It may be that I have been moving in the wrong circles, but I have only recently heard someone called ‘a contrarian’. Actually, the someone was me. When I thought about it, for a moment I was a bit shocked.
“Really, is that why I don’t think like the others?” It was no consolation to discover that contrarians in the financial markets could make the biggest killing by not following the investment crowds.
Embarrassed though I am to mention it, this awkwardness goes back to a childhood fear of going mad.
None of us are exactly sane. One of the comforting things of surviving into one’s sixties is the discovery that few people are sane, stable or even mature.
But my fear of going mad goes back to when I got ill as a child.
I was about 5, and I got a fever. I remember two things about it; firstly becoming dreadfully ill; and secondly the dancing curtains. My room had vivid curtains covered with images of hot air balloons, riverboats and steam trains. During the fever, they all lifted from the curtain and danced in a terrifying way. I confused fever with madness as a child, and while I recovered from the fever, I have never recovered from the fear of going mad- or the fear of things that you thought were true and real and reliable, suddenly becoming untrue, unreal and unreliable. Those curtains were never the same friendly images again. They were always slightly dangerous.
So it wasn’t madness, it was fever. But it felt like madness. I became suspicious about what was and what wasn’t real. And I rather think that’s one of the reasons I so hate the idea of thought crime. The real becomes unreal and you have no control over it. You lose personal responsibility. It becomes about what others think you think.
Summers often turn out to be about ‘something’. ’68 was the summer of ‘Love’. 2020 seems to be about the summer of racism. Obviously everyone is against racism, but I think for the first time, I no longer believe in it. It used to be about doing things that damaged people who came from different countries to live in your country. “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs” were the awful signs that some landlord put up in the bad old 50’s. So we passed laws quite rightly making such horrible discrimination illegal.
But racism morphed. It moved from doing something to thinking something; and then much much worse, it became someone thinking you thought something. This summer everyone is guilty, if the new anti-racist posters are true:“silence is violence.”
That’s the point where my twitching about madness starts to stir. Silence can of course be many different things on a range from not caring at one end, through rather lofty contemplation to acquiescence at the other.
But I have three reasons for not believing in racism as people now accuse one another. It’s not easy to tell what race someone is; there is a sliding scale of skin colour; and there is a better, healthier way of describing why some people don’t like some other people.
The races are mixed for most of us. Last year I was bought a DNA kit for a birthday present. It turns out I am roughly 30% Anglo-Saxon’ 30% Celt; and 20% Jewish (with a bit of Russian thrown in -!) God forbid one racial bit of me should ever fall out with one of the other bits. Does the Celt in me deserve reparations from my Anglo-Saxon invader bit? Don’t even start with the Jewish persecution stuff, the massacre in York in 1190, the mass expulsion in 1290 by Edward 1st. Luther ? Hitler?
And I’m white. But I have never thought of myself as white. This skin tone stuff is equally confusing and on a sliding scale of pigment. Megan Markle looks white to me. My more remote Aryan ancestors came from India. When I look at someone, I see character not colour.
The problem with racism as the new thought crime is that it’s not really about race, or skin colour, it’s about power using colour. It’s the imposing of the American cultural crisis on the rest of the world, which has different cultural issues. It seems to be about transferring power from ‘white’ (whatever that is) to black (whatever that is).
The worst thing about the new racism is that it uses a prism through which everything and everyone are assessed through the lens of power. This new language of power-relations replaces one moral world with another. It changes our worth from what we do, and replaces it with what group we belong to.
So what we used to see as responsibility instead becomes unearned privilege. Holding people to account using personal responsibility, is replaced by collective guilt. We held people accountable for actions we could weigh and measure; now they are guilty either for what they look like (reverse racism) or for what others think they think.
We face a crossroads in morals and culture, and the new racism is the tool used to shift the direction.
