"O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself
a king of infinite space,
were it not that I have bad dreams."
- Hamlet Act II scene ii
6 June 2021
Truro choirboy by Suzi Stephens.
Lying abed this morning with BBC Radio 4 playing on our radio alarm clock, vague memories of when I was a choirboy came to the surface of my mind. On Sunday mornings, Radio 4 focuses upon religion and there are church services complete with hymns, sermons and prayers. Memories returned like flotsam on waves.
I was a choirboy from the age of ten to fourteen. I can't remember how I ended up in our village church choir but I have always loved singing and my father was a church warden and regular churchgoer so that may explain it.
As a choirboy, I had to attend choir practice every Friday evening ready for Sunday. When "The Sabbath" arrived there were two services. One began at ten in the morning and the other was I believe at six thirty in the evening.
In those four years, several hymns became very familiar and I knew some of them by heart. Even today I can still sing whole verses from memory. One of my favourites was "Ye Holy Angels Bright" written by Richard Baxter in 1681 but sung to an even older tune called "Darwall":-
Ye holy angels bright,
Who wait at God's right hand,
Or through the realms of light
Fly at your Lord's command,
Assist our song,
For else the theme
Too high doth seem
For mortal tongue
The hymns were filled with archaic language and strange notions - such as angels flying through "realms of light" like an angelic air force commanded by their omnipotent leader - the unseen "God" figure who seemed to get everywhere. The echoes of those hymns with their unmodern English have remained with me and have certainly influenced my appreciation of language.
As a choirboy, I had to wear a ridiculous outfit and I am very pleased that there are no surviving photographs of me in this garb. First there was a long black cassock that reached the floor and was buttoned up the front. Over this you wore a white surplus - a loose kind of smock that reached just below the waist and had baggy sleeves. Last there was the white ruff which I wore round my neck. Our outfits hung on pegs in the vestry and I have no idea if they were ever laundered. I guess they must have been once in a while.
Being a choirboy was not just about the singing. There were interminable prayers and even longer sermons to endure - delivered by vicars and canons whose voices droned on and on from the stone pulpit. Would they ever end? You would think that religious belief would instil believers' hearts with animated, radiating joy but those prayers and those sermons were so tiresome, so dull, so very unconvincing. To me they added weight to my growing but unspoken belief that it was all one enormous confidence trick, played out over centuries of tomfoolery and communal arm-twisting.
Just as I don't recall how I became a choirboy, I don't remember how I extracted myself from the role. By fourteen, my atheism was now pretty well-formed and I had for example spoken about it with my mother who was also unconvinced by all the religious rigmarole though she kept this quiet for my father's sake.
No longer would I sing in the village church where I was christened in the springtime of 1954 and where I delivered my mother's funeral eulogy in September 2007. No more a choirboy was I, but even now the hymns still echo and my interest in church buildings and the impact of Christianity upon this kingdom persists. You can take the boy out of the choir but you can't take the choir out of the boy.
You sound like a lapsed Catholic. It seems you didn't end up with with central hair part given to you by a choir master as he chanted good boy. Religious practices are rather boring and I don't know why people bother.ReplyDelete
Church of England Andrew - not Catholic. At least CofE vicars can get married.Delete
I bet you were a very angelic choirboy.ReplyDelete
Butter would not melt in my holy mouth JayCee.Delete
I wonder how many silent agnostics and atheists there are in this world who simply go along to get along. My mother never really believed but she loved singing in the choir and so she went to church.ReplyDelete
It is easier not to rock the boat.Delete
I grew up in a Presbyterian church and we didn't have choirboys, but just like you, I cultivated a healthy spiritual skepticism from an early age. (While still enjoying the music!)ReplyDelete
Parallel lives - even though you are of course much younger than me.Delete
English men and women of a certain age still know all those hymns. Do you now have a ridiculous dressing gown that hangs on a peg and is never laundered?ReplyDelete
Yes. It is a Hull City dressing gown with our tiger mascot on the back - Roary.Delete
We have both a professional choir and a group from members of the congregation and the music has been something that people have really appreciated from the online services that we continue to provide - although no children's choir.ReplyDelete
I've been doing some historical research and was astonished to find out that in the not too distant past - choirs & organs - things we now take for granted - were actually quite controversial! When our choir was first gowned - back in he 1880's - this caused quite a kerfuffle! The original gowns were blue but about 20 years ago they switched to white - another big argument! Who knew!
This is in a Presbyterian church.
I am surprised that war did not break out over the choir gowns! That is what frequently happens with religion.Delete
I have a terrible singing voice but the part of church I liked best was singing with everybody else. My favorite hymns are "How Great Thou Art" and "Amazing Grace", not so much for what they say as how they sound.ReplyDelete
When I was a teenage I started going to church, twice on Sundays. Why you ask? Not so much for God, for the cute boys sadly. Please save a seat for me in hell:)
You used a church to satisfy your lusty urges? Pray for forgiveness thou sinner! By the way, I also think that "How Great Thou Art" is a lovely hymn.Delete
Some of the most beautiful music was written for religious reasons. Like you, I attended church as a youngster, sang in the choir, even taught Sunday School, but by my teens I was well on my way to atheism. I still appreciate the music but the words are very hollow in my ear.ReplyDelete
Did you find it hot with all that garb on in the summer?
