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Fatih & Reason / A foretaste of heaven found in Armley

This week the General Synod debated the report Faith in the City, published 10 years ago. Wherever religion is practised, Peter Mullen argues, its essence is not social work and prayers.
Stay in the city by all means, but remember the social gospel is not enough. We know the text: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren ye have done it unto me." And of course works of charity are necessary to raise the practice of religious faith above the level of sentimentality and pietistic sham; but the essence of religion is not social work with prayers. It must offer transforming spiritual experience or it is nothing, a foundation built on sand.

I should give an example of what I am getting at.

When I was a boy of 17 and growing up in downtown Leeds between Armley jail and the gasworks, I went one morning to the parish church of St Bartholomew. As I stepped inside, the service had already begun. Here comes the golden cross, the Crucifer in his alb and behind him the choir in red and white. Servers, acolytes, the vicar and two curates in their festival vestments.

They were singing "Blessed City, Heavenly Salem" to the awesome tune "Westminster". I felt I had died, for heaven must be like this. The mighty Schulze organ, crowned with the carved angel of the apocalypse, growled and roared. Then it calmed down and sounded like a single clarinet in paradise over the words:

From the celestial realms descending

Bridal glory round thee shed,

Met for him whose love espoused thee,

to thy Lord thou shalt be led.

It could not be true, could it? There was a roar of bass notes and a terrifying improvisation by the organist in the last verse.

Laud and honour to the Father

Laud and honour to the Son . . .

Fathers and sons coupled together. It could not be true, could it? The prayers began: "O God forasmuch as without thee, we are not able to please thee . . .". Never mind the school lessons: this is what the English language is for.

A short sermon and soon it was the Communion. Going forth to the high altar for the first time made sense of the Psalms, made me feel as if I was inhabiting the Psalmist's world: "I will ascend unto thine altar, O Lord; and dwell on thy holy hill . . ."

The aromatic blend of ritual and red wine. Eight candles flickering. The Schulze again, but restrained: "Let all mortal flesh keep silence . . ." Another prayer in the magical, God-haunted language and then Haydn: "Praise the Lord, ye heavens adore him." And in the silence a holy thump as the congregation knelt. The silence shattered by the summons to action that begins Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. And we all went home.

Coleridge said, "I am weary of evidences, but make men feel religion." That is how it was in Armley all those years ago. And not just in Armley, but all over the scruffy side of Leeds and in all the great Victorian industrial cities. Religion as a living foretaste of heaven.

The churches which provided this weekly glimpse of the beatific vision were all on the wrong side of town. In Leeds St Bartholomew's, Armley; St Stephen's, in Holbeck; St Mary's, Hunslet - poor parishes all of them: slum parishes, even.There was no patronising Noddy language but the full juice of the fruit: the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. I never heard anyone complain that this was the terminology of elitists. We were all elitists for we knew we had not just the best but something incomparable. Did we understand it? In religion it is never a case of theoretical understanding but of gradually, by habit and use, entering a world. At any rate we knew there is no such thing as profound truth in trashy language.

We were much poorer than most of today's inhabitants of the inner city but we did not think of ourselves as candidates for charity. On the contrary, it was the poor who gave for all they were worth to the church - for the excellent reason that the church and what went on there was the centre and source of all true value.

We had pride. We had a centre that was not just a social centre. No one ever asked what it was all for. Unlike today's Church, utilitarianism didn't enter into it. It was not ritual as a sign of something political, a means; but an end in itself. We were every Sunday morning led into the Real Presence. There wasn't much social work, but there was transcendence. We looked up through all that music, light and poetry; and what we looked up to drew us to Himself.