It was 2040.
I was sitting in a large egg.
I had been dead for nine years. No wonder I had a headache.
“Are you all right?”
Sitting next to me was Helen,now an elderly lady, but someone who I had known 40 years ago in my village church. She had volunteered to be my guide,to show me around what was left of England’s churches.
Now we were sitting in a large, egg-shaped object, which was travelling through the air, apparently unaided,eighteen inches from the ground. ?
“I ’m OK,”I said.“Just having a bit of a struggle taking it all in.”
Outside I could see the fields and houses flash by. “Where are we going?” I asked. ??“We ’re going to church,” Helen replied. “In fact,we ’re going to the Cathedral.”
“Oh,” I said. “So at least that ’s still going.Typical. No matter what happens the establishment survives.
You could explode a nuclear bomb in London,but it ’s a fair bet that the Sunday after some old bloke would be standing there in his vestments doing the same old thing...”
She looked at me coolly.“You know, Nick,”she said,“You ’re not here to condemn but to learn. At least try to keep an open mind.Just for once in your life.” ??
Before I could reply,the cruiser had swerved round a corner and come to a silent halt.
A door hissed open.Outside, there was the old front gate of Christchurch College, massive and imposing, looking much as it did 40 years ago; indeed, much as it had looked 400 years ago. We walked through the front gate and crossed the quad towards the double arched entrance to the Cathedral. Over the arches was a large sign.
Welcome to Christchurch Cathedral. Oxford ’s Living Museum of Christianity “Some student has put this up for a laugh,” I said...
??Helen sighed. “Remember - this is the future! The village church has closed,the church everywhere is virtually invisible. This isn ’t a joke.” I looked again at the sign.
A ‘living museum ’.It conjured up images of attractions I had taken my children to see -castles and farms where all the staff dressed in traditional costumes,trying to create a reality that had disappeared long,long ago. ??Inside the Cathedral things looked much as they had always looked.
The stained glass glowed softly in the sunlight, the stones beneath our feet echoed with history. There was even a vicar standing there to welcome us. He was wearing a black cassock, complete with what I thought might have been an alb.Or possibly a chasuble. I never could tell the difference.??
“Hello my child,” he said... I looked around.
“Is he talking to me?” I whispered to Helen.
“It ’s all part of the show,” she said.
“Welcome to the Cathedral,” he said.
“Here you will find everything done exactly as it was in the past.May I give you this replica church notice sheet which will explain things. You see that we will be staging a choral evensong reconstruction at 18:00 hours, or if you prefer a more ‘interactive’ experience,you can join in with our virtual choir rehearsal at 13:30. Of course, if you really want to immerse yourself in the full traditional church experience, there ’s a PCC meeting at 15:00 hours where members of the museum staff will be restaging an argument about the pews.”
??I stared at him. “I knew you weren ’t a real vicar,” I said.
“You ’re too keen.You don ’t have that ‘hunted ’ look....”
“I ’m sorry,my son?”
“Don ’t call me ‘son ’,you cheap fake. I ’m old enough to be your grandfather...”
Helen pulled my arm. “Don ’t mind him,”she said to the museum attendant,“he ’s not feeling himself.” The ‘Vicar’ stopped looking holy for a moment.
“Yes,well,tell him to take it easy,”he said.“He ’s spoiling the fun for everyone else.”
“Of course I ’m spoiling the fun!” I hissed. “I ’m a Christian."
That ’s what we do best!” Helen started to drag me away. “Thanks for your help,” she said to the Vicar. “I ’m dead you know.!” I called over my shoulder as Helen pulled me into a corner, “Like this place!” Helen sat me down in what was labelled as ‘an authentic church plastic chair.c.1972 ’.
“Look,” she said. “Just calm down. It won ’t help to get angry.”
“But look at it!Nothing left but a meaningless,fake,tourist attraction.”I paused.
“I mean, I know in my day it was often meaningless. And a tourist attraction.
But at least it wasn ’t fake.” There was a long pause.
I said.. She smiled.“Why don ’t you just look around,” she said... ??I followed her advice, and as I did so it became clear that if people wanted to find out about Christianity in 2040,they had to visit a museum. ??I stopped at one table on which was a display of old prayerbooks. Suddenly, the table spoke to me.
“Hello Visitor,”it said.“And welcome to Table number four.Would you like me to explain about prayerbooks?” I looked uncertainly at the table.
“Er...are you talking to me?”
“Of course,Visitor. I am fully programmed to explain these artefacts for your information.”
??“Oh.Thank you very much.”
“Well,” began the table, “the original Anglican prayer book was devised in the sixteenth century as a means of standardising the services and theology of the Anglican church.
It remained largely unchanged until the late twentieth century when the church suddenly realised that no-one understood it anymore.
It then went through several revisions:
The Alternative Service Book was the first, then we had Common Worship in 2000, Very Common Worship in 2009 and Downright Rude Worship in 2015...” ?
“I ’m sorry?” The box hiccoughed. “Just my little joke,” it said.
“I have highly developed humour circuitry.”
“You could have fooled me.” “Oh,” said the table, huffily, “you ’re that kind of visitor.” It gave a kind of metallic sniff.
“Anyway,all these revisions had two things in common: first they took a huge amount of time, energy, and theological debate. Second, no-one understood them any better than the first one. Still, it made them feel like they were trying.
