Saturday’s edition of The Times newspaper reported that twenty-somethings who attend church are forsaking evangelical churches for traditional and High Church services, that the syncopated pseudo-rock, and the pastors called things like Steve and Dave, with their chinos, sweatshirts and receding hairlines, no longer have their former attraction.
Is it surprising? In Northern Ireland in the 1980s, Sunday evening worship in country parishes would have had a reassuring quality. A big countryman standing at the door handing out Books of Common Prayer and hymn books, a handful of people in the congregation, an organist playing familiar tunes, a clergyman reflecting on the texts read as the lessons of the day. There was always something special about church on Sunday evening; it was a gathering of enthusiasts, connoisseurs; it was without busyness and noise; it was unhurried, tranquil, reassuring.
The language of Evening Prayer, the Cranmerian cadences, the images evoked by the Songs of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of Simeon, the prose of the collects, had the capacity to lift one above the ordinariness of daily existence. The sense of continuity, of oneness with the preceding generations, of the communion of saints, had a power far more profound than the ersatz rock music and banal lyrics of the future Anglicanism proffered by those in the ascendancy in the church at the time.
It is hard now to imagine the revolutionary nature of the Book of Common Prayer, of how putting worship into the hands of the ordinary people was a fundamental challenge to the hierarchy and the control of the church. The democratic revolution, represented by services accessible to anyone who picked up and opened the book, was reversed in a counter-reformation in the shape of the evangelical churches and their worship “leaders.” Armed with media projectors and assisted by electronic musicians, they shaped and controlled worship in their churches as powerfully as any medieval priest, regarding worship songs and their own utterances as preferable to prose that had stood the test of centuries.
What was odd was that the proposed formula for the future of our church singularly failed to succeed beyond the suburbs. It did not bring in people by the thousand; it did not even fill most of the the places where it was established. In the country, the regular services in the churches continued in their regular sequence. The prophets of doom, who said in the 1980s that the old ways would disappear, made the wrong call, the churches constantly present, while new ones waxed and waned, were those that were conservative, those that were traditional.
The Prayer Book has lasted four hundred and seventy years – that The Times should report its enduring power should not be a surprise.