I confess to being a serial blubber. Weddings, funerals, football matches, my child’s first haircut — it doesn’t take much for the taps to turn on. But the thing that really gets me going is singing. The very act of creating a harmonised sound with a group of people, especially when the words themselves are expressive of some deeper commitment; there is something about it that overwhelms me.
Singing is often where our emotions come closest to the surface. It’s a sort of spiritualised non-carnal version of communal sex. But as with sex, we’re now told that singing is a dangerous because it involves the potential transmission of small droplets of spittle thrown into the air, risking communal infection.
Of course, none of this stopped the 40,000 England fans at Wembley on Tuesday evening. The popular “Ten German Bombers” might have been banned by the FA, but the fans sang it anyway. So too endless renditions of “Three Lions” and “Sweet Caroline”, without even a modicum of social distancing.
In church, however, the voice of praise has mostly fallen silent. Cowed by a desire to be overly compliant with every jot and title of Government instruction, Britain’s churches have come to resemble mausoleums. We’re advised that our worship must become an internal matter of the heart and that if singing is absolutely necessary, it must be conducted by a professional choir only.
But churches like mine don’t have the money for a professional choir. And I fail to see how the respiratory secretions of an amateur choir are any more dangerous than those of a professional one.
On Tuesday evening, after the match, I quietly celebrated Mass in church, without singing. While at prayer, we were being enthusiastically serenaded by the celebrations of a very different kind of communion in the pub over the road. I concede, given that our church was flattened by the Luftwaffe on the first night of the Blitz, I was not all that horrified at the thought of the RAF shooting down German bombers. No, the irritating thing about it was more visceral: others were allowed to sing while we were being silenced.
The leadership of the Church of England has been depressingly silent in defence of singing. I suspect they believe it is more Christian to sacrifice the worship of the Church for general public safety — perhaps an expression of their obsessive desire to be seen to be compliant with any and every expression of safeguarding without qualification. That is probably why the Bishop of Manchester recently suggested the real moral failure of Matt Hancock’s affair with his aide was one of non-compliance with social distancing regulations, rather than ruining two marriages.
Similarly, when the pandemic first started, the clergy were instructed not to go into their churches to say prayers or take services — in at least one diocese they were threatened with the sack if they did — but encouraged to do so to make sure the building was safe for insurance purposes.
Unfortunately, the general — albeit, not universal — silence of our Bishops gives the impression that they do not think of worship as something important enough to be vigorously defended. Perhaps this is unfair. But a little bit more push-back against the Government would at least make people feel their concerns were being understood.
On Saturday, England’s next match against Ukraine will be held in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, a few miles from the Vatican where Pope Francis, a very tactile person, has often given audiences to the faithful without wearing a mask. Meanwhile, the Vatican Museums have paved the way for the reopening of cultural spaces in Italy, receiving much criticism for doing so.
The contrast with the Church of England’s desire to roll over in submission to government diktats is all too obvious. This is where the leadership of the established Church and its closeness to government is a kind of structural weakness, and where the Roman Church’s independence — and thus independence of mind — is enviable to many of us.
Yet despite the broad compliance of our leadership, for a while now there has been a rising defiance from the pews. Our organist plays the hymns on a Sunday morning, so those isolating at home on Zoom can sing along. It is, of course, almost impossible to force my congregation not to hum along behind their masks. And that humming is increasingly giving way to actual singing. Occasionally, I rather unconvincingly tell them this is very naughty, but I think they can tell that my heart isn’t it. The idea that a priest would try to suppress public worship — and that’s what singing is — doesn’t register.
Why is singing so important? Because the primary purpose of the Church is the worship of almighty God, and, for many of us, this is most effectively done with heart and voice. There is a passionate emotional expressivism to it that cannot be replicated with the dry recitation of the said liturgy.
Theologically speaking, however, there is a kind of officious Protestantism now at work in the Church that subscribes to the view that only internal private prayer really matters, and that hymn-singing is merely some outward expression. But this distinction between public and private is not helpful, not least because it is so often used by secularists to keep religion out of public life.
The other theological issue stems from the fact that the Church only exists because the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, animates it. The Hebrew word for Spirit, ruach, can be translated as wind or breath. Without this breath, we are dead, dried up like a wizened tree. Now you don’t have to be a charismatic happy-clappy kind of Christian to think this is crucial. “Breathe on me, breath of God, fill me with life anew,” we sing, or at least used to. Singing is an expression of our breath — our spirit — responding to God’s.
Even so, we’re now told that our breath carries with it the threat of death to others, and not the celebration of a life-giving God. And the Church, as a result, is now split. On the one side, there is the leadership, which views our faith as some kind of well-meaning ethical society, with the proclamation of public safety at its heart. Then there are those of us who understand that the Church is a worshipping community; a community that is dying to sing.