A gorgeous failure of dramatic unity

FAITH & REASON The enthronement last week of Dr David Hope as Archbishop of York was a splendid occasion, says Andrew Brown, but the Church has lost the knack of ritual. The script didn't fit.
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Ritual is like sex: it seldom works if you giggle. Halfway through the ceremonial opening of the General Synod last month I realised that the Queen had abandoned the silly voice she uses for talking to the Commonwealth over the shortwave radio, and was sounding instead exactly like an old girlfriend of mine. If I had shut my eyes I could never have told the difference. It was a less imaginative response than that of the journalists who heard the Queen rebuking the Church of England; but it did shrink to a vanishing point the solemnity of the occasion.

There is a sense in which all liturgy is drama, and cannot succeed without a willing suspension of disbelief. I don't mean here just intellectual disbelief, though good liturgy can sweep that along, too, so that one can sing Christmas carols lustily while at the same time thinking their arguments utter tosh. But there is a sort of emotional disbelief which must be overcome before that stage is reached: a habit of idle, cliched looking at the world which presumes that nothing is really worth our serious attention.

The language of ritual can be used to express surprisingly crude messages: in 1989, when Archbishop Runcie was last in Rome, he and his party were invited to a solemn mass and serial beatification in front of St Peter's. The great horseshoe-shaped space was packed with pilgrims: cardinals and bishops formed a hollow scarlet square three deep in front of the Basilica, and the 16 members of the Archbishop's party, dressed largely in black, had a place of honour which made them stand out - in Raymond Chandler's phrase - like a tarantula on a slice of angel food. If each member of the party and all the watching journalists had been presented with engraved cards reading "Resistance is futile" the message could not have been plainer. I have always admired Lord Runcie's equally symbolic response: he said afterwards that as he watched Eve Keatley, his press secretary, entering St Peter's he had a vision of the first woman bishop entering that church.

Yet the skill of grand symbolic occasions seems to be in retreat in the Church of England at the moment; mostly for reasons which are beyond the Church's control. The enthronement of David Hope as 96th Archbishop of York last week is a case in point. It was gorgeously done. The costumes, the choreography and the music were all splendid. The sermon had substance. But the script, somehow, didn't fit.

Within the church, the Dean spoke 16th-century: he would "induct, install, enthrone and really invest you . . . with all rights, members, honours, privileges, prerogatives and pre-eminences whatsoever" and prayed: "O Lord, we beseech thee: let Thy continual pity cleanse and defend Thy Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without Thy succour, preserve it evermore by Thy help and goodness."

Outside, there were demonstrators speaking television: "This is a historic moment in the Church's long tradition of gay male clergy. David Hope will be the first archbishop who has admitted that he is not heterosexual. Our presence at York is to urge him to support his fellow gay priests openly."

In his sermon, the Archbishop spoke management: "While there is much to celebrate in the Church, there is also a good deal of anxiety and uncertainty - a new synod; a new millennium, structures and finance, family life and human sexuality, management and ministry, when perhaps the old certainties seem not to be quite so certain as once they were, and where even our best efforts appear to elicit only a modest response."

This was not just a linguistic clash; still less a clash about sex. It was a failure of dramatic unity. The ceremony of enthronement speaks a dramatic language of the union of church and state, of the powers of this world with the purposes of the next. But no one hears the message any more. The problem is not that the Church is selling out to the world, but that it is now bargaining with the powerless. The oddest and saddest actor at the ceremony was a tall young man in uniform, who took a prominent, though silent, part in the procession. He is world-famous, but only because his wife ran off with an American businessman: it was the Duke of York, representing the Queen. He, like the city of York, is now part of the heritage industry, an actor in a public, televised drama which has nothing to do with real power and where he has no veto on the script.

This is bad news for the monarchy. But the same is true for the Church, too, which needs a suspension of irreverence if it is to function. Now it is as if everyone in the world, hearing the Queen speak seriously, also heard an old love talking at length about curtain material.

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