Friday 2 April 2021

Hail Thee Festival Day: Atheist Easter nostalgia for high church aesthetics

When I was growing up, my life revolved around singing in an Episcopal (Anglican) church choir. My entire life was organised around the church year, with the major flurries of choir activity happening around Xmas and Easter. Not only was I Head Chorister, but I made it a point to have perfect attendance at all services, rehearsals, and associated musical events, such as singing at weddings, funerals, memorial services, and professional recordings made by the choir, as well as playing in the handbell choir, and even serving as an acolyte on occasion when there was a need.

Although I am an atheist (not a live-&-let-live atheist, but a militant New Atheist in the vein of the four horsemen), I have a deep aesthetic attachment to the music and the rituals of the Anglican church, particularly the ornate architecture, art, vestments, archaic language, and bells and smells of the high church.

Choir of King's College
As a nonbeliever, religion is about aesthetics and ritual for me. When I see photos of modern megachurches that have stark, ugly buildings, either no vestments or plain ones, big screens, execrable music, contemporary language, I cannot see the point for the attendees. I realise for the pastors it is about the money, but the flock who are being fleeced do not care that they are in an aesthetic wasteland.
For believers, worship is not about aesthetics. This is a growing problem. People used to go to church as part of community life. The fact that they did not really believe was largely irrelevant. Several of the rectors at the church in which I grew up were atheists. In the Episcopal church, lack of belief is no impediment to being a priest. If that surprises you, think of all the duties of a priest. Faith affects none of them, least of all the weekly writing of a sermon. Today, church attendance is no longer a regular part of community life so the only people who attend regularly are actual believers, an increasingly smaller percentage of the population, which is in itself a good thing but disastrous for church finances. Churches are closing, consolidating, and simplifying their services to cater to less-educated attendees, as well as attendees who do not speak English well, and they are operating on far smaller budgets. The church I grew up in no longer has a professional, paid choir. There is no budget to hire brass for Easter, no more handbell choir, no more full-time choirmaster and church organist position. Attendance is about ¼ of what it was. And the new rectors do not give a shit about high church aesthetics; they are boring, modern, dull, tasteless philistines.

Today is Good Friday, normally a day of long, somber services, and intense rehearsals to prepare for Easter, the most festive service of the liturgical year. I miss the music, the scent of the incense, the Easter lilies lining every surface in the chancel, the ornately-decorated historic vestments taken out of storage for the occasion, and especially the trumpets and other brass hired to perform with us for the festal services ringing out brightly in the nave. I really loved the trumpets because they were so jubilant. I always hid Easter candy in my pockets and ate waaaay too much that day.
In pre-COVID times, I tried to seek out a high church service to attend at Xmas and Easter but they have gone extinct. We need an Aesthetic Revival!
This Easter, I will listen to every Anglican Easter hymn playlist I can find on Spotify, eat Easter candy, and wallow in nostalgia for a time when people actually dressed up and wore hats.
One last point: I just read this quote about Easter 2021 from an Episcopal rector and it really resonated. It does feel like we have collectively endured a year-long Lent, and the pandemic has indeed highlighted how much is broken in our society. May 2021 be the year of fixing racial and economic injustices, and, above all, building a stellar public education system to prevent them recurring.
“I knew things were broken, but I had no idea how broken. I knew race relations were strained, but I had no idea how strained. I knew there was sickness and disease and that people died, but it’s been humbling to see a nation like ours and others around the world brought to their knees. It feels like we’ve been in a yearlong Lent.”