Music, community, sherry, a snooze. Even atheists or agnostics can find themselves drifting in and out of churches for all kinds of reasons.
Sometimes we are obliged by family, guilt or vague nostalgia. Family obligations, for example, have taken me to a rural Sunday service and, afterwards, amicable chat and sherry with the vicar. In deepest countryside it often is the only show for miles. Sometimes we enter a religious place remembering a connection with something long forgotten, rejected by reason and belief, yet ancient and part of our collective history, an imprint handed down the generations. Or it can be a love of the ritual and the spectacle. Churches after all can be beautiful buildings and atheists can still love stories even if they regard them as fairy tales.
The staunch atheist and architectural critic Ian Nairn, depressed and dying, regularly visited a similar local church in the Sussex countryside. It moved him for its atmosphere developed by ‘slow, loving, gentle accretion, century by century’. It was not that the church was especially beautiful or grand, it was the feeling that unseen hands down the generations had gently loved and cared for something important to them. Churches and other places of worship are often poignant monuments to humanity; sitting in them can have a restorative affect.
During World War One a secret factory in Gretna housed 8,000 young women who carried out the dangerous work of creating cordite for shells. The cordite was cotton wool marinaded in nitro-glycerine and was called the Devil’s Porridge. It was dangerous work but the Gretna girls were rewarded with excellent housing, leisure activities and a generous wage. Others were suffering worse in the war but the lives of the Gretna girls, starved of love and intimacy, could still be tinged with sadness. Most of the girls were unmarried and most of the men were away fighting overseas. The Devil’s Porridge Exhibition outside Gretna has books from the girls full of poems and sayings that long for home, for courtship and for normality. One simple poem sums-up why people might find themselves at church for reasons that perhaps still echo even for today’s congregations.
Some go to church just for a walk
Some go to church to stare and laugh and talk
Some go to church to meet a friend
Some go to church some spare time to spend
Some to scan a robe or bonnet
And to price the ribbon on it
Some go there to snooze and nod
And few to meet and worship God
Another reason might be to listen to some haunting and beautiful music. From hymns to organ recitals, choral to carols our churches can be full of wonderful music that is part of centuries old traditions that are often overlooked, yet are part of Britain’s great musical heritage. Britain’s choral tradition is rooted in its cathedrals’ monastic past and Britain is one of the sole remaining countries in Europe where cathedral choirs sing regularly as part of daily worship.
Evensong (also known as Evening Prayer) is part of the Anglican tradition and is a mixture of a hymns, readings, Anglican chant and anthems sung by the choir in the late afternoon or early evening. “When you come to Evensong here it is as if you were dropping in on a conversation already in progress — a conversation between God and people which began long before you were born and will go on long after you are dead.”
Walking around the old medieval area of Glasgow one winter’s afternoon I found myself at the Scottish Gothic ambience of the Glasgow Cathedral, and by chance, evensong was starting. An organ was playing, an ecclesiastical drone of gentle murmuring gliding through the vaulted aisles. The audience was small, a clandestine appointment for a conversation with God, the ultimate underground music venue. Tourists and walkers drifted-in and, unsure of themselves, sat at the margins. When the small choir sang their notes floated-up the old stone arches to the slender traceried windows.
The voices seeped out into the dark, nourishing and healing this sacred spot. This old grove where once the Molendinar Burn freely flowed; where pagans roamed; where the Bridge of Sighs leads to the city’s prosperous dead; where the city’s founding saint sleeps in the crypt. The voices beguiled and soothed, precipitating day-dreaming and reminiscence.
I left the cathedral to enjoy another fine Christian and monastic tradition, the brewing of beer. Glasgow’s latest micro-brewery bar was a-calling.