Falling into the trap of the humdrum by BERNARD TRAFFORD

1629
The Church of England is relaxing its rules on vestments in church. In an attempt to make church services more approachable and less strange to ordinary people, clergy will be allowed to wear everyday clothes rather than robes. After all, it’s argued, in the early Christian church there were no vestments: any dress that drew attention to Christians in the Roman Empire would have hastened a one-way trip to the lions.
There’s nothing new in this. Throughout my conscious life (the 1960s onwards), churches have been trying to become less stiff, and more friendly. I’ve no objection to calling a priest Jim (or Jemima), rather than Vicar or Father, just as I hate people calling me Headmaster rather than using my name.

But what the tabloids might term dumbing-down in religion has gone far enough: too far, indeed. Rooted in a 1000-year-old tradition (whether Roman Catholic or, following the Reformation, Lutheran and Anglican, to name but three), sacred music is sometimes described as the finest creation of human minds sung to the glory of God in the finest works (churches and cathedrals) of human hands.

 

My theory is that someone started the rot half a century ago by giving a nun a guitar: nowadays it’s a rare parish church in which you’ll hear a traditional choir singing that glorious repertoire, though in the great cathedrals of the UK the choral tradition is by contrast thriving. Few people go to church now, and it’s suggested that we cannot call Britain a Christian country any more.
Yet, in defiance of that statistic, numbers are booming at cathedral services where professional choirs still sing the Office, day in, day out. The ceremonial is magnificent, staged within mediaeval architecture breath-taking to look at. Whatever your view of sacramental matters, a Cathedral Evensong is a feast of music: and if, like me, you occasionally doze off as it washes over you, no harm is done, while the soul is bathed in musical balm.
This blog isn’t about religion: there’s more to this issue. The world of classical music has been busy trying to attract new audiences as its core support grows every older. There’s a job to do, not least connected with music education in schools (I won’t go there!): but the decline won’t be reversed by solutions based on the silly theory that audiences are put off by the formal dress orchestras wear.
Even in the informal 21st Century, if we go to dinner at a friend’s house we tend to dress reasonably smartly, if only to show that, by making an effort, we appreciate our host’s generosity. If you go to a rock gig you expect a spectacle and light show as well as the music of the artists you admire: the classical equivalent is to look formal – to make it stand out from the everyday, rendering the experience different, special even.
There are numerous occasions in our lives when we should not fear to put aside the humdrum. When I was at school, and when I started out on my career in education, teachers wore gowns. Nowadays that’s an anachronism: but I for one still don academic dress for the formal occasion, for a school assembly or prize-giving.
I don’t mind dressing up for an occasion!
It’s not just that I like dressing up! It makes a statement about the value of academia by marking the formal occasion with the associated formal dress. Formal doesn’t mean stuffy. I slip jokes into a prize-giving speech. Classical audiences shouldn’t be sniffy because someone coughs, or applauds at the “wrong” moment: pretentious intolerance really does serve to diminish audiences.
Besides, formality is one of the things we Brits do best. Think royal weddings: the Trooping of the Colour, the daily Changing of the Guard. Thank goodness we’re still becoming friendlier, more classless and less starchy than in my youth! Nonetheless, the more informal we become as a society, the more we should remember that there’s a time and a place for formality and for appropriate traditional dress. Otherwise, if we’re not careful, we’ll cease to make anything special – except the pages the media devote to the tawdry lives of celebrities.
When seeking something special, we humans can do better than that.

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