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Dick's Toolbox (cont.)
.. church goer.
But to the stop digressing. There are a number of things that we humans all seem to need, being the peculiar species that we are. Two of them are your common or garden atheist may miss out on. One of these is communal singing which is generally thought of as being physically and mentally ‘a good thing’. I don’t know many good atheistic songs – maybe Richard Dawkins author of “The God Delusion” should get around to it.
However I would maintain that there is nothing as endearing as belting out the words to some Victorian lyrics set to a simple tune. There are a lot of them, over 636 in Hymns Ancient and Modern. Brother Michael, who was once the saintly Head Chorister of Christchurch Cathedral and blessed with a clear boy soprano voice, may disagree but it is damned cathartic to sing with unreasonable enthusiasm and embarrass the family.
Still firmly embedded in my brain are stirring hymns like …..
From Greenland’s icy mountains, from India’s coral strand
Where Afric’s sunny fountains roll down the golden sand;
From many an ancient river, from many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver their land from error’s chain.

This hymn which uses an old ballad tune, “T’was when the seas were roaring”, was written in about twenty minutes by Reginal Heber in 1819, and contains the delightful line “Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile?”. Delightful as I am not sure that I can really see the point of the question mark. By the 21st Century we can be pretty sure that man is vile.
So, yes, churches are one of the few places left for communal singing where you don’t have to rehearse and practise. Of course every Church of England church is awash with timidity and middle class embarrassment at any sign of vocal enthusiasm; the world would definitely end with a whimper if it wasn’t for the choirs sensibly put in place to drown out the out of tune whimpers of the congregation.
So I think that atheists should be allowed into sing. They would be enthusiastic but could probably leave before the collection plate was handed around.
The other thing, of course, is that some of the most glorious music has been written for religious celebration. I am quite happy to go into any religious building to listen to a Mozart Mass, or even a work by that most Catholic of composers Olivier Messiaen.
One other reason that an atheist might wander into the nearest parish church, mosque or synagogue is the existence of a virtuous, contemplative spaces that places of worship can provide. You might want to call it a need for mindfulness or meditation but in a world super-saturated with noise and garish images the quiet of an old, slightly dusty building surrounded by the resting dead is an almost unique place for thoughtfulness and repose.
While the great Cathedrals resound to the clatter, gossip and calls of tours guides, where the altars are surrounded by people taking selfies whilst the ancient ceremonies are still in progress, the small parish churches stand rather empty. Well emptier, as the twice a year crowd dwindles in the small outposts of Australian civilisation, those villages and country towns that used to be the backbone of the bush and country.
While the charismatic, evangelical churches and fringe faiths seem to prosper in inverse proportion to the shallowness of their philosophy, the dear old Church of England, as an example, declines in numerical support. The sparsely filled pews are dotted with silver hair, threadbare Sunday best and the last of the blue rinses. The wonderful colonial hymns, patronising the less fortunate races, no longer thunder out through the open doors across the sunburnt plains. By the time they reach ‘Afric’s sunny fountains and golden sands’ they are only the faintest of whispers.
The congregations thin through death and the emigration of the young people to the city with its smoky delights, and neon trees laden with forbidden fruit. Many parishes are seen as too lacking in support and the churches are deconsecrated becoming restaurants and architects offices. The building is not lost as a building but the heart has stopped beating.
So, if nothing else, we should see them, visit them, and use them, before they become faded images in scrapbooks. Even if you aren’t an atheist.
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