Hallelujah, reverend! This hymn-hater has seen the happy-clappy light
I woke last Tuesday with a heavy heart because I had to spend the morning lying on my back with a man in my mouth, and the evening in a church, listening to Hector the Rector prattling on about the virgin birth, like it really happened.
I would love to tell you that the dentist wasn't as bad as I had feared. But I can't. Because it was. But the church service was a revelation. It was fantastic. I actually sang, loudly and lustily, and I clapped, and when it was over, I was sad because I wanted more.
School for me was ruined by two things: Shakespeare and God.
Mostly God, because on a Sunday morning I would have to get up at crikey o'clock, and put on a suit and a tie so that I could spend an hour worshiping someone who never wore much more than a loincloth.
I hated the hymns very much, apart from Jerusalem
, which isn't a hymn at all, but what I hated most of all was the seriousness of it all. We were all gathered together to talk and sing about a fairy tale but anyone caught laughing, or smoking, or having a good time in any way, was given a detention. Which meant sitting in a room the following weekend reading more bloody Shakespeare.
I vowed when I left school that I would never set foot in a church ever again. But, of course, things didn't work out that way because there would be weddings and christenings and now, I'm sad to say, funerals. Not that you can tell any of these things apart.
They're all just as miserable as one another. Because you're in a suit, and you have to mumble while someone mangles his way through the hymns on the organ, and then an old man gets into the pulpit and gives you a Form IVB interpretation of some tiny passage from the Bible, during which you are invited not to find any joy at all.
I went recently to a Catholic memorial and Oh My Bloody God
. On and on went the priest, about the lamb of God and how we were all basically evil and only for about four seconds were we allowed to celebrate the life of the poor man whom God had killed, because let's not forget that alongside all the bright and beautiful things he created, he also invented cancer and mites that eat children's eyes.
At this point, I should say that I have no problem with those who choose to believe or even those who put a hat on and waddle down to their local church on a Sunday to do a bit of mumbling. They are old and they are clinging to the prospect that when this life is over, there will be another, in heaven. There's no harm in that. Mostly.
But I do have a problem with the way the established churches are run in this country. There's too much lecturing and too many giant thermometers in the graveyard urging us to help God's accountants pay for a new roof. Why does it never occur to them to get Michael McIntyre or John Bishop into the pulpit to give their spin on how the meek will inherit the earth? Why don't they try, just once in a while, to make us happy rather than guilty? And at this point we get back to where I began, on Tuesday evening, at the first church service I have ever enjoyed.
It was full, as is usual, of lots of middle-aged and elderly people in suits. And, naturally, there were a few bored-looking children with side partings and school coats, wondering why they couldn't have been left at home to play Grand Theft Auto
However, up at the front, where you would normally expect to find an old man in a frock, there was a gospel choir. Which was made up of what I can only describe as several sets of lungs with hair. God, they were loud.
Of course, because the audience was white and middle class and middleaged, we had no idea what to do. I guess many of us had seen a gospel choir in a film and I don't doubt that like me we had all thought "how quaint". But here we were, face to face, and we had no idea what to do.
They were giving it the full Aretha Franklin and we wanted to bop along but were in a church so obviously that wasn't allowed. Except it was, because after the first song one of the singers turned round and, in so many words, said, "Come on, everyone. Why don't you get off your bony white arses and join in?" So we did. We belted out "I Say a Little Prayer" and "I Can See Clearly Now" and, yes, at one point I was even up to 11 while singing something by Boney M. By the time we got to the encore, which was "O Come, All Ye Faithful," we were louder than AC/DC.
Gospel has its roots in Africa where song is based on a system of call and response. The singers give you a line, and then you repeat it. Which is ideal if you can't afford a hymn book or you can't read. And because they could afford no instruments, they used the human voice for the music, and clapping for the rhythm section.
As you would imagine, it was decried, when it first surfaced in America, for destroying the dignity of songs that were written to serve God. I think that's rubbish. I think songs are often enhanced with some gospel-inspired backing vocals. Blur. Madonna. U2. They would agree with that.
But you judge for yourself. Next Christmas, if you feel obliged to worship the baby Jesus in some way, don't bother with Rick the Vic and his wonky organ. Say no to the uncomfortable pews and the old ladies in hats and try a bit of happyclappy gospel.
I would go even further. The Church of England is in dire trouble. Visitor numbers are falling.
Congregations are dying, literally. And there seems no hope. But there is. Simply make the next Archbishop of Canterbury black and let him fill his churches every Sunday with some Boney M and Johnny Mathis. It'll be standing room only.