A happy touch with solemn proceedings; Faith and Reason

The celebrations of VE Day provided a reminder that an official priesthood still has an invaluable role, writes Paul Handley, editor of the Church Times.
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The Independent Online
It is a wise church which knows its limitations. After the solemnity of last Sunday's commemorative services, the Archbishop of Canterbury handed the priestly function over on Monday to Dame Vera Lynn, Sir Harry Secombe, and Cliff Richard.

On the forecourt of Buckingham Palace, the threshold of the holy of holies, the three entertainers interpreted the desires of the crowd and communicated them to the remote figures on the balcony. "Congratulations," interceded the one in the green vestments; "and jubilations".

The presence of the official priesthood in our public ceremonies was for a long time expected; now it is tolerated; soon it may come to be resented. But the job of a priest is a complicated one, and the hole which would be left by their absence is surprisingly deep - deeper than can be filled by someone with a sincere smile and a regular slot on Radio 2.

First, the priesthood is, on the whole, professional. The Christian Churches alone can supply around 39,000 ministers, all used to public speaking. In my local town, for instance, the corporation arranged a VE Day event of some unspecified sort around the war memorial. Things only took shape, however, when the vicar took a hand and strung together a Bible reading, a bit of Binyon, some prayers, two hymns and a blessing.

A bit churchy, perhaps, and four of the five speakers were clergy; but they knew to speak slowly and clearly, and the whole ceremony was performed in 15 minutes. In such a bitter wind, brevity counted for a lot.

Secondly, the priests are part of their community. When a passage into or out of this world is noticed, the priest can supply the rite. Birth, death and marriage are out of the ordinary occurrences, and so something out of the ordinary is required to help people acknowledge that. At the simplest and most common level, this means telling people's stories. Before each funeral, a diligent minister rushes around like a celebrity reporter, piecing together a picture of what the dead man or woman was like.

Just as in the days when the reporters were on a retainer from the big studios, the picture has to be recognisable and honest, but kindly; saying something good about the person and, by implication, about the mogul behind them.

This task doesn't necessarily have to be performed by a religious figure. An Auden poem helped to give the character played by Simon Callow a decent send-off in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. My atheist father told the story of his stepmother a fortnight ago, and was afterwards offered a job by the funeral director.

But there is another job to undertake, one that is not in the gift of the undertaker. This is to connect the people taking part in a public ceremony with something beyond themselves. The Christian liturgies call this God, and such shorthand still does well enough for most people; but a sensitive mediator will know that such a matter-of-fact word can make the communication seem too easy. It isn't. The clergy need all the tricks they can assemble: music, vestments, furniture arranged in a particular space, symbol, movement. The spiritualist madame, with her crafty assistant, is not so well stocked as this.

What last Sunday's service provided most supremely was dignity and solemnity, and this came more through procession, architecture and music than through anything that was said. This is what the Church does best.

When it comes to fun, however, you would do better to bring in Vera, Harry and Cliff. It could be that laughter and enjoyment are nothing to do with the Other (God, to use shorthand); this is the general opinion, despite being theological nonsense.

The more likely cause, though, of the Church's unease with the lighter emotions is that the clergy are just too screwed up. Maybe, like the Bishop of Dover, they should spend more time with their local rabbi: the Jewish priesthood seems to have a better grasp of both aspects of God's presence. But for the moment at least, the Church has to face up to the fact that it is short-changing its customers. It can do the vision thing all right; it's not so good on the happy thing.

Given that we are a nation addicted to light entertainment, this presents a problem. The priesthood cannot handle the popular idiom of its flock; the flock, welded to the popular idiom, has no language, verbal, visual or symbolic, through which it can contact the almighty. Last weekend's partnership, then, has to continue for a while: Radio 3 and Radio 2. St Paul's did not do too badly last Sunday, providing time and space and pomp to push people out of themselves. But nor did Dame Vera the following evening; a song, a silence, a flame. The priesthood must look to its laurels.