We are losing a simple and direct morality which invited you to love your neighbour as yourself, and held you accountable if you failed or refused; we are replacing it with thought-crime, collective guilt, censorship and the re-writing of history.
You don’t have to be a contrarian to question and resist. In fact you might be mad if you didn’t.
Perhaps it’s because it is August, but an article by Benedict King wishing good riddance to the insanely expensive cathedral choirs stirred up a good deal of anger.
It was an interesting article for two reasons. The first as that it raised some important questions and the second because the anger directed at it was out of proportion and made no attempt to deal with any of the points he had made. When that happens, it’s always a good bet that some totem, some idol, some tin-god has been disrespected.
I, like so many, have long had an interest in the dynamics of music in church; worship, aesthetics, spiritually and choirs, so this seemed the moment to look a little more closely at the issues that King raised.
The whole of my adult life in the Church of England (before I saw the light and became a Catholic), involved observing the frequent sniping between choirs and parish priests.
The reason was simple, though few people dared articulate it. King dared to raise it openly however. He suggested that the musicians might be there as performers not as worshippers. And when you combined this with congregations now so small or small and wholly ignorant of the liturgy for culture, they, the congregations, became not worshippers but audience.
From the point of view of spiritual discernment it was obvious to many that choirs were not there as committed disciples, but as performers, glad of an institution that hosted them with such generosity and resources. Every so often a power struggle would break out between the two communities sharing the time and space of the parish Church- the eucharistic community and the musical performers. It was the very brave and very occasional priest who took on the musicians, and even more rarely, won.
King in his article rightly traces the origins of the musicians in the English Parish Church. The origins of the English choral tradition were of course monastic. The great artistic strength of Anglican Christianity was that it replaced monks with musicians. The question few people have asked, is whether or not that mattered spiritually or metaphysically? Was it a loss to the spiritual integrity of the worship offered that it was done by sponsored musicians rather than monks whose music flowed from the sacrifice of their lives?
The relationship between the personal commitment or worth of the priest and the validity of the sacraments he celebrated was settled by St Augustine in his fight with the Donatists in 5th Century north Africa. But no such clarity has been achieved when you move the issue from the efficacy of the sacraments to the spiritual validity of the liturgy.
A recent scandal that has acted as a catalyst for the whole debate has been the decision to simply close and kill off the choir at Sheffield Cathedral. Many have seen this as the triumphant vandalism of the ‘woke’; and it may be that. But as it happens, the history of the relationship between the clergy and the musicians has not been of the best. Let the reader understand. In frustration and desperation it is possible that the cathedral clergy have decided to slice through rather than unpick the Gordian knot. It may be exasperated pragmatic pressing of the nuclear button in the old struggle with the competing alternative religion as much as it is a desire to worship the Lord in the beauty of grunge.
At this point I wanted to recollect the story that I had told to me as a 10-year-old boy in the church. At this point I want to recollect a story that was told to me as a ten-year-old boy in the church of St Mary‘s Wimbledon Hill.
There must’ve been some political problem in the church itself at the time but I never discovered what it was.
Our choirmaster was an immensely talented man called Dennis Aldersea. He had been an organ scholar at one of the Cambridge colleges, and according to the internet, an inspirational music teacher in London. One night he stopped the choir rehearsal and said that he wanted to tell us a story. It was in about an Italian monastery where a handful or not over tuneful monks faithfully sang the liturgy every day and night.
“One day a famous opera singer knocked at the door of an Italian monastery and asked to spend the night. The Abbot welcomed him warmly. Instead of contributing to cover the cost of this day the Abbot asked if the opera singer would instead sing the evening office of vespers.
The singer agreed with enthusiasm, and the monks had a night off and sat back and listened to his exquisite performance.
That evening as the abbot was saying his prayers he heard from God. The Lord said in a disappointed voice, “where were you tonight my son”?
“What do you mean Lord” replied the Abbot? We were all there in chapel listening, and may I say we offered you one of the most wonderful Vespers I have ever heard.