Because of the solid stonework, the church always felt cool and shady. I cannot remember ever feeling too hot.Delete
I wonder if you gave up because your voice broke, and you could no longer reach the high notes!ReplyDelete
Well you are right Carol - that could have certainly been a factor.Delete
Great hymn tune! (I know it with different lyrics) I love sacred music and I love church/cathedral architecture, so the clip provided a twofer. I've not been to Manchester Cathedral.ReplyDelete
That was filmed for a BBC Sunday programme called "Songs of Praise".Delete
Back then your audience was the congregation at church, now it is little Phoebe!ReplyDelete
For several years, my sister and I, along with our two best friends who were also sisters and lived next door, sang in our church‘s choir. The choir consisted mostly of elderly men and women, we were by far the youngest and enjoyed our position as some sort of surrogate grandchildren. We also really liked the singing, and the old-fashioned, solemn language of the hymns.
I bet that the four of you would sometimes giggle. The same might happen now if you all re-joined.Delete
Funny how some experiences we have stay with us forever even if we reject the main idea later. I have the same feelings. I sometimes look up some of the old hymns on you tube!ReplyDelete
I guess that in places like Esk, when you were a boy, visiting church on a Sunday was a big deal.Delete
Atheists could have church meetings too, and could sing their favourite hymns, folk ballads, jigs, sea chanties.ReplyDelete
They could dance, as King Solomon danced before the Ark of the Covenant.
Atheists at worship could reflect on the mystery of human consciousness, mind evolving out of mindless atoms. They could have readings from holy books.
Richard Holloway (YouTube) said the universe is getting to know itself through our thoughts. He lost the faith and is trying to get on a new faith path.
Belief can be closer to unbelief than we know.
*It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.*
I have never had an argument with an atheist or agnostic, but I used the F-word with a toxic Christian who said babies can go to hell. I called him an effing psychopath.
Many atheists face a painful death with immense courage.
People who die undecided can be in a state of terrible unrest at the end.
My brother-in-law was very lucid an hour before his death, but he reared up from his hospital bed like a strongman after being given a tranquiliser, perhaps afraid of something he had seen. His eyes were closed and then he slumped back on the bed.
Watch Rev. Ed Trevors (YouTube) an Episcopalian priest in Nova Scotia, not in the least fundamentalist, and a critic of the many evil things done by Christians.
*Why Doesn't the Church Just Go Away* is one of his recent podcasts.
The hidden gravesite of 251 Indian children was recently uncovered in a 19th Century Christian school in Nova Scotia, a school which sought to destroy the culture of these little Canadian natives.
Fr. Ed, who has two small children, has been reflecting on how this could have happened in his recent podcasts. I suspect a few atheists come to his church and find the presence of the Holy Spirit.
It is a little sad that atheists mainly live in a kind of isolation - not experiencing the sustenance of their natural "tribe", nor any kind of bringing together to sing our songs..."Burn Baby Burn!", "Bat Out of Hell" and "Nowhere Man" etc..Delete
I believe Haggerty is referring to the 215 (not 251) Indigenous (not Indian) children's bodies that were found at a residential school in British Columbia (not Nova Scotia). A search has begun in Nova Scotia, though, at its residential school, for possible unmarked burials similar to those found in BC.Delete
It was late, Mr Haggerty was probably sitting by his computer with an empty bottle of Jura whisky.Delete
The story that has come out of BC is truly distressing.
I was reared Episcopalian, but my dad is the only one who stayed in the church. My mom became agnostic, my brother Evangelical (ugh) and I decided that church and religion aren't for me.ReplyDelete
One can live very happily without religion.Delete
I love the tune "Darwall". I'm unfamiliar with these words but they are good.ReplyDelete
Maybe I'm a Luddite but I find the old hymns much richer than "contemporary worship music"
The old hymns resonate through the centuries.Delete
Haggerty as always has started a train of thought. Modern pagans today that worship nature do have their ceremonies, whether it be stone circles, singing, hand fasting or books. They are a growing cult just like Christianity, it is not the system of belief only the need for humans to believe in something.ReplyDelete
As a convent girl I remember singing for hours in cold churches, that is maybe why am still interested in churches, not for their religion but why they hold this power over us.
Whenever I visit an old country church I think of the people who worshipped there and how that church held them in its steely grasp. Like an enormous magic trick.Delete
Church attendance was at its lowest ebb when John Wesley began preaching outdoors in the 18th century. Drunkenness and debauchery were everywhere.Delete
Wesley preached *the peace of God that passes all understanding*, which comes from Philippians 4:7.
My brother-in-law lived happily without faith.
On the last day of his life he was told that there was nothing more they could do for him except give him a tranquiliser. Pulmonary fibrosis.
Two male nurses had to restrain him as he reared up off the bed and struggled with them for dear life. His eyes were closed. He died two hours later.