Just before 6.30pm, we spilled out into the Quad. The sky, pale blue beforehand, had turned a deeper dusky shade while we’d been inside, and the moon was rising. The brightly lit windows in the ancient buildings around us promised warmth. The building we’d just left, despite being ostensibly a place of worship, had offered only cold austerity.
We had attended Evensong at King’s College, Cambridge. There is, undeniably, a beauty in the choral music at services like this. The choir of King’s College are world-renowned, and the interior of the Chapel is instantly recognisable from the annual BBC broadcast of their Christmas Eve Carol Service. But my experience of this evening’s service saddened me, because it removed God to such a lofty distance as to make him inaccessible. Raised in an Anglican tradition, much of the liturgy was familiar to me, and as with the music, there is an exquisite beauty in the words of the prayers and canticles.
But as the choir sang an introit, presumably in Latin, the candle-wielding clergy moved solemnly towards the altar, clad in vaguely sinister white hooded robes. Not all the robes were long enough to conceal the blue jeans underneath. Jeans, it may be deduced, are unsuitable attire for worshipping God and must be covered up. If the fundamental message of Christianity is that God reached out to us in grace, bridging the yawning chasm of separation because we were unable to attain anything like the level of holiness required, then why do we dress up to worship him? Will that impress him?
The service developed into a two-way exchange between the priests, at the top of the nave, and the choir – situated further down. We, the plebs, were in between. The clergy would intone a phrase, and the choir would respond. It was impenetrable for those of us without orders of service. It was, as I understand it, this kind of superfluous man-made ceremony and ritual that led to the Plymouth Brethren ditching the established church’s traditions and reducing church practice back its simple essence. And yet, I have met staunch Brethren who find it unacceptable that I should wear casual clothes to church on a Sunday.
Why do we keep missing the point?
We trod the gravel path around the edges of the manicured grassy centre of the quad. The lawn was immaculate, and quite beautiful, due no doubt, at least in part, to the KEEP OFF THE GRASS signs.
And there it was, right there. As the grass, so the church service. Aesthetically magnificent, but please remain at a distance.
This is not the God I know.