Monday, May 09, 2011


'My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me; and darkness is my only companion.' (Psalm 88:19)

So reads the end of one of the bleakest psalms in the book, the one on which Rowan Williams was speaking last night. He was in the middle an official visit to the Oxford diocese on a schedule that would have killed a lesser man. By 8 PM last evening he was clearly under considerable strain. His evident exhaustion was not helped by what he was about to endure.

I'd only been to this series once before—last Sunday. Once was enough: I wouldn't have come again except for Rowan. The current focus (the series is held only during Term) is on the psalms on which I'm speaking at the Hay Festival; and while I know what I am going to say, I was interested in other approaches. That I was underwhelmed last week doesn't even begin to express my response, not because of the speaker, who was adequate, but because of what surrounded the speaker. The event was sparsely attended, about fifteen people (as opposed to last evening when hundreds came to hear Rowan—and I doubt that any of them will return).

Eight PM on a Sunday evening in a quiet cathedral is neither the time nor the place for the sort of deafening, banal, puerile guitar-and-vocals blatting or piano elevator music that one associates with the worst evo-factories [to misquote Annie Dillard: 'Who gave the poor Anglicans guitars?']. But last Sunday that was what we got. The event attempted to be a combination of so-called evening worship entwined with three sets of canned questions and answers. From a liturgical point of view it was incoherent; it was impossible to figure out who the intended audience (I use the word advisedly: we certainly weren't a congregation) might have been or what the point of it was.

Last night was infinitely worse: there was the added torture of a rapper. The volume was ratcheted up to physically painful levels. The caterwauling was an assault: physical, psychological and liturgical torture. This isn't just me being an old fogey: even the twenty-somethings sitting behind me were appalled, remarking how inappropriate such yammering was to a cathedral, much less disrespectful to Rowan, much less contemptuous of the audience, much less unacceptable in the context of the sombre material of Psalm 88, much less to the hour of the evening when one is trying to wind down in preparation for sleep. Poor Rowan: I can't even begin to imagine what he must have been feeling under his always-gracious exterior.

There are several future speakers in this series I'd like to hear, but after what happened last night, never again. Frankly, I was quietly rude. (I wish I'd had the courage to be disruptively rude). While the perpetrators of this noise pollution were playing, in their full view, I held my ears. After Rowan had finished speaking, under cover of the audience standing to sing the Lord's Prayer (to a nauseating contemporary tune), I walked out.

There was a report last week that attendance at cathedrals on weekdays is increasing. Weekday liturgies in cathedrals tend to be low-key, full of silence, and accompanied by music of great beauty, carefully performed—in other words, entirely opposite to the nightmare that was wished on us last night. The organizers of this Sunday series should take note.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am bruised and weary by life and the church. I came looking for some crumb of comfort. But all I found was 'I know, I see, I understand; everything will be okay when every one thinks like me'.

6:56 pm, May 13, 2011  
Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie

Since you and anonymous are feeling so down about this dreadful experience, this little anecdote might (might) cheer you both up, even if only temporarily.

A while back, I made some enquiries about times of service at the local Presbyterian church. The secretary was terribly friendly and proceeded to tell me, all enthusiastically, about the guitar and contemporary music that was now part of the "worship". Before I could stop myself, I groaned over the phone "Oh Christ, no". Even as I rapidly apologised, she burst out laughing and then dropped her voice "I don't like it much either, that's why I always try to get to the 7:30..."

My turn to laugh.

Jane Smith (Pretoria, South Africa)

8:28 pm, May 20, 2011  

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