“I don’t think so” said the Lord. I was present always of course, but I heard nothing; only silence, no praise, no love, no adoration.
It was the first night that you have been silent since the monastery was founded. I was deeply saddened.”
The moral was clear. It wasn’t enough to sing; it wasn’t enough to be a musician, it wasn’t enough to be talented, it wasn’t enough to perform. Authentic worship was a matter of the heart.
Let us suppose for a moment that this story tells a theological truth. What is heard in heaven may be very different from what is heard on earth. Already we know from the saints that what matters in our daily actions is the love with which they are done.
“You know well enough that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them.”
–St. Therese of Lisieux
“Pure love … knows that only one thing is needed to please God: to do even the smallest things out of great love – love, and always love.” (140)
If this applies to worship it may not be enough to say that music carries us to heaven and gives us a vision of the numinous. It may well be that any music not sung with genuine devotion of the heart is not heard in heaven. If that is so, then many, perhaps all of our cathedrals have been silent since the Reformation.
One or two of the angry voices raised against Benedict King made a similar point. They claimed they had been to choral services in cathedrals and lifted into the heavens. This may be true, I have no way of knowing. But I am suspicious. It is a little too Platonic to my mind. Much too close to ‘beauty is truth and truth, beauty’.
This is Greek not Hebrew. What does Jesus say? “Blessed are the pure in heart, they shall see God.”
This suggests that the route to the heavenly vision in not an ear well-tuned to polyphonic renaissance music, however lovely and beautiful it is, but instead a pure and penitent heart.
Too much of the praise of Cathedral music sounds like a peon to high art rather than the invitation to the renewed and contrite heart.
Vision in the Scriptures comes from obedience, or penitence, never from art; this is Athens rather than and in contrast to Jerusalem.
A great deal has been made of the rise in numbers in evensong. But this is the talk of desperation. Attendance in the C of E is in demographic free fall. If by contrast there are a few hundred extra attendees at Sung Evensong this is not ‘growth’ or success. And once again, no effort is made to assess whether or not those who go belong to the category of esoteric culture-vultures or are would-be catechumens driven by hunger of spirit that will not let them go.
It is wholly true of course that the musical education given by the Church and in particular cathedral choirs is and has been invaluable. I am one of its many grateful beneficiaries. But all this speaks to is another useful chapter in the Church’s commendable role as a patron of the arts. Valuable, worthwhile, dignified, meretricious; but forgive us if we note that Jesus went to His death on the cross, bearing the sins of the whole world to allow us to approach heaven uncondemned, rather than to facilitate our love of art and music making.
One word, one phrase infuriated some of the commentators particularly. King referred to the over-long, over-ornate, over fussy setting of the invitation to worship “Oh Lord open our lips”, lasting over a minute, as ‘camp’. Cue utter fury, as if he had put his finger in a wound. What wound would this be? Those who know, know. For those who don’t we can pass on. But, a reaction wholly disproportionate to the writing.
What if the exceedingly expensive choir schools disappeared? Could the Anglicans, like the Greek and Russian Orthodox use a small but gifted, dedicated and spiritually committed group of four or five singers +? There is as much of heaven to be glimpsed in a Russian Orthodox Church washed in the music of adoration and ecstasy as there in the cool intricate polyphony of the West.
But the question of who sings it and what motivates them to sing it may be of the utmost importance in the economy of salvation and in the integrity of the Church.
The fact that Benedict King’s article produced such rage and reflex-vitriol suggests that the choral tradition in Anglicanism is not as pure a vehicle of revelation and salvation as its followers would like to believe. It may even constitute a different god – a different religion. And if that proved to be true, the temple post covid may be found to have been cleansed, rather than collapsed beyond repair.
Statues have suddenly become important to us all. They enrage Black Lives Matter. They have made the rest of us scratch our heads and think. Something big is at stake here, but what is it?
