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March 30th 2018 print

Christopher Akehurst

Of All Places To Go At Easter

Only Evangelical preachers still thunder away about the Bible; in less enthusiastic churches you are more likely to hear platitudes than the Beatitudes. Happily, though, sin is still uncompromisingly condemned. The evil of climate change denial, for example, or racism are regularly preached against

churchThere was a category of connoisseur in eighteenth-century England known as the sermon-taster. Dr Johnson was one. Sermon-tasters would “sit under” the preacher at fashionable churches to enjoy or endure the sermon, which in that era tended not to be short and punchy but a substantial disquisition full of classical and biblical allusions. Afterwards, the merits or otherwise of what the connoisseurs heard would be compared and appraised in the coffee-house, much as latte- or beer-drinkers today, congregated under a pavement market umbrella or in a pub, might discuss last night’s television.

Sermon-tasting as a Sunday pastime is now extinct. The long sermon was a Protestant art form (Roman Catholics had ritual instead) and Protestantism is not what it was. Yet up until the 1960s in all large Australian cities there were still preachers who could draw audiences to their churches from far and wide. Indeed their sermons were considered newsworthy. In Melbourne, for instance, the Monday morning papers summarised the blockbusters delivered by clergymen such as the Rev. Sir C. Irving Benson at Wesley Church, the Rev. A. Crichton Barr at Scots’ Church or the splendidly named Dean S. Barton Babbage at St Paul’s Cathedral. In Sydney there were, among many luminaries of the pulpit, the Rev. Alan Walker at the Central Methodist Mission and Archdeacon T.C. Hammond, scourge of Roman Catholicism, at St Philip’s, Church Hill. It is hard to imagine the Age or the Sydney Morning Herald sending a reporter to hear a sermon nowadays except in the hope of catching the preacher using hate speech.

There are fewer old-style sermons now and not only because fewer people go to church. Oratory has all but vanished from public life and what passes as a sermon in many churches is an informal address in which religion might or might not be mentioned. Only Evangelical preachers still thunder away about the Bible; in less enthusiastic churches you are more likely to hear platitudes than the Beatitudes. Happily, though, sin is still uncompromisingly condemned. The evil of climate change denial, for example, or racism are regularly preached against, particularly in Uniting churches. And an Anglican canon sternly asserted, in a magisterial denunciation that would have delighted earlier sermon-tasters, that the guilt of white Australians in “dispossessing” the Aboriginal owners of this country could be expiated only by the former handing everything back and clearing out. (He himself is still here.)

Originally published in our April, 2014, edition.
As homilies seem not to have improved in the interim, we thought it worth reprising
A Happy Easter to all our readers, especially subscribers

But if sermon-tasting cannot be revived, church-tasting is a substitute. Churches have much to offer the non-religious. Thomas Hardy, who wept at his inability to believe in God, attended church because he loved the buildings and the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. But who goes now for aesthetic reasons? In a post-religious age many people have only a vague if any idea of what churches represent and feel awkward going into them. Secularists see churches either as purposeless or as outmoded symbols of superstition. Yet to ignore them is to ignore a huge part of our culture and tradition, our architecture and art.

Churches are always more interesting inside than out. But cathedrals apart, few churches these days are open except at service times, a situation brought about jointly by vandals and insurers. If you want to see inside it’s to a service you must go and in most cases that means Sunday. Sit at the back where you get the best view down the church and look around and upwards in the pastel light and admire the intricacy yet simplicity of the structure, the rhythmic perspective of arcades and clerestory—harmony in masonry someone called it, architecture for peace of mind. The risk of being ensnared for coffee at the end of the service can be avoided by walking around the building to examine the stained glass.

It is best to visit older churches as, sad to say, a church built after about 1960 will almost certainly contain little of interest. There are pre-war churches designed by accomplished architects such as Thomas Payne and Louis Williams that are worth a visit, but it is nineteenth-century churches that are always the most rewarding.

A major nineteenth-century church will be Gothic Revival with soaring arches and pillars inside. There will be fine fittings in marble and carved wood, intricately patterned floors in mosaic or encaustic tiles and expanses of stained glass glowing crimson, emerald and ultramarine. All old churches, even modest ones, have something of historic interest to look at.

There will be an organ, possibly an historic one, and an organist pleased to be asked to continue playing after the service. Where there is a good choir, music is one of the pleasures of church services. In Melbourne, the city I know best, there is no better way of avoiding the worst of the rush hour than by attending evensong in St Paul’s Cathedral, every afternoon at 5.10, a weekday service unique in Australia with full choir and organ in what is acknowledged by architectural historians to be one of the finest Gothic Revival interiors in the world (St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney used to have the same service until an iconoclastic dean dispensed with it).

Of course you won’t get the full repertoire of attractions in every church. There can be spectacular stained glass but awful singing—Catholic churches are specialists in this. The high altar might have been dismantled and replaced with a trestle table and the organ be out of action with a clunkily-played piano as substitute—but admire instead the high timber vault and the constructional ingenuity of the beams and rafters. If an obtrusive screen for showing the words of the pop hymns blocks out a pinnacled alabaster reredos, gilded and spiky, direct your gaze at the monuments around the wall, a who’s who of deceased pioneers and burghers whose names survive in local streets and roads. Church-tasting can be a way of getting to know a district if you’ve just moved in or are touring.

The benefactions of those early citizens paid for churches and filled them with objects of interest and beauty. It’s all still there for anyone who can contemplate the idea of being in a church, of all places, at Easter—or any other Sunday.

Christopher Akehurst wrote “The Decline of the Suburban Church” in the December issue.

