Paul Vallely: Should non-believers sing hymns?

17 November 2010

There are other ways of joining in at public events, says Paul Vallely

Does the Queen clap? It was hard to tell from the fleeting shots that we were allowed of her at the commemoration on the eve of Remembrance Sunday. There is clearly some BBC etiquette that restricts the number and nature of times the camera is allowed to linger on the monarch. We know that she does not sing the National Anthem, which might be permissible theologic­ally, but would offend against protocol or propriety. But when people perform before her, does she, like the rest of the audience, applaud? We never got to see.

What the camera did record, as the Festival of Remembrance modulated from civic commem­ora­tion into religious service, was close-ups of politicians singing the hymns. It was no surprise that David Cameron joined in; the Prime Minis­ter is a known churchgoer. But Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband sang, too, which set me thinking, since they have both announced that they do not believe in God.

They may, of course, in the interim have had a Damascene moment. More likely, they had de­cided that too many people would be offended by their not singing. News stories saying “Party leader shows lack of respect for the fallen” would probably lose more votes than ones suggesting “Politician does the opposite of what he says”. To many of the electorate, the latter would sound as newsworthy as “Dog bites man”.

So is singing something that you don’t really believe a mark of politeness — or a lack of integ­rity? Mr Clegg is already fairly low on the scale of the nation’s esteem after his brazen U-turns on the ferocity of public-spending cuts and on university tuition fees, on both of which he abandoned clear electoral promises.

He also has form when it comes to his pro­pen­sity to seek to please whomever it is he is ad­dressing, which is why he foolishly once told Piers Morgan in GQ magazine that he had had sex with as many as 30 women. That could have been a slip, but there was something more cal­culating about his choosing a supply of cigarettes as his luxury on Desert Island Discs, shamefacedly adding that his children were ignorant of the fact that he smoked — an admission that shamelessly ensured that they were ignorant of the fact no longer. Mr Clegg is clearly another pretty straight kind of guy, to borrow a phrase from Tony Blair.

Mr Miliband would have a had a perfect excuse for an evening of silence rather than just two minutes’ worth, since he is Jewish. But that fact made it seem even odder to sing “How great thou art”, a hymn full of references to Christ’s atonement and joyful expectation of the Second Coming. Dogma bites man.

What underscored the incongruity was that, as the camera panned around the Royal Albert Hall, it momentarily featured the faces of a number of non-singers. Perhaps they were overcome with the pain of bereavement. But it may well have been a lack of religious conviction. Either way, it did not come across as a lack of respect. There is more than one way to participate in a public event.

If we don’t acknowledge that, we risk ending up like the joke that Eric Morecambe told, in his typical mix of ’70s innocence and pre-PC sensibilities. A commissionaire at the BBC — an ex-soldier who had only one arm — once stopped the comedian and asked: “Excuse me, Mr Morecambe, but is there any chance you could get two tickets for your show at the London Palladium, for me and the wife?”

“Certainly not,” the comic replied.

“But why?” the one-armed man enquired.

“Because you can’t clap.”

It was only a gag, of course. And he probably would not have told it today. As the Queen shows us, there are other ways of contributing than clapping — or indeed singing.

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