In places like this, the older, 17th century form was generally used, with services such as Matins, Evensong, and sung Eucharist.
It is those traditions that we keep alive in this museum today. Now, Visitor,if you would like to make your way to table four,you can see a collection of late 20th century parish magazines...” ?
I shook my head sadly. “Doesn ’t anyone worship here,any more?” I asked..
“Oh yes,”replied Helen. “They worship what many of them have always worshipped: the past.”
“I can ’t believe this place is a museum now...”
“It always was a museum,in some ways,” she said. “That was the strength and,ultimately,the downfall of traditionalism.”
??“Look,you never really understood it,” she said as we began to walk up the north aisle.“You kept banging on about relevance and ‘contemporary meaning ’, but tradition is important.
Far more important, in fact, than many evangelical and more trendy churches ever understood. Firstly, to follow a pattern of services,a familiar routine of worship, gives people a rhythm to their life.
And as peoples’ lives began to fragment at the end of the last century that kind of thing became quite important.
Secondly, traditional forms of worship ground people in the history of their faith, reinforcing the sense of permanence,of meaning.Those participating were following in the footsteps of millions of others over thousands of years.
Some people found that more comforting and meaningful than the twenty-first century ’s endless addiction to novelty.
Thirdly, traditional forms of worship appealed to the aesthetic sense in people.
Say what you like about them,they looked and sounded beautiful.” ??I nodded, thinking of the last time I had been in this cathedral.
A sung Eucharist on a spring evening.Beautiful singing, rich language.An unmistakeable sense of peace and reflection. “Of course,more trendy churches scoffed at this,but let ’s face it,what did they have to offer along those lines?What, we may ask,was the artistic high point of the evangelical church?
The banner. Hardly surprising that people who were looking for art, for beauty, for something a bit deeper, were left feeling unfulfilled.”
??“So what are you saying,”
I countered. “That we should all get our vestments on again?
That we should go back to all this?”
“I ’m simply saying that art is important.
Beauty is important. You,above all,should appreciate that.
You were a writer after all.” “Thank you for remembering...” ?
“Of course all your stuff is out of print now,“she continued,“but the point is still valid.Still,never mind that.
The traditional liturgy had beautiful language, the music had been created by great artists.It had a quality that was entirely different.
For some people that was important.”
??“Yes,I understand that.But if it was so great then why were the high churches, the ‘liturgical ’churches dying out in my time?” She sighed.
“Because it ’s not enough just to have beauty.You have to have understanding.
Traditionalism appeals to a certain sort of people,”Helen continued.“And that ’s fine.But it ’s important for them to know what it is they are responding to.
It ’s not enough just to like the music or the images or the richness of the language.You have to understand what it ’s all about.You have to bring it into reality in your life.
What we forget about the 1662 service was that,in 1662 people knew what it meant.But the further you get from the original time,the more remote the language is.
In the end the words sound beautiful,but no meaning is left.
??“That ’s why traditionalism led so often to nominal Christianity.People went along to the services because they loved the style,but they never really understood the message.It became an aesthetic experience,a part of their routine,but not a reality.”
“It became a living museum.” I said. She nodded.
“Christianity isn ’t experience alone,but fact and knowledge as well.Too often what happened with traditional churches was that they kept the traditions alive,but the faith died.”
“Surely many other churches did the same,” I countered.
“They just had different traditions and experiences...” ??“Of course.
Baptist, Methodist, House churches went the same way.Every church where the form of what they were doing became more important than the content.
Modern ‘worship times ’were just as vulnerable to that trap.”She looked around her.“It ’s just much more visible here.That ’s why we came here first. Because this is the biggest symbol of all that we have lost.There was a time when what went on in here meant something. When the language really spoke to people,when the beauty and mystery were a part of everyday reality as well.But we became complacent.We forgot that language changes,that people change.
We carried on being doing beautiful services, but forgot to tell people why.” ??She turned towards me. “Learn what you can.The church of your time rightly rejected the nominalism, the archaism,the general lack of understanding.What it didn ’t do was incorporate the depth,the richness,the artistry.It didn ’t become a regular part of peoples ’ lives.And it too,assumed that people understood the language and forms it was using.It made,in its own way,the same mistake.” ??As we went outside again I said to Helen;“Are there no ‘traditional ’ churches left?” “Hardly any.
The Anglican church tore itself apart in a series of squabbles. Women priests,homosexuality,forms of worship,a defender of faith who talked to his plants,the canonisation of David Beckham...” ??“You what?” “It ’s too complicated to go into now. Anyway,those weren ’t the main problems.The main problems were structural. But we ’ll find out about that next.” We left the ‘Living Museum ’,bidding a farewell to the fake Vicar,who gave us a cheery sign of the cross.Outside,in the setting sun,the Cotswold stone of the Oxford college glowed softly yellow.
I turned to look back at the entrance to the Cathedral and noticed that,alone among the buildings,it was shrouded in shadow. ?
- Does my church have traditions?If so,are they helpful?
- Do our services give people a pattern or rhythm to their lives. Does this matter any more?
- ‘Art is important.Beauty is important.’ Is this true?? If so,what is my church doing in these areas?
- Do people understand our services?Do we explain the language we are using?