I recently overheard a woman saying she withdew her child from the school choir, in a church school, on the basis that there were “too many churchey songs”. Yet there was no animosity in this slightly eccentric criticism, it was simply that her child preferred musicals.
Here in England, faith is a personal matter – to each their own – and no great animosity attaches to the question of religion. There are no media-led campaigns to bring all schools under the secular patronage of the state, as in Ireland, for example. Polite indifference is the order of the day.
Despite – or perhaps because of – having been a more secular society for much longer, in England the cultural relics of Christianity are generally treated with respect and interest, like an old antique clock that has been long in the family.
Like an old antique clock, Christianity is usually regarded as inaccurate and unreliable, but quite nice nonetheless.
Despite no longer being seen as serving a particularly useful purpose by the majority, Christianity serves as an ornamental backdrop to weddings, and Christmas Day. Visits to England’s medieval Cathedrals are at an all time high. Evensong has even developed a cult following amongst university students, as a contemplative respite from their busy, digitally-connected world.
However, just 1.4% of members of the Church of England regularly attend services. England’s Catholics are far more diligent on a Sunday morning, but Ireland’s figures of 40% regular attendance are but a distant dream for both of England’s main denominations.
In Ireland, the majority have also now turned from religion, yet there is no polite respect for the place of Faith in society. Instead, there remains an astonishing level of animosity around the question of religion.
Many influential people seem keen to re-educate that large 40% minority of the population who still practice their faith. Ireland’s elite certainly sees little of value in a Christian education, where faith is part of the daily routine and where choirs sing, “churchey songs”, of all things.
Both of my children love singing in their school choir. I remember the first day I took Sean along to try it. He emerged with a slightly otherworldly look in his eyes, saying: “I can’t believe we made that beautiful sound.” I always knew he was a good singer, but not how good. He has even been given solos at services and in the school play.
I think that participating in any sort of music is a beautiful thing, but for them to sing sacred songs in an ancient medieval church must be deep a form of prayer. The experience of being part of such a beautiful thing must stay with a child. Music offers us a sense of the mysterious, a glimpse of the divine which cannot be dialectically argued into a person’s consciousness.
Perhaps this is why those secular university students find themselves drawn to choral evensong, with its strange and ancient plainchant. Music, being more devious than logic, can catch people unawares and reveal to them an unexpected glimpse of what cannot be proven.