Religion

Of All Places To Go At Easter

There 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.

 

13 comments
  • gcheyne@bigpond.net.au

    “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.

  • Geoffrey Luck

    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

      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.

  • ian.macdougall

    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

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

  • pgang

    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.

    • Druemac

      yep

  • Lacebug

    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.

    • lloveday

      I am so disillusioned with the Pope that I did not go to mass this morning, have not been for 2 years, and while not serious yet, have been reading about the Protestant churches nearby.

  • pawelek@ozemail.com.au

    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.

  • Ian MacKenzie

    “There are fewer old-style sermons now and not only because fewer people go to church.” Perhaps rather it might be that, in part “fewer people go to church now because there are fewer old-style sermons.
    If people wanted to hear about the evils of climate change denial or racism, why bother going to church when the ABC is just a button push away?

  • Harry Lee

    Yes, excellent reminders.
    Now, there’s the matter of helping the Ordinary Person to learn to communicate with God, as that Ordinary Person finds congenial/useful/correct to think of God.
    But while there are a few individual priests, monks, rabbis and imans who provide such service, most do not, because they do not know how. And indeed, the religious organisations in which they serve are not focused on communication with God.
    The time is ripe for the organised religions to focus their resources on this key matter.
    (Of course, the mosques are focused on anti-Westernism, obviously. This is fully contrary to what the leftist politicians, for whom Muslims mostly vote, want us to pretend. Oh yes, and there are the Turnbull types who want us pretend that anti-Westernist multiculturalism (incl the Islamic variety) is just really wonderful for everyone, and Australia is the best it, and ain’t that superbly virtuous, to surrender our White/English/Celtic/European/Greek/Roman/Christian/post-Christian civilisation to anti-Westernists who hate us, etc.)

  • DG

    I note that in Sydney most Anglican churches have drifted to the Anglo-Baptist persuasion. I decided to try the real Baptists instead. They range from ‘high Baptist’ where you get to hear about the Bible and its intersections with modern life, to ‘low Baptist’, where you don’t,

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.