 

Comments [20]

  1. Gogs says:

    “The Great Sermon Handicap” by P.G. Wodehouse springs to mind. Bertie Wooster knew how to enjoy a dull Sunday. Easter, of course, is a string of dull Sundays.

  2. Geoffrey Luck says:

    Many people might be surprised to learn than in the early ’50s, as an ABC News cadet, I made the rounds of all the main Brisbane churches on a Sunday to get the sermon/address of the day. This included St Johns Angican Cathedral, St Stephens Roman Catholic Cathedral, and the various Protestant churches. They all co-operated, but it was soon apparent to me that the preachers were talking principally to themselves, and had no idea of how to make news that was newsworthy. The one exception was the Reverend T Rees Thomas, the feisty little man who ran the City Congregational Church at the top of Edward St. He was rather ignored in Brisbane social and ecclestiatical cirles as a minor noise, but perhaps because of that he always had something to say, something topical, catchy and relevant. So he nearly always got a run in the bulletins. It was one of my early lessons – it’s not who you are but what you do and what you say that makes news.

    • Tony Thomas says:

      The West Australian 100 years ago was a real ‘paper of record’ – it used to report verbatim the entire Sunday sermons of Bishop Riley at St George’s Cathedral, for example.

  3. Ian MacDougall says:

    It is best to visit older churches as, sad to say, a church built after about 1960 will almost certainly contain little of interest.

    I am an occasional churchgoer, also an ex-Christian freethinker.
    I agree that the soaring neo-Gothic woodwork is a relaxing diversion from many a boring Paulianic sermon.

    • Jody says:

      Hello there!! I’m off to Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday for an ‘orchestral’ mass because Hochamt at Wiener Augustinerkirche isn’t accessible!!

  4. pgang says:

    I guess if you find Biblically based sermons boring and irrelevant then there’s little to talk about. Personally I don’t know why there has to be a theme relevant to current events. I can quite easily work that out for myself, as can most adults. What I’d rather hear is how Jewish history defined Jesus and how the whole has defined us. In the Lutheran Church you can still get a good sermon, although they are becoming an increasingly valuable commodity even in that bastion of conservative Protestantism. We have a good pastor who can turn out a pearler when he puts his mind to it. However his boss is a neo-liberal American style pastor who has to dumb everything down to shallow secular themes and individualism. This unfortunately infected our Easter service, which was entirely about Jesus dying and rising for ME. Super boring and borderline heresy. It is the equivalent of proclaiming that the sun rises to provide life and energy to me. Sure, I share in the benefit and I am part of the reason, but I’m not the sole cause.

    • pgang says:

      Sad to say that two years later our pastor has been completely swallowed by neo-liberalism and we are now looking for a new church. I don’t like our chances of success. It’s become so bad that our Palm Sunday sermon was about the ‘scent’ of Easter(?) Jesus(?) Christianity(?). I can’t remember which, as I stopped paying attention during the kid’s talk (the sermon has become a kid’s talk with lots more words). There was nothing about Jesus symbolically claiming his anointed throne as the promised, Messianic descendant of King David. I wonder how many Christians today have any idea of the significance of the colt he rode.

  5. Lacebug says:

    I just visited ‘The Village Church in Annandale for the Good Friday service. Although purportedly an Anglican Church, this was a service completely bereft of ritual (the pastor wore a mustard sports shirt) but with plenty of awful rock music (complete with an advertorial that we can purchase the band’s first album on Apple Music), and ba Pauline sermon that informed me that it’s God who CHOOSES who is saved and who perishes. Apparently his sole bases for this choice is whether or not you believe in him. It was cringeworthy. I am so disillusioned with the Protestant churches I am seriously considering becoming a Catholic.

  6. pabloAU says:

    So popular a pope and yet (a consequence of it?) more and more empty St. Peter’s Square during papal audiences…
    I agree with overall observation about the sermons deviating to Gaia etc. I treat it as a betrayal of God. But, as one missionary sister reminds, 1 in 12 apostles was a traitor. This ratio might be better or worse, I don’t know.
    On the other hand more and more youths starve for old Latin Mass, Tradition, Easter Triduum Paschale – and this is readily available. With a sermon to your satisfaction. If you want and search a bit.
    Happy Easter! HE will rise from dead in little more than a day.

    • LBLoveday says:

      Problem is one of distance. The Church I used to go to is 75 minutes drive and there are only 2 closer, neither of which suit. But maybe I’m not trying hard enough; thanks for the encouragement.

  7. en passant says:

    Although I am an atheist, I like to visit an old bluestone church as its architecture, wood panelling and calm setting are inspiring and fascinating. It is open, unguarded and I am often there alone as there is a popular cathedral nearby that is filled to overflowing every week (as are the dozen+ plus other churches within a 10km radius. I could steal anything they casually leave unattended, but the feeling that I am trusted not to do so is sufficient.

    Some time ago I mocked one of the priests I met about his gods poor choice of Pope and suggested a quick heart attack recall was an urgent requirement. He took no offence, but had a great repartee response with “Ah, yes, but you must remember that all Pope’s are temporary, it is the church that is eternal.” Touche!

    Clearly, this is not in Oz where the Green Eye of the Gaia God has replaced religious sanity and will send Mad Mal and his Carew to an early electoral grave …
    (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Green_Eye_of_the_Yellow_God)

    • Doubting Thomas says:

      Thanks for that, en passant. I last saw that 30-odd years ago, on the Letters page of the Australian when that pagge alone was worth the price of a subscription.

  8. whitelaughter says:

    Also, relevant a good take on why men don’t go to church:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdBANyx64Q8

    Given Jesus was a man, church seems kinda pointless unless you are encouraging men – particularly Himself – to turn up.