John Peel had a talent for affirming people, for offering different perspectives, for unearthing the quirky and the eccentric and the odd and weaving them into the fabric of everyday life. His book The Olivetti Chronicles sits on my bookshelf. It is a collection of columns, published in 2008, written by John Peel for a variety of publications. Its name deriving from his persistence in typing copy with an Olivetti typewriter long after such machines had disappeared into obsolescence.
Much of the writing is concerned with music, that was John Peel’s business, but when writing on music, he makes frequent observations on wider matters, as in a piece for the Radio Times in July 1995. Reviewing The Rock That Doesn’t Roll, a programme made by Scottish Television on the expression of Christianity through music, Peel, not a religious person, is baffled by anodyne presentations of Christianity. He writes:
What is it about religion that makes intelligent people content with Today’s Lovely Thought-style expressions of it? I’d prefer something dark and medieval, all guttering candles, wordless mutterings in unlit corners and being zapped for covering your neighbour’s handmaiden.
Of course he is writing with his tongue firmly in his cheek. Medieval Christendom would not have been a happy place for a man of Peel’s individuality, he would never have accepted the propositional creeds imposed by a tyrannical church and would quickly have found himself in the unlit corner of an insanitary dungeon awaiting sentence by an ecclesiastical court – refusing to conform meaning facing the stake. But John Peel’s complaint is that religion, in the manifestations with which he was familiar, was simply dull.
It is twenty-five years since John Peel expressed his bafflement at intelligent people accepting a lack-lustre spirituality. Things have not improved in the time since. Worthy ecclesiastics share saccharin words on the radio; shiny-haired Christians wave their hands in the air while singing the same banal words forty-seven times in a row; balding guitarists play bad rock music and call it worship; slogans and logos and catchy titles leave the general populous unconvinced.
There are places where people of no faith might take seriously what was happening, even if not subscribing to the package, but they are few. The church is dying not because people oppose it, the church is dying because it is dull. Despite its terminal decline, the Church of England remains preoccupied with itself, with its own issues, with its own organisation, with its own disagreements. Why would anyone take notice of it?
In 1995, John Peel raised the question about intelligent people being content with blandness and mediocrity. A quarter of a century later, the question would not vex him so much because the number of people it attracts has shrunk considerably and the church shows no sign of knowing how to respond to Peel’s challenge.