I live around ten miles from St Endellion church (I don’t think there is a village) which, for the past 30 years or so has held two music festivals a year, one at Easter and on at the end of July and beginning of August. For the past few years I have attended many concerts and enjoyed all of them. The standard is very high indeed and the musicians and singers who take part are all professionals who perform unpaid for the sheer pleasure of taking part. (Or that, at least, is the official line, though I have no reason to doubt it.) The whole event, from the higgledy-piggledy arrangement of chairs to the long queues which form during the intervals outside the portable loos, one for men, one for women, is, as you’ll have no difficulty at all in accepting, irredeemably middle-class. Of the concert-goers, as opposed to the performers, none is obviously under 40 and the majority are at least over 60. Everyone dressess badly, or if not badly, then dowdily in the way the English middle-class has made its own. Many of the men turn up in cream-coloured trousers and a navy-blue top of some kind - a blazer, Guernsey sweater or shirt - and are more often than not white-haired. If they are not white-haired, they are bald. Other men will appear in a variety of tweedy materials and old pullovers, but however shabby they are, they are usually better dressed than the women who have apparently all given some thought to what outfit they will wear. (I enjoy the music, but it is always something of a downer to find myself in the company of other ageing middle-class folk and be reminded that I, too, have white hair and will never in a million years dress elegantly.)
Over the years I have heard the St Matthew Passion, a piece by Ravel which I liked so much that I immediately bought it on CD, Walton, Vivaldi, Vaughan-Williams — in fact all the composers whose work usually features on such occasions. Composers such as Stravinsky, Barber, Rachmaninov and Scriabin, for example, would not have a snowball’s chance in hell of being performed. At the end of the festival, there is always a mass celebrated by a variety of clergy led by the Bishop of Truro and it is as high church as it is possible to be without being arrested. (I was brought up an RC, and until that gang began holding their services in English, this was the kind of service I attended: loads of incense.) There is always a liberal abundance of female clergy (and the joke is intended), and the whole affair has about it that air of cosiness which I abhor. I have attended the end-of-festival mass twice, last year and again yesterday morning, and I shan’t be doing so again. On both occasions I went for ‘the music’ and on both occasions ‘the music’ was nothing special at all. As for the ‘worship’, well yesterday I realised yet again that it is as much a load of mumbo-jumbo as any voodoo ceremony in Haiti. But having said that, I shall say something unexpected: as far as I can tell, it is mumbo-jumbo which is very necessary to a great many people.
Despite all the pious seriousness and never-ending series of clerical intonations, there is no denying that those who took part in the ceremony and the very many who took communion are completely sincere. And it reminded me again that it is not what is believed which is vital, but the believing itself.
Beliefs vary widely. Christians believe that their saviour, Jesus Christ is divine and was born of a virgin. I think that both beliefs are complete cobblers. Shi-ite Muslims, or, at least, a vast majority of them, believe that the 12th Imam didn’t die, but is still alive (which would make the chap more than 1,000 years old) and on Judgment Day (their capitals, not mine) will reappear rather as Christians believe Christ will reappear. I think that, too, is cobblers. Yet if someone were to ask me the simple question: do you believe in God, I would answer immediately and truthfully ‘yes, I do’. But I would leave it at that. I would avoid all and every attempt to get me to elucidate and do my best to change the subject. I believe with David Hume that ‘man created God in his own image’, and I am reminded of that every time some bloody sky-pilot begins a sentence with ‘God wants us to . . .’
The God I believe in — and to give you some idea of the complexity of my belief, I think it is outright nonsense even to debate ‘the existence of God’ — has more to do with what I believe is humanism than any religion I know of, and the Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Uncle Tom Cobley and all would have none of that. Furthermore, I suspect belief, faith, call it what you like, is more a psychological facet of humankind than it is intellectual. I suspect we need to believe just as much as we need to eat and drink, although a lack of belief will not actually kill you. There are those, who ironically regard themselves as atheist, who have an all-consuming belief, a faith even, in some ideology. To me they don't seem very different to the 'believers' they decry.
The Anglican Church and the Roman Church are, I believe, going through their death throes, tearing themselves apart over, for the Anglicans, the wholly irrelevant question of whether or not women should be consecrated as bishops, for the Romans exactly what was going on when for years and years and years the activities of various paedophile priests was simply ignored as the the most convenient way of ‘solving the problem’. But those are institutional issues, difficulties facing those churches as bureaucratic entities. They have nothing to do with the 'faith' those churches have nominated themselves to purvey.
I suspect that in 200, 500 and 1,000 time people will ‘believe in God’, have ‘faith’ and ‘worship’, for the very simple reason that they need to. When we are suffering we like to hope that at some point it will end and we ‘pray’ that it will end. As far as I can see, that does not imply a ‘loving God’, a God who has ordained that women should not be/should be priests or bishops. Every Sunday morning, driving either to Exeter station or all the way to work in London, I tune in to a Radio 4 programme called Sunday. And usually there will be some cleric pronoucning that ‘God would want us to do this’, ‘God would want us to do that’, ‘God says this’, ‘God says that’, and each time I think: how the bloody hell do you know?
Yes, I ‘believe in God’, but what do I think ‘God is’? I think it is all the good things around us, the kindnesses people show each other, I think it is hope, altruism, co-operation. It (note not ‘he’ or ‘she’) is selflessness, modesty, consideration for others — you get the drift. Incidentally, I am always utterly bemused by the zealotry of some ‘atheists’ who will not rest until they have proved ‘a believer’ wrong. Surely if God doesn’t exist, they are simply wasting their time? As Oscar Wilde once said, although admittedly in a different context: ‘Violent antipathy betrays secret affinity.’