I wrote recently about the reported replacement of “Grumpy Old Men” by “New Golden Agers”, and remarked that as a conservative, I felt no urge to stop being a grumpy old man. To justify the appellation, and to add a festive note to this column, I’d like to tell you about the Ashby Magna Carol Service last Sunday, which certainly brought out the Victor Meldrew in me.
I love the old carols, and was looking forward to singing them. As the canned accompaniment struck up, I joined in robustly, and was taken aback to see the elderly lady immediately in front of me conspicuously remove her hearing aid. I hope it was nothing I sang.
The whole service was relentlessly child-oriented, and a number of youngsters were dressed up as kings, angels, shepherds and so on. We had no fewer than two Virgin Marys, each equipped with plastic Christ-Childs. But hey, the more the merrier. Plus a selection of (toy) sheep, cows, donkeys and so on. But with all the children involved, the mood was not so much happy anticipation of the incarnation of Christ, more a class of six-year olds whose teacher has inexplicably left the room.
Two youngsters decided that the fun thing to do would be to go to the east end of the church and play tag round the altar, but the officiating incumbent’s only comment was that she wouldn’t have been allowed to do that in her day, but it was lovely to see the little ones having a good time.
Of course all the lessons were read by small children. Some did a creditable job, others were inaudible against the baby howling in the vestry. In any case, when children read in church, one’s mental focus is always on how well the child is doing, and whether the parents will be embarrassed, rather than on the content. Which was perhaps a blessing in disguise, since naturally in this 400th anniversary year of the King James Bible (“Appointed to be read in Churches”) we were using some ersatz modern version, devoid of resonance or poetry, couched in the humdrum and quotidian vernacular.
One cannot prevent the marvellous poetry of the Authorised Version, those immortal phrases and cadences remembered from decades of civilised and reverent services, from welling up in the mind, only to be batted aside and trampled under foot by the clunking, commonplace, pedestrian prose of these 20th century travesties. At Christmas, I want to hear that a Virgin was with Child — not that a young girl got pregnant. Not so much spirituality, as soap-opera.
And in another shock to the sensibilities, the congregation, at the instigation of the presiding priestess, actually applauded the readings. I hate applause in church. It seems so irreverent — and irrelevant. Are we supposed to be a congregation, or merely an audience?
At least the carols themselves afforded some respite — or some of them did. But we had the inevitable Calypso Carol. I suppose that this appeals to the under-fives (who seem to be the Church’s primary concern). But for me, calypso music is more Caribbean beaches than cold nights in Bethlehem.
One despairs of the state of the Church of England. In its relentless drive to outlaw awe, and mystery, and ritual, and reverence, and tradition, and the great liturgy of the past, it has also abandoned dignity, and respect, and content, and meaning, leaving a threadbare observance devoid of substance.
But never mind. At least we have the BBC’s Carol Service from Kings College Chapel to look forward to.