Sweet singing in the choir: choristers at St Paul's Cathedral (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)

July 30, 2020   5 mins

Matthew Arnold, the Victorian educationalist, did the idea of culture no favours. His defence of “high culture” as the cultivated reflection upon all that is excellent within a society contains — to many modern ears, at least — a worrying elision of high culture and social class. He called it “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world”. Culture is an unashamedly elite activity for people with enough leisure time (ie money) and intelligence, as Roger Scruton, following Arnold, argued. Posh people go to the opera, learn Latin, read TS Eliot and long, improving novels.

It’s a change — indeed, quite a radical one — from the older idea that posh people must own a grouse moor and have families that date back to the Norman invasion. But nonetheless, Arnold’s celebration of elite culture is readily interpreted in class terms. Which is why a critic like Raymond Williams, who saw culture everywhere, in comics and pop music, was so immediately appealing to a Sixties generation who wished to affirm a much more democratic and egalitarian social order.

This Arnold vs Williams divide is the original culture war. And is why recent events at Sheffield Cathedral have touched such a nerve. Covid has accelerated all sorts of changes in the church, and as such has revealed intentions that slower developments might have obscured. Sheffield Cathedral has sacked its choir, citing demographic changes in the city and the need for a new choir to develop an inclusive and more broadly based repertoire. Basically, the unspoken suggestion is that a traditional Anglican choir singing Stanford in C at Choral Evensong is just a bit too elitist for a working class city like Sheffield. And that is why Evensong has become so poorly attended. Why not get a band in, play a few choruses, bring in the punters?

The reason the Sheffield Cathedral choir story has sparked the interest it has, with editorials in national newspapers and debates on the radio, has little to do with a highly religious northern public clamouring for the glories of the Anglican choral tradition of an evening, after they have done their bit of weekly shopping. Rather, what concerns many is the threat to high culture itself. Didn’t Arnold have a point, however much we might disagree with him politically? Culture should have a higher purpose than mere entertainment. And isn’t it the job of the Church to hold onto that higher purpose, notwithstanding the vagaries of cultural fashion?

Those who are suspicious of high culture within the church make the not unreasonable point that it is not — at least, no longer — the principle function of the church to be a patron of the higher arts. Among other things, we don’t have the money. No, the musical, visual and theatrical culture of the church must bend to one aim only: promoting the message of the Gospel. And if gospel music, or worship songs inspired by popular music does that better, then so be it. We are not renaissance impresarios. Cultural snobs in cassocks must be shown their place. There is a prevailing mood in the Anglican church — often issuing from the top — that feels a little bit like this.

It was Arnold who introduced the insult “philistine” into English from the German where it had been first used in the 17th century by students in a town/gown dispute in the University of Jena. The poor old Philistines of the ancient world were hardly uncultured. They were just the traditional enemies of the people of Israel, and so their name became a common by-word for “the baddies”. Arnold simply re-tooled this insult to suit his argument about culture and, for some reason, it stuck. But what is so wrong with being philistine in Arnold’s sense?

Perhaps this. What the people of Israel understood about God is that God is difficult. When Moses asks God to show himself all he is allowed is a teasing glimpse of God’s back (Exodus 33). If God is to be seen at all, it is, as it were, out of the corner of the eye, indirectly. Even the word God is problematic, with Jews talking about Hashem — the name — or writing God as G-d. When it comes to such a G-d, representation is problematic. That’s why there are no statues or images. God doesn’t present himself that easily. He is shy.

Christians, on the other hand, often feel they have a direct access to God through the person of Jesus. There is no need for cleverness here. Jesus is God, and Jesus has a form and a physical presence. Images are not a problem. God is not shy.

In truth, most spirituality exists somewhere on a spectrum between these extremes. What I have called the Jewish approach can render God all but invisible, at best a distant possibility. By contrast, the ‘Christian’ — especially the evangelical — approach can risk getting all terribly chummy with the divine. This is what a friend of mine calls the “Jesus is my best mate” approach. There is no distance to be overcome. Jesus is with me here, now.

Most of us who speak of God find Him somewhere between these poles. And this is where high culture comes in. Culture — and music especially — is a way of trying to apprehend something that naturally resists apprehension. Culture is the raids we make upon the unspeakable. It’s the thing we use to try to catch a glimpse of this shy God and, just for a moment, to hold Him in our consciousness. That is why Bach is probably the greatest ever theologian. And that’s also why Scruton was on to something when he argued that the origins of high culture are to be found within the realm of the sacred.

Popular culture has no such origins because its primary purpose is entertainment. For many evangelical Christians, that’s all that we need from culture. The trick is to fuse the gospel message with a popular contemporary idiom — it doesn’t really matter which, just one that will reach as many as possible. And at times when the church is waning in popularity those who subscribe to this formula tend to come to the fore. This, as it were, is the Raymond Williams approach to God. Disco God, Love Island God, Grime Eucharists, you name it. And that is where we now find ourselves.

The reason many of us cringe at all this, and believe passionately in the presence of so-called high culture, is not just because we are cultural snobs but because we also think God is difficult and can only be approached indirectly.

I used to have the privilege to sit in choral evensong every weekday evening at St Paul’s Cathedral. The silence would stop me and calm me down. The prayers and readings would slowly format my thoughts. But it was the music that stole for me a glimpse of heaven. And it was often unspeakably beautiful. Contra Arnold, this is absolutely not a class thing. In fact, it’s extremely patronising to suggest that it is. High culture all about how we apprehend the divine — whether at Glyndebourne or in Sheffield city centre.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.