St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate is being taken over in what can only be described as an act of spoliation, which the dictionary defines as
‘the action of taking goods or property from somewhere by violent means’.
The eviction of its classical musicians, for whom it has become church in the fullest sense, reflects the kind of iconoclastic violence witnessed at the time of the English Reformation when monasteries were sacked, statues decapitated, frescoes and wall paintings obliterated.
Now, it is orchestrated music that must be expunged. The musicians who for years have made St. Sepulchre a space for prayer and reflection, are being removed to make room for ‘worship and ministry’. One can only presume that what the musicians offer is no longer deemed to be worship or, for that matter, ministry. The whole unhappy business raises two things which ought to be of concern to all Anglicans, whatever their churchmanship.
Anglicans in this country have for too long ignored or condoned the kind of quick fix which certain manifestations of charismatic, and largely conservative, evangelicalism has thrust upon them. Church ‘plants’, and St. Sepulchre is to be one of them, are in fact a form of colonisation, a process which has already been described as the McDonaldization of the Church of England. McDonald’s and the goods it serves is not only extremely bad for our health, it is also bad for a nation or community’s self respect. The French who only a decade ago were the envy of us all when it came to body image, are now getting fat. Could the same thing be happening to the Church? I think the spoliation of St. Sepulchre’s indicates a very real danger that it might. The Church is getting fat as a result of the McDonaldization of its worship and the commodification of its inner life in God to suit the tastes of the market.
What this danger entails pertains specifically to what the present incumbent, who has instigated the eviction, is about to do to St. Sepulchre’s when it comes to worship and ministry. It implies, among other things, a very narrow understanding of worship itself and, possibly, a very shallow interpretation of both worship and ministry in respect to how Jesus spoke and behaved in regard to these vital areas of Christian life.
In one of the most profound theological conversations in the whole of the New Testament, we are told that worship is authentic when it is done in ‘spirit and in truth’ (John 4:24). Beautiful music, especially classical music and liturgy, and some traditional hymns, releases the mind and raises the spirit to God. It is a truth language. It is truthful because it is received into the listener’s ‘God shaped space’, to borrow from St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal and scripture itself. It is received in such a way as to allow for an encounter with God. It does not tell the listener anything, or issue terms and conditions for this encounter to take place. It simply opens up a space. Beautiful music is not pure aesthetics, as some may think. It is worship.
Music is therefore a unique and infinitely precious gift, because in freeing the mind and momentarily opening the heart it allows both listener and player to encounter one another within the love of God. It is also essential to ministry, and ministry, rightly understood, is essential to the ongoing life of the Church. Bands, trendy songs and shallow sensationalist preaching do not minister to anyone except the performers themselves. They do not serve. They simply perform. Classical musicians serve.
The proof lies in the extent to which trendy songs and endlessly repeated cliché choruses do or do not transform those who imbibe them. Do people come away from these events less selfish, less needy, more able to love those they find hard to love or even respect? Are they more lovable themselves? Are they Christ-like in every sense? Are they the body of Christ? None of the methods which purport to make a church successful bear any relationship to what it means to be the body of Christ. They are not evangelism. They are part of a commercial enterprise. They deal in the commerce of spurious success, and they are entrepreneurial in following a set recipe for achieving that success. Beautiful music, especially when it is performed in a church, does not purport to do either of these things and for this Anglicans should be grateful.
What then can liberal thinking Christians, as well as people who are ‘not religious’ do to prevent the Anglican Church from sleep walking into a place where God in his ineffability is rarely to be found?
Perhaps the future lies with the ‘nones’. People who describe themselves as ‘nones’, when it comes to religion, are extremely valuable to the Church. For one thing, they are capable of being prophetic, because they are, by their own definition, outsiders. Jesus loved outsiders. He did not require them to prove that they had a faith. He knew them and loved them for who they were. He loved them because their faith, and the truth to which it witnessed, consisted in the extent to which they were capable of love, and on this alone did he rate people.