I underestimated statues. I saw them only as large and rather clumsy tributes to fashions in history.
However this thing with attacking statues just took off, and has become more than a fuss about slavery. Slavery has morphed into racism. And racism has morphed into taking down not only statues but re-writing history and cancelling freedom of speech. The new woke, with eyes that bulge uncomfortably, say freedom of speech must be cancelled since it can be a platform for hate speech; and racism is the worst hate speech there is.
The war on free speech comes in (at least) three ways at the moment. Social pressure; no one will like you if you are a called a racist. Cancel culture – you will lose your job if you are accused of being a racist. And the rewriting of history -down with the statues of racists- rub them out of history.
I don’t think I could have easily imagined Churchill’s statue being boarded up because the police felt too morally compromised to defend it from damage. But up went the boards, and although the public were told it was to protect the monument from damage, there was the sense that there was more to it than that. Churchill was being accused of racism, now a crime for which there is neither understanding, nor forgiveness. The man who stood for heroic courage, tenacious bravery and the man who saved our freedom of speech from the Nazis, suddenly becomes unspeakably bad, and has to be first defaced and ideally cancelled.
Not everyone agrees that racism is what BLM and others claim it is though. Dinesh D’Souza (a ‘brown’ American) has written a startling book called ‘the End of Racism.’ He claims that racism is much too clumsy a term to be of any use to us in unravelling the complexities of human hatred and the abuse of power. But once you throw in systemic racism (an institution suffers from it) and unconscious bias (you don’t even know you have it), there is no way on earth there can be any defence against being called a racist. It has become a very powerful tool. And, like Churchill, if you’re dead you can’t answer back. There is no freedom of speech for the dead.
This re-writing of history reminded me (as so many things do now) of George Orwell. It wasn’t statues that got him thinking, it was a show trial in Communist Russia in 1936. Just at the beginning of Stalin’s first purge a minor Bolshevik official confessed to a Russian court that he had met Trotsky’s son in Copenhagen. They had got together in the Hotel Bristol to plot against the state. His evidence was enough to get him and all the other conspirators shot.
A few days after this show trial, a Danish newspaper pointed out the uncomfortable fact that the hotel Bristol had been knocked down in 1917. The confession had been fabricated. There never had been a conspiracy. The point of the trial was to eliminate people who threatened Stalin’s grip on power. When the account of the trial was translated into English, history got re-written twice. First the false conspiracy that never was; secondly, hotel Bristol.
In the prophetic 1984, Winston’s job was the daily re-writing of history on behalf of the state. Orwell knew that the re-writing of history is one of the ways in which you get and hold on to power.
And increasingly it is beginning to look like this is in fact more about power than it is about racism and thought crime. Racism is just the route to the goal.
The Black Lives Matter movement tell us that their aim is to gain political power. They want to replace capitalism, get rid of the family, destroy orthodox understandings of sexuality, smash the patriarchy and transfer power from white (whatever that is) to black (whatever that is.)
Accusing people, dead and alive, of racism has become a most effective tool. The living have to give way or else they will lose their jobs. The dead and all the good they achieved, get rubbed out of history, which gets re-written.
Everyone is so frightened of being accused of a thought crime that there is no defence against, not only do they give in, but they even jump on this dangerous band wagon whose ambitions are no less than the cancelling of our culture as well as our freedom of conversation.
Both the BBC, who are pulling offensive comedies off iplayer and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has promised to purge his cathedral of any offensive history are giving way, re-writing history, transferring power. Both ought to know better. The BBC should know that comedy is designed to offend. Welby should worry that BLM have started to attack statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Nothing to do with slavery; everything to do with re-writing history.
D’Souza thinks our real weakness is the idea that everything is relative. No culture no idea is better than any other. If we want to be able to have an opinion in the future, we had better decide that being free to think and being free to test what we think by speaking it and writing it, is indeed more important than offending someone who doesn’t happen to like what we say. So is it?
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