victorian built) St Mary’s Catholic cathedral in Sydney, Australia. The music included William Byrd, as I remember.

 

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St Mary’s Cathedral, photographed from a conveniently high vantage in 2000, probably from the AMP Centrepoint complex. The adjoining 19th building century building, contrasting with other larger and newer ones, is the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

 

Yes, perhaps such music is an old-fashioned taste even for a church-goer, the sort mocked by Philip Larkin in Church Going After all, it is now more often specially planned and performed for secular audiences,  for example at the Three Choirs Festival , rather than as natural parts of the religious life of a community.

I confess to preferring plainchant and polyphony and contemporary composition (which usually requires the skills of professional singers)  rather than hymns from the 19th and early 20th centuries where a choir sings in hearty unison to organ accompaniment just as they might do in your local parish. Probably a bit of snobbery, that. Whichever, you have the strong sense that this is a form of cultural expression which, as the 21st century progresses, will become more rare and select.

 

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The medieval chapel in Iona Abbey.

 

 

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Somewhere bright and Baroque in Venice, probably the Church of Santa Maria della Salute.

 

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One of the older churches in Jerusalem, St Anne’s near the Pool of Bethesda, built by the Crusaders in the 12th century.

 

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The startling interior of the Church of the Transfiguration, designed in the 1920s by Antonio Barluzzi, on Mount Tabor in Israel.

 

The website Saturday Chorale  contains a huge treasure trove from all periods and there are extracts of the excellent BBC series Sacred Music with performances by The Sixteen on You Tube.

 

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A great depiction of religion in modern Britain

 

The first week of Eastertide seems a fitting time to reflect on a rare example of modern TV drama which deals in detail with religious life.

I was led towards Rev. by serendipity.  I happened to hear the actor Tom Hollander one morning on the radio in 2010, talking about his new BBC2 TV series about a Church of England priest and about the real-life situation which had led to one of its comic episodes: how middle-class parents in London sometimes exaggerate or even fabricate a Christian faith in order to qualify their child for inclusion at a well-regarded Church of England school.

Rev. credits a number of Anglican clerics as advisers, which may be one reason why its three series have been so good at dealing with the many parts of contemporary British life which intersect with Christian faith and practice. For example, the clash between traditional church liturgy and superficially more attractive and popular evangelical groups; the temptation to use secular commercial methods to spread the Gospel message; the population shifts to the suburbs and the consequent emptiness of city centre churches; the ageing and reducing congregations; the annual popularity blip of church-going at Christmas; the occasional move of Anglican priests to the Catholic Church; the unconcealed homosexuality of clergy and laity; the relationships with Islam; the regular visitors to the churches which are often their neighbourhood’s most striking buildings for cultural and community rather than for spiritual gatherings.

In the 1980s, Channel 4’s Chance in a Million was enhanced by having, in its lead roles, Simon Callow and Brenda Blethyn, two actors who were more associated with theatre drama than TV sitcom.  One of Rev’s strengths is perhaps the best TV comedy cast since then: Hollander, Olivia Colman, Simon McBurney, Steve Evets, Miles Jupp; plus guests like Alexander Armstrong’s venal MP, Hugh Bonneville’s clerical media star, Ralph Fiennes’ bishop, Dexter Fletcher’s born-again contemporary artist.

Hollander’s character, Rev Adam Smallbone, is an entirely believable flawed representative of the modern church, struggling to meet the expectations of religious superiors, loyal parishioners and agnostic wife, and often seen to crack under the strain.

James Wood’s scripts are a rich enough blend of comedy and social commentary to work on a smaller budget, but extra pleasure is definitely provided by St Leonard’s Shoreditch,  London,  a great 18th century church, playing the role of Smallbone’s  own St Saviour’s in the Marshes.

Rev. takes religion and its role in modern Britain so seriously that you feel a little surprised, if relieved and gratified, that its audience has grown sufficiently large for it to have reached its third series.

 

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The theatre of the Christian Christmas

 

Along with Easter, Christmas is one of the two times of the year when, first, our secular media follows a little more closely the practice of its more spiritual predecessors, and, second, our Christian churches are busier than usual.  Not by accident, the liturgy in churches at both these times take forms which are different from other periods of the year.

It is arguable that it is during Holy Week that the Christian church liturgy is the more dramatic: multi-voiced readings from the Gospel accounts of Christ’s Passion, public washing of the disciples’ feet,  alfresco processions carrying the cross around local churches or landmarks.

However, Christmas Eve is the time for Mass or other services at midnight, and the four weeks of Advent  provide substantial opportunity for carol services or music concerts large and small.  Many people’s first experience of theatre, according to cliché, is appearing in a Christmas Nativity play.

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is one of the most famous pieces of religious Christmas theatre, a reflective programme of readings and songs based around the narrative of Jesus Christ’s birth in the New Testament. The idea apparently originated in Cornwall in the late 19th century, although the most famous example at the chapel of King’s College at Cambridge University began just after World War One.  Each Bible reading in the sequence is allocated to a particular “actor” from the chapel, the university and the city.

Because of the distinctive structure of my own childhood Christmas Eves, I read about the Cambridge event long before I was ever able to hear any of it. Just as with other parts of Christmas radio and TV in those days, extra drama was created by the fact that the usually rigid broadcasting schedules were going to be altered. In recent years, the wonder of iPlayer allows flexibility for leisurely listening at other parts of Christmastide. The attraction of any broadcast carol concerts at this time, for me, is the opportunity to hear those carols which I did not grow up with, but which are part of other Christian Christmas traditions, such as “Adam Lay Ybounden”, “Tomorrow will be my Dancing Day”, “Cherry Tree Carol” , “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” and “Sans Day Carol”.

December isn’t the best time for open-air performance, although a few years ago the BBC presented The Liverpool Nativity, an outdoor version using pop and rock songs from Liverpool musicians, which copied the format of the earlier, and rather more successful, Manchester Passion.

Occasional repeats of Channel 4’s version of the famous National Theatre production of The Mysteries would be an attractive seasonal change to terrestrial TV, although at least, happily, we can see a subtitled TV broadcast on You Tube.

Returning to my introduction, it’s a moot point whether it is Christmas or Easter which has the stronger dramatic narrative for the agnostic. The Christmas story, centred around a new-born baby, is more open to sentimentalisation; that of Easter more open to depiction of suffering and violence. Both stories can be updated with contemporary political background;  both give prominence to lesser characters who are meeting Jesus Christ; in both a story of hardship and struggle and the indifference of others ends in triumph and celebration.  

 

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