Is there a sudden appetite for ritual and tradition?

We can draw hasty and sometimes wrong conclusions to major phenomena -especially when the media magnifies them.  For example, there have been quite a few people suggesting that the period of mourning and the Royal Funeral demonstrated a great attitude for ritual and tradition.

Here is one example in The Daily Telegraph

Om a side note, one suggestion arising from this is that if people enjoyed the spectacle of the funeral then this demonstrates why we need to teach music in schools. Now, to be 100% clear, I favour a broad and rich curriculum.  I’m not sure that we can specifically draw conclusions from the funeral about music though. We are not arguing that the pageantry, the liturgy and the sermon demonstrate the need for RE, costume design and parade planning lessons. 

However, the main thing I want to urge caution on is the presumption that there is some great appetite for traditional church services with formal liturgy, choirs and robes.  Bringing those things is is not going to suddenly bring missing people back to church.

There are two reasons why I say this. The first is that it is unwise to draw conclusions from unusual circumstances.  I do think that recent events have drawn questions about God, life, death and resurrection closer to the surface and that may give us a short window to engage on those things with a wider audience. However, I suspect the window will shut very quickly.  It is one thing to be immersed in the beauty of a grand occasion, a one off event but that doesn’t mean we want that kind of thing every day.  Just over six weeks ago, 30-40,000 people were watching athletics every day at a stadium near us. However, with the big occasion of the Commonwealth Games over and done with most of the stadium is being dismantled. There isn’t the same appetite for athletics for the rest of the year.

Furthermore, there is a big difference between the one off event, long planned, heavily rehearsed and significantly funded and week to week, day to day church life in your local church. Indeed, it is worth remembering in our own planning that big special events and set piece services at Christmas and Easter are often very different to what we can provide week to week.

There is another point to consider though and it’s this.  The media can over-magnify and over emphasise what is happening. Back in 1997, there was a great outpouring of grief when Princess Diana died. However, whilst there was this intense event happening in London, most people were not that affected after the initial shock of the news.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been treated to scenes of huge queues lining up to see the coffin lying in state. We’ve been given some huge numbers relating to TV viewing figures. At one point it was suggested that 4-5 billion people would watch the funeral.  Given that would be half the world’s population, that seems a little unlikely and I suggest the actual figures will be revised down. That great queue was not in fact over 750,000 but closer to 250,000 less than reportedly turned out for Winston Churchill and about the same as went to see the Queen Mother.

The world may have got the impression that Britain had ground to a standstill and that we were all out laying flowers and Paddington bears in the parks and outside the palaces of London. The reality is that most of us were getting on with our lives. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t care. It doesn’t mean there wasn’t sadness, that many didn’t shed a tear. It doesn’t mean Britain is officially a hardened republican nation (I suspect most of us fall somewhere between the two extremes of ardent monarchist and ardent republican).  It just means that most people were understandably not caught up in the whole thing and not swept away by it. 

A lot of people will have observed the minute’s silence. They’ll have tuned in for some or all of the service.  Quite a few will have had it on in the background. They may have appreciated the choral music but that doesn’t mean they were downloading the genre from Spotify.  They won’t have Beethoven’s Funeral Marches on repeat in the car. And most crucially, they probably didn’t pay that much attention to the lyrics and actual words of liturgy. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a bad thing to have a lot of Biblical based liturgy and lyrics out there for those who did pick up on it. It just means that the affect may not have been as much as we like to think.

So how do we respond? Well, first of all, we do welcome the fact that there was a lot of Scriptural content presented. Secondly, we pray that God will work in people’s hearts through it. Thirdly, we are ready and prepared to talk about the hope of resurrection with people where the funeral has prompted them to ask.

However, we should also avoid the complacent assumption that the royal funeral will trigger a mass return to church and nor should we rush to change how we do church to try and replicate the Westminster Abbey experience.

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