Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[3] Religion

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[3] “Our Father, Which art in Heaven”

At the moment, I am in a cold house surrounded by disruption in the process of replacing a gas central system, so it would be sensible and appropriate to continue on the subject of the last blog – with what we had then to keep us warm in the winter. We most certainly did not have central heating.

So … my next topic is going to be religion, starting with the Church of England. I will widen my remit by starting a few hundred years ago. I can say what I want. It’s my blog.

King James Bible

The King James Bible, officially the Authorized Version, was completed in 1611. For hundreds of years it was the only version of the Bible authorized for use and it was the only version that was used – in churches, in schools, and elsewhere. (With various errors of transcription, there were several variations in spelling and punctuation, generally collated into a single version from 1769) Its language was archaic, using forms which in the context of religion we just accepted as right and proper. The singular forms for ‘you’ were ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and there were lots endings like ‘sayest’ and ‘sayeth’.

It always felt that the language of the Bible was slightly outdated because it was written a little before our times. The style gave it a sense of awe and history. It may have felt Victorian. I don’t think we knew it was as old as 1611. We certainly didn’t know that the language forms were even older than this. It had been a deliberate act to use forms that were already archaic when it was written back in the times of King James. Scholars of English will note that the plays of Shakespeare, written at almost the same time as the Authorized Version, rarely used the archaic forms!

Church Services

The Book of Common Prayer came a little later, in 1662. Like the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer remained as the single acceptable source, laying down rigidly the form of services in the Church of England. It used similar language. Through the fifties and sixties, every Church had its Matins and Evensong every Sunday based on the same words every time. Changes through the year were based on the equally rigid Church Calendar with Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. Prayers and Psalms for each week of the year were specified.

Services included hymns, generally chosen again to fit the Church calendar. We used ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’, compiled in Victorian times with the same archaic language as the Bible and prayer book.

The Lord’s Prayer

As one of the best examples of the literary style of Christianity in the early Twentieth Century, here is this prayer, which was repeated often in Christian liturgy, in the form that was so standardized that we knew and could recite from the age of about six.

Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

[Those who know where I grew up will understand that to a five-year-old being taught the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Hallowed be Thy Name’ sometimes came across as: ‘Hello, Beehive Lane.’]

As with the Bible and prayer book, there was only one form. This was the only form of the prayer that we said at school, at least once a day. Christians nowadays will probably wonder at the style of the language.

It is worth noting that a Commission in 1928 attempted to modernize the Lord’s Prayer and failed dismally. They came up with just three almost insignificant changes – just three words. ‘Which art in heaven’ became ‘who art in heaven’, ‘in earth’ became ‘on earth’, and ‘them that trespass’ became ‘those that trespass’. In fact, such was the fondness for the old language that these changes were not accepted by the people and were never formally adopted. They were not to creep into common use for at least another fifty years! (The Roman catholic Church still held all in services in Latin when I was a boy. They later went straight to the proposed 1928 version for use in English.)

Growing Up

So what were things like when I grew up, in the fifties? Christianity was so much part of everyday life that we accepted it, especially in schools. We had a religious assembly every day with readings from the Bible, hymns and prayers and this continued through primary and secondary school life to the early sixties. We also learned all the stories from the Bible at school – about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Moses, Noah and others; and the New Testament Gospels about Jesus. We went to Sunday School for an hour each Sunday afternoon for even more education and stories about Christianity.

From the age of eleven, I joined the Church choir and sang twice every Sunday at Matins and Evensong, so I may have a biased view of the extent to which religion was practised. But I can say that churches were reasonably full, always packed at Christmas. Weddings were almost all church weddings, almost the only option then. Registry Offices were available for weddings but rarely used.

Sundays were treated differently with almost all shops and businesses closed all day. If you didn’t go to Church, you stayed at home. Life was based on the Christian year with the main Bank Holidays at Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, each one a time for special services. Good Friday, before Easter Sunday, was even quieter than Sundays. To most people the idea of women priests was inconceivable!

I can’t speak for the general public but at primary school we accepted it without question. At secondary school we may not have believed it all with so much fervour but we still joined in with prayers and sang the familiar hymns.

With the religion of the time came its values. The Ten Commandments were respected and most of them were followed. Perhaps the first ones to slip were Sunday observance and the one about adultery! There was some obscene language – not at school! – but never any blasphemous language. It was inacceptable. The third Commandment was clear: ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.’ I can date exactly the first time I heard the expression “Oh My God!” used, and it came as a shock to me. It was, of course, on television, Big Brother in 2002, and Jade Goody. I still don’t like hearing it or seeing it but it has spread rapidly, often watered down into its initials.

It was not until the 1970s, with changing attitude to the Church, that newer versions of the Bible were allowed, starting with the Good News Bible. Gradually the archaic language disappeared. Later, there came other changes such as deviations from the Common Prayer services and, of course, women as vicars (perhaps soon as bishops). Numbers attending churches have fallen so much that large numbers of church buildings have been decommissioned and sold.

Other Religions

The Church of England was and still is the Established Church of the country. As I grew up, we simply did not see evidence of other religions. I never knew anyone claiming to follow the religions of Roman Catholicism or Islam or others, with the sole exception of Judaism. There was a sort of enclave in the area where I lived. Perhaps five to ten percent of children at school had their own Jewish assemblies at school. We had Jewish friends. It was easy to understand something of their religion from the Old Testament that told their story.

I will leave for now several questions. Why has Christian faith and commitment disappeared so rapidly in the last fifty years? Why has Islam risen as Christianity declined? How much are other changes in attitudes, family life and crime related to the decline of religion. Perhaps in another blog …

Hands

The very famous picture of praying hands is by Albrecht Dürer in about 1508. I remember it well from the Church where I sang in the choir. The picture may still be there.

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

17 thoughts on “[3] Religion

  1. Keep it up, Alan, I’m enjoying this.

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  2. Trying to answer one of your questions: why has Christian faith and commitment disappeared so rapidly in the last fifty years? I think it’s a combination of two factors: the easy one first … as fewer people believe, fewer children are sent to Sunday School so successive generations believe less until, eventually, almost no-one believes. The more difficult one is why did fewer people believe after the time of your blog? I was a really keