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My shamefully silent Church As football terraces sing out, compliant Bishops surrender to Government dictat

"Ten German Bombers..." Credit: Justin Tallis//Pool/AFP/ Getty

"Ten German Bombers..." Credit: Justin Tallis//Pool/AFP/ Getty


July 1, 2021   4 mins

I confess to being a serial blubber. Weddings, funerals, football matches, my child’s first haircut — it doesn’t take much for the taps to turn on. But the thing that really gets me going is singing. The very act of creating a harmonised sound with a group of people, especially when the words themselves are expressive of some deeper commitment; there is something about it that overwhelms me.

Singing is often where our emotions come closest to the surface. It’s a sort of spiritualised non-carnal version of communal sex. But as with sex, we’re now told that singing is a dangerous because it involves the potential transmission of small droplets of spittle thrown into the air, risking communal infection.

Of course, none of this stopped the 40,000 England fans at Wembley on Tuesday evening. The popular “Ten German Bombers” might have been banned by the FA, but the fans sang it anyway. So too endless renditions of  “Three Lions” and “Sweet Caroline”, without even a modicum of social distancing.

In church, however, the voice of praise has mostly fallen silent. Cowed by a desire to be overly compliant with every jot and title of Government instruction, Britain’s churches have come to resemble mausoleums. We’re advised that our worship must become an internal matter of the heart and that if singing is absolutely necessary, it must be conducted by a professional choir only.

But churches like mine don’t have the money for a professional choir. And I fail to see how the respiratory secretions of an amateur choir are any more dangerous than those of a professional one.

On Tuesday evening, after the match, I quietly celebrated Mass in church, without singing. While at prayer, we were being enthusiastically serenaded by the celebrations of a very different kind of communion in the pub over the road. I concede, given that our church was flattened by the Luftwaffe on the first night of the Blitz, I was not all that horrified at the thought of the RAF shooting down German bombers. No, the irritating thing about it was more visceral: others were allowed to sing while we were being silenced.

The leadership of the Church of England has been depressingly silent in defence of singing. I suspect they believe it is more Christian to sacrifice the worship of the Church for general public safety — perhaps an expression of their obsessive desire to be seen to be compliant with any and every expression of safeguarding without qualification. That is probably why the Bishop of Manchester recently suggested the real moral failure of Matt Hancock’s affair with his aide was one of non-compliance with social distancing regulations, rather than ruining two marriages.

Similarly, when the pandemic first started, the clergy were instructed not to go into their churches to say prayers or take services — in at least one diocese they were threatened with the sack if they did — but encouraged to do so to make sure the building was safe for insurance purposes.

Unfortunately, the general — albeit, not universal — silence of our Bishops gives the impression that they do not think of worship as something important enough to be vigorously defended. Perhaps this is unfair. But a little bit more push-back against the Government would at least make people feel their concerns were being understood.

On Saturday, England’s next match against Ukraine will be held in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, a few miles from the Vatican where Pope Francis, a very tactile person, has often given audiences to the faithful without wearing a mask. Meanwhile, the Vatican Museums have paved the way for the reopening of cultural spaces in Italy, receiving much criticism for doing so.

The contrast with the Church of England’s desire to roll over in submission to government diktats is all too obvious. This is where the leadership of the established Church and its closeness to government is a kind of structural weakness, and where the Roman Church’s independence — and thus independence of mind — is enviable to many of us.

Yet despite the broad compliance of our leadership, for a while now there has been a rising defiance from the pews. Our organist plays the hymns on a Sunday morning, so those isolating at home on Zoom can sing along. It is, of course, almost impossible to force my congregation not to hum along behind their masks. And that humming is increasingly giving way to actual singing. Occasionally, I rather unconvincingly tell them this is very naughty, but I think they can tell that my heart isn’t it. The idea that a priest would try to suppress public worship — and that’s what singing is — doesn’t register.

Why is singing so important? Because the primary purpose of the Church is the worship of almighty God, and, for many of us, this is most effectively done with heart and voice. There is a passionate emotional expressivism to it that cannot be replicated with the dry recitation of the said liturgy.

Theologically speaking, however, there is a kind of officious Protestantism now at work in the Church that subscribes to the view that only internal private prayer really matters, and that hymn-singing is merely some outward expression. But this distinction between public and private is not helpful, not least because it is so often used by secularists to keep religion out of public life.

The other theological issue stems from the fact that the Church only exists because the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, animates it. The Hebrew word for Spirit, ruach, can be translated as wind or breath. Without this breath, we are dead, dried up like a wizened tree. Now you don’t have to be a charismatic happy-clappy kind of Christian to think this is crucial. “Breathe on me, breath of God, fill me with life anew,” we sing, or at least used to. Singing is an expression of our breath — our spirit — responding to God’s.

Even so, we’re now told that our breath carries with it the threat of death to others, and not the celebration of a life-giving God. And the Church, as a result, is now split. On the one side, there is the leadership, which views our faith as some kind of well-meaning ethical society, with the proclamation of public safety at its heart. Then there are those of us who understand that the Church is a worshipping community; a community that is dying to sing.


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

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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Don’t be too surprised about the bishops’ attitude to this issue. Sadly, the Roman Catholic church taught us how far a religious institution will go to preserve itself to the detriment of its parishioners.
So far as hymn singing goes, it’s time we all made a decision about our personal level of comfort with coronavirus now that the vaccines are readily available to all. The data so far indicate the vaccines are highly effective and each of us, not a synod of bishops or a government, should assess our own level of risk tolerance when going about our daily lives.
We each get to choose, as free human beings, to go to church and sing hymns or not. Churches might even alter the order of service to have all the hymns at the end so that people who don’t want to participate can leave.
Let’s take back our lives from those who mistakenly think they’ve been granted power over our liberty.

Alan Thorpe
AT
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The data does not show that the vaccines are effective. The published Pfizer trial results included 36,621 people, and 8 in the vaccine group were infected and 162 in the placebo group. The absolute risk therefore shows that 256 people have to be vaccinated for 1 person to benefit. Not only that, the results used were 7 days after the last person on the trial was given the second jab. There is no long term data to show the risks associated with the vaccines, and it probably will never been known because the placebo group will have been vaccinated. It is well known that trials tend to show good results in the early days and Pfizer have taken advantage of it by using early data. At some later unspecified date, a paper presented to the FDA reported that there were a possible further 1594 cases in the vaccine group and 1816 in the placebo group. Not a very effective vaccine is it? The other vaccines are similar. The manufacturers claim high efficacy because they use a relative risk ratio, not the correct absolute risk ratio which applies to vaccination programmes. When the benefits are low the risks of the vaccine become more relevant and we have no information about them because the manufacturers don’t care and more importantly neither do our governments.

monkwell7
monkwell7
2 years ago

In many rural parishes illicit hymn singing is alive and well I’m pleased to say.

Heather Scammell
HS
Heather Scammell
2 years ago

Those of us who believe that there is a huge spiritual battle raging will understand that our prayers and praise help fuel the Heavenly forces. The suppression of worship plays into the hands of our detractors. Hiding behind password protected access and failing to speak into the current terror of death undermines the Church’s authority- whatever happened to ‘Fear not’ or the message that death is not the end, Christ has conquered death?

Gerard O'Neill
Gerard O'Neill
2 years ago

“He who sings prays twice”. St Augustine

Last edited 2 years ago by Gerard O'Neill
Campbell P
Campbell P
2 years ago

We stayed open throughout. Welby had no legal authority to close the churches. We celebrated Holy Communion – 2 of us socially distanced – on the first Easter of the pandemic in the churchyard as we have always done at sunrise. The ‘powers that be’ apparently even considered ‘disciplinary action’ until it was pointed out that we had broken neither canon nor common law. ‘Leadership’ is about the competence, character, and commitment required to make the right decisions in difficult or desperate situations: management techniques simply neither work nor inspire those whom the new advocates of such are ‘called’ (selected ‘company’ men and women) to ‘lead’. All rather sad really.

Scott Powell
Scott Powell
2 years ago

I’m mostly surprised that this gross interference from the government didn’t produce any significant martyrs. Seems like the essence of the faith has dimmed, and it’s just a pleasant Sunday outing now.

JulieT Boddington
JulieT Boddington
2 years ago

As an infrequent attender at Church, usually to see my grandaughters in Nativity plays, I would like to say that the singing is the most truely enjoyable and uplifting part of the service. It must be even better and more important to believers.

Rob Keeley
Rob Keeley
2 years ago

Another wonderful, heart-warming article, Giles. The appalling Welby and his coterie of woke Bishops has to GO. His milk-and-water liberal left Christianity-in-name-only totally lacks any hint of a spiritual dimension. ‘Officious Protestant’ indeed….but Luther loved singing and music generally, and even John Calvin approved of psalm singing (as long as there was no Romish polyphony…)

Last edited 2 years ago by Rob Keeley
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
MT
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
2 years ago
Reply to  Rob Keeley

Well Rob I do think Giles actually belongs to the ‘woke’ wing of the church though it doesn’t show in the pieces he writes for Unherd.

Jorge Espinha
JE
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago

If there’s one thing the American Black churches got right is the singing! What a powerful way of worship! Catholics and Protestants should consider appropriating it.

Kerie Receveur
Kerie Receveur
2 years ago
Reply to  Jorge Espinha

I can’t think of anything worse. Give me Tallis or Byrd any day.

Rob Keeley
Rob Keeley
2 years ago
Reply to  Kerie Receveur

I’m a Sheppard man myself, in addition, of course! 🙂

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

“…It’s a sort of spiritualised non-carnal version of communal sex…”

I have never understood the appeal of religion, but this definitely goes some way towards explaining it. It does however, beg the question: if this floats your boat, how do you know removing the ‘spiritual’ and ‘non-carnal’ qualifiers won’t do so even further?

Judy Johnson
JJ
Judy Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Most people go through an secular or atheistic period. I think you have to choose to follow a religion or not.

Jerry Smith
JS
Jerry Smith
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Someone once told me that singing is the most fun you can have with your clothes on, and I agree.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
2 years ago

Thank you Father Giles – I agree with you 1000% re singing which is what I have missed most. As a young Anglo-Catholic many years ago I was warned that that the Anglican Bishops were “civil servants in mitres” and – with a few distinguished exceptions over the years – this remains true today.

Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
2 years ago

‘shamefully silent’ suggests that something serious may be at stake – like child, or adult, abuse. But no, it’s just about singing! The bishops of the Cof E have a great deal more to be preoccupied about, divided as they are over questions of sexuality. The tension has reached breaking point with the Bishop of Liverpool’s recent declaration that the Church should accept to conduct same sex marriages (a position Fraser has supported if discreetly). This is a change to the official position, which will be resisted by the conservative evangelical wing who point to what they understand to be biblical teaching on the issue. The bishop of Liverpool points rather to ‘the world’ which he claims judges the church as hypocritical and worse. I am no theologian but if I remember correctly Christ told his disciples that the world would hate them and St Paul urged members of the early church not to be ‘shaped’ by the dominant ways of thinking and values of ‘the world.’ Fraser belongs to the ‘progressive’ side of the church but will not bite this big bullet perhaps for fear of upsetting some in this constituency of readers.

David Bell
David Bell
2 years ago

I attend a church that has stayed open except for about 2 months early 2020, meets normally, almost no masks, normal singing, normal interaction and worship. The Church of England is choosing to be compliant, silent, collaborative with the dismantling of hundreds of years of society, human rights and of people’s business and livelihoods. There is overwhelming evidence that lockdowns are having minimal impact on COVID mortality – but even if they were, that mortality essentially stopped months ago in the UK. If the C of E is too scared to worship openly, is not concerned about ceasing 2000 years of uninterrupted worship in Britain, and is not concerned about increasing poverty and reducing freedoms in the society around it, perhaps it’s good that this has become clear and a serious rethink of what it is for, why it exists, and who it should be obedient to is needed.
It is good that this has been raised, Giles. As stated: “Singing is an expression of our breath — our spirit — responding to God’s” Compliance with the opposite is something else.

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago

I am surprised. I am in Scotland and we have been allowed some (masked) singing for some weeks now.

JR Stoker
JS
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

masked singing? How does that work?

Jennifer Thorn
Jennifer Thorn
2 years ago

I’m entirely with the spirit of this and that communal worship needs communal singing – can’t wait.. ! But there could have been some logic to this point, ‘..how the respiratory secretions of an amateur choir are any more dangerous than those of a professional one.‘ Trained voice production should lead to less breath being expelled, that is all. But I’ve not seen any mention of this from Declan Costello who concluded volume is a more important factor even than whether there is speaking or singing. So shouts of ‘Christ is Risen’ could be just as ‘dangerous’ as singing a hymn. That’s either not good news, or we really might as well be singing. I have not heard of any increase of infection in our church since Easter so.. let’s carry on..

Last edited 2 years ago by Jennifer Thorn
Martin Smith
MS
Martin Smith
2 years ago

The utter uselessness of the CofE has never been more apparant. Abolish it. Let those parishes which can thrive thrive independently in Jesus Christ Saviour and without Bishops and Arch-Deacons and all the political ‘agenda’.

Last edited 2 years ago by Martin Smith
Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

Perhaps Covid was sent by God to punish the clergy for their sins.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

Try being Catholic. Not alone are we having to deal with this tripe, but we’ve been internally occupied for years previously by a vicious and implacable enemy force which has taken over our Church and is in the process of systematically destroying it. They’re known as “Jesuits”.

Jeremy Lefroy
Jeremy Lefroy
2 years ago

Thank you, Giles. We have been enjoying joyful singing in services held in the church car park. It also allows us to share the Good News (and enthusiastic singing) with our neighbours. I would like us to continue the practice regularly even when indoor restrictions are lifted.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

Sing loudly, and tell the Covid gauleiters to do their worst.

Hosias Kermode
Hosias Kermode
2 years ago

Just do it! Just sing! Ignore the nonsense

Deborah B
Deborah B
2 years ago

As a former member of a church choir and an experienced choral singer, I can vouch for the act of singing which opens you up to a spiritual wavelength that is the opposite of thinking and analysing. Therefore it’s arguable that the singers in church are more in tune with worship and faith, with their connection to the divine, than the silent clergy.
I no longer feel at home in church, but am minded to attend and sing loudly to p**s off the establishment. Great article and much food for thought.