Church and youth: the shock of the old

by
02 February 2018

As a teenager, Fergus Butler-Gallie was struck by the power of a book that, he was told, belonged in the past

MATT WRITTLE

Young people reading the Book of Common Prayer, featured in Sunday: A portrait of 21st century England, a collection of photographs by Matt Writtle, available from the author at www.mattwrittle.com; £30; 978-1-9997895-0-3

Young people reading the Book of Common Prayer, featured in Sunday: A portrait of 21st century England, a collection of photographs by Matt Writtle, available from the author at www.mattwrittle.com; £30; 978-1-9997895-0-3

UNLIKELY resurrections should not surprise us; they are supposed to be our stock-in-trade. Nevertheless, judging by the reaction of some people within the Church to the idea that traditional liturgy might be of interest to young people, there is still work to be done.

Yet it is happening across the traditions: from revivals of interest in the Extraordinary Form among Roman Catholics of Generation Y to an upsurge in enthusiasm for that former cornerstone of Anglicanism, considered dead only 30 years ago, the Book of Common Prayer. Good Millennial that I am, I would like to offer the anecdotal evidence of my own conversion and exploration of vocation. If you are still committed to the somewhat old-fashioned empirical side of things, then there are plenty of places where you might find equivalent stories repeated. (The Prayer Book Society has some fascinating statistics, and is worth contacting.)

I was brought up in an unchurched environment. Yes, I was baptised as a baby, but that did not translate to church attendance. Godparents were people who sent cash on birthdays if you were lucky; prayers were things that you said once a week in assembly; Noah was the child who used to trip people up during break-time football.

Yet as an adolescent, I became increasingly aware of something called “Church”. An interest in history — mostly the result of the graphic violence and occasional nudity that could be garnered from watching a costume drama under the guise of research — meant that I repeatedly came across this alien monolith: Christianity. I don’t know when I first made the decision to “go to church”, but I know it was on my own, and that no Damascene conversion was forthcoming.

After a year or so of dipping my toe in here and there, I decided that faith was something that I wanted to take more seriously. Home was not a place bursting with the cultural accoutrements of religion: I was not sung to sleep with Matt Redman songs, nor introduced to Thomas Aquinas alongside Topsy and Tim.

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There was, however, an old Book of Common Prayer that sat on the bookshelf where my parents kept books thought not to be of any great interest to us children. It was, if I remember, sandwiched between the Daily Telegraph’s Second Book of Obituaries, and D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. It had belonged to a long-dead great-aunt, and was replete with prayers for Queen Mary. Intrigued by that old-book smell, and in lieu of anything else, I began to pray occasionally, using the offices of morning and evening prayer.

 

THE imagery of the psalms, the honesty of the confession, and the twin jewels of the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis all captivated me. When I revealed to someone much older than myself at church that I had explored private prayer using it, however, I was met with an unexpected response: “Oh, you can’t be using that,” followed by a litany of the Prayer Book’s shortcomings, crowned with the criticism — levelled without a hint of irony — that “young people just don’t understand it.”

Few things are more likely to work with a 16-year-old boy than reverse psychology; so I became determined to explore further. What I discovered was a rich tradition that dragged me deeper into the faith, and it remains the well from which I drink today. It was like being told that there is nothing of interest in the attic, only to find untold treasures there after sneaking up unobserved.

More recent episodes in my Christian journey have shown that I am not alone; those who tend to have the greatest affection for the Prayer Book and traditional liturgy more generally were those aged between 18 and 30. Those most trenchant in their criticism (almost always repeating that first criticism) tended to be the other side of 40. I recall, one evening, discussing its merits with a traditionalist Catholic, a WATCH-supporting liberal, and a New Wine-attending Evangelical. There can be few things left in the Church’s culture that can attract such unity of purpose.

I have discovered that, alongside the depth that sustains my own prayer life, there is a remarkable breadth represented in the Prayer Book which, as a new generation tries to move beyond the toxic labels of the past, could provide a focal point for theological unity once more.

 

THE revival of the Prayer Book should not come as a surprise. It is, after all, the Church’s very own adolescent liturgy, forged amid the hormonal rumblings of the Reformation. The lightening changes in tone — from the confession to the comfortable words in the communion service — appeal to those who are often coping with big changes. The Prayer Book’s great selling-point in this regard is its authenticity. It is a quality that is particularly prized by the Millennial generation; as pointed to, perhaps, by the rise of identity politics, and something that much traditional liturgy has in spades: there is no pussy-footing, no faux comfort, no cheap grace on show, and, for a generation that is increasingly challenging the appearances that have been accepted as realities for decades, that is worth its weight in gold.

I would, with tongue only slightly in cheek, suggest that liturgies such as Old Rite mass or Prayer Book evensong are truly inclusive, in that they are places where the churched, unchurched, and dechurched sit and allow the experience to wash over them. If even Richard Dawkins — a man who, I will admit, probably spends more time thinking about God than I do — can express affection for evensong, then I would suggest that there is an evangelistic potential in quiet dignity that we are not taking as seriously as we should. There is no introducing yourself to your neighbour, no enthusiastic hand-wringing at the Peace, no Blind Date-style “What’s your name, and where do you come from?” during the notices. There is simply the experience of being in the presence of holiness.

For a generation for whom the majority of socialising no longer occurs face to face, and for whom encounters with anxiety are common, while ones with rooted community are not, this breathing space is invaluable. It allows a gentle introduction in terms of what is required socially, without compromising the authenticity of what is required intellectually; neither overly polarising nor overly patronising. It is a space that leaves room to contemplate mystery.

It may be difficult to hear, but things considered refreshing and deep in the 1970s are a little weird, naff — even, to many who are young now — lacking, as they often do, that sense of depth and mystery. I would not suggest that traditional liturgies are a magic bullet to the numbers problem, but, alongside serious community engagement, and effort put into personal relationships, they can provide a counter-cultural liminal space that, for those of us who came of age in the early years of the 21st century, speaks of a depth and breadth, a link to the past, and an authentic hope for God’s future. They connect us to the mysteries of the resurrection life, with all its unlikeliness. It is a life that every generation struggles to comprehend fully. But, then again, maybe we are not meant to.

 

Fergus Butler-Gallie is an ordinand at Westcott House.

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