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Ritual can still pull in the crowds

14 November 2014

Why not indulge people's taste for escapism and navel-gazing, asks Harriet Baber

EVERY Sunday at 9.30 p.m., St Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, in the heart of the youth-dating district of Seattle, is packed for compline. For decades, hundreds of teens and twenty-somethings who would not normally go near a church on a Sunday morning come here to sit in the dark, or lie on the bare floor, to hear a male choir chant the Night Office.

The custom started when music students from the University of Washington began singing plainchant in the empty church for their own enjoyment. By 1967, young people in Seattle questing for "alternative spiritual forms" had discovered it. "It happened overnight," the choir's director says. "There were all these youngsters here, because the service appealed to the mystical and esoteric."

This is not the way it was supposed to be. By the late '60s, it was generally recognised that religion was on the skids. Clergy were convinced that the slide could be stopped only if the Church would adopt contemporary English, and drop old-fashioned churchy rituals. They believed, in particular, that adopting the musical idioms of youth culture would bring in the ever-coveted "young people". But it did not, and has not. And now, while grey, dwindling congregations mumble through church services in the contemporary idiom of the past century, hipsters, dating couples, and the spiritual-but-not-religious head for compline at St Mark's.

Habitués say that they love the service because there is no pastor, no sermon, no collection, and no "community". That is because compline at St Mark's provides everything that liturgical reformers laboured for decades to strip from the liturgy and beat out of lay people: mysticism, aestheticism, amoral "escapism", and individualistic navel-gazing.

I see no reason why churches should not indulge people's tastes for these things. The pious baulk at the idea that the Church should accommodate people's self-indulgent tastes for ecclesiastical entertainment without edification or obligation. But, if the Church does not satisfy those tastes, there is no reason for anyone to bother with it - as most Europeans and a growing number of Americans now recognise.

If there is no benefit, no pleasure in religion, it is hard to see why anyone should take on the burden - the tough, unpleasant duties that follow from our obligation to recognise Christ in others, and treat them accordingly.

The secular world now supplies all the essentially secular goods that churches once provided. For people who are badly off materially, there are charities and the welfare state; for those who are psychologically needy, there are innumerable therapies and "philosophies", and self-help programmes and books; for those looking for companionship, there are social facilities outside the Church where they can meet people who are probably more congenial. The secular world provides for all our needs.

Religion is worth while precisely because we do not need it. We can get along perfectly well without services like compline at St Mark's; it is a luxury, not a necessity for survival. But luxury is what makes survival worth while. And religion is the greatest luxury: it frees us from the dull, practical business of life, and opens a window into the other world - the world of beauty, glory, bliss, and the vision of God.

Dr Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, California.

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