I didn’t go to church this year. I mean, I did. I went to a few. I like to look at how they were built, the small doors, the forgotten, blocked-off stairways and here, where I live in exile from my land of lost content, Wessex and its blue remembered hills in the mountainous coastal region of Suffolk, the evidence of the shrinking churches showing how even hundreds of years ago the decline began, when storms and shingle and sheep meant it just wasn’t worth hanging around here any more. The people drifted away and with them the money to keep the roof on huge churches once full to bursting; they pulled down parts of them to keep the bills down, long before Cromwell’s Puritan taliban came along to chop the heads off statues and desecrate fonts. God told them to do it, after all.
But I didn’t go to Midnight Mass. Now, I’m happy to admit that my only real interest in religion was sponsored by Sebastian Flyte in the 1980s TV Brideshead. I liked all the bit about the green hill far away because it reminds me of where I grew up; it had a white horse carved on it, as proper hills do.
But. But. I once delivered my own sermon of dismount to my mother, taking as my text the hypocrisy of people who did one thing and claimed another, who sang about being meek and mild and were the opposite, whose attitudes seemed to indicate to me that the bit about suffer little children to come unto me they took all too literally.
I railed about how people seemed to me to go to church to be seen to go to church, that the quality of their mercy was strained to non-existence, that they talked about and prayed about kindness and helping those less fortunate and didn’t do anything about it, the fakery of the compulsory church service for a boy at school whose family was wiped out in one fell swoop not as a freakish accident that predictably nobody could ever have predicted, according to our head of year, but because all too obviously, coming back from holiday his father had driven onto a roundabout thinking the lorry on it would get out of his way. It didn’t.
All pretty standard sub-Holden Caulfield adolescent stuff I pretended I’d forgotten I’d ever said, so I was a bit surprised when my mother, the church elder leader of the break-away church choir said exactly and precisely the same stuff at my step-father’s funeral.
I’ve tried to read Betjeman maundering on about religion positively and I just can’t do it. The more I read about other people’s religion the more it seems they just make themselves more and more unhappy. Maybe it’s just the people I read, but there’s enough potential for torment in every day without telling yourself that if you think this is bad, play your cards wrong and you could get torment for the rest of time. Don’t even get me started about people who think there is a right to live somewhere and throw other people out of it because a Bronze Age fairy story said they should.
Do they know it’s Christmas?
The last time I went to church for a service was 2014, appropriately enough a hundred years after the Christmas Truce. It was Blythburgh, one of the most beautiful churches I know, rising like the beacon of hope across the marshes that it must have been when this coast was even more waterlogged than it currently is.
Then as now it was Second Home Central, with all the temporary locals from Walberswick and Southwold (60% of Southwold is second-homes) trudging humbly to this freezing, shining church with about six million pounds worth of Lamborghinis, the occasional Ferrari (no Maseratis. They’re a bit, well, (cough) ….Essex, really) and the ubiquitous Porsche Cayenne shopping trolleys in the tiny gravel carpark across the hollow way.
I can deal with that. I had friends in Fulham and drank in the Sloaney Pony too, yah? Now and again, anyway. That wasn’t the problem. It wasn’t the carols; although there are a couple that bring a manly lump to my throat I was still a choirister, pal.
Towards the end of the service the vicar told us all ‘turn to your neighbour and make the sign of peace.’ I had no clue whatsoever what he was talking about. Like a hippy? Like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo? Draw a CND sign? Apparently not. We were supposed to shake hands. Really.
This was supposed to be the Church of England. I don’t know these people. They don’t know me. I came here to sing some carols and get a buzz from the atmosphere and the candles (oops, that Catholicism sneaking through again…). Maybe if we were lucky, a bit of incense wouldn’t be too much to ask for, would it? I mean, if you’re going to do this stuff you might as well do it properly. But shaking hands? I’ve always thought the best sign of peace with a neighbour is a well-maintained hedge, preferably above head-height and definitely with a good proportion of pyracantha mixed in with the box and hawthorn. But shaking actual hands without even knowing their name?
Luckily there was no chance of that this Christmas. I didn’t want to stand at any distance enclosed with strangers in a cold stone barn at midnight. Not when I know there isn’t any incense involved.