Sunday, 27 November 2011

In cloud, and majesty and awe

On Friday evenings, my wife likes to practise with the choir at Astbury parish church, some seven miles north of here. It’s a well earned break for her after the working week and before her glass of wine to mark the weekend. In exchange, on high days and holidays, she’s asked to sing with the full choir. Tonight being Advent, off she went with her friend from round the corner and me in tow for my occasional fix of anthems.

‘Welcome to our Advent service, and one of my favourite evenings of the year,’ said the wife of the incumbent, a curate somewhere else but who often officiates on these occasions.

They dimmed the lights in the immense 14th century nave, lit the candles and the count-down to Christmas began ...

I really don’t understand why so many churches, even Anglican ones, are throwing out these old traditions like so much lumber. Sure, I can see how clap-hands-here-comes-charlie choruses and cringe-worthy disco-vicar style cheesiness might be seen as something of a panacea as congregations decline. 

Yes, we need to do something to pack ‘em in, but why do we have to dumb it all down so much?

I can certainly see how the oomph and warmth of evangelical and charismatic congregations can create and maintain viable faith communities – I should know, I’ve been involved with these things since my late teens. I’m not knocking it. But it’s often so ... well, so inane. There was more weight and eloquence in the dignified silence before the Advent candles than all the karaoke worship videos put together.

Ok, so we all knew what to expect, O come, O come, Immanuel, On Jordan’s Bank, A Great and Mighty Wonder (a particular favourite), and Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending, of course. I have to admit that Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence did surprise me, but for all I know, it might be an Advent staple. The choir had practised Bach’s Sleeper’s Awake but they didn’t sing it for some reason – much to my wife’s dismay and my disappointment. Nevertheless, with the candles flickering in the twilight, the stained glass, the tracery on the old screens and pews and some hefty hymns the service was quite something. So many churches sit lightly by the Calendar these days. In my more puritanical youth, I used to decry the very use of one. Now I realise what we were missing for all those years. There’s something about marking seasons and transitions, they give rhythm and structure to the year.

Someone complained afterwards that O Come, O Come Immanuel is a bit of a dirge. It’s not the jolliest of tunes, admittedly, but there’s such a sense of depth and mystery there. It never fails to give me the goose-bumps.

O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
Who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud, and majesty and awe.’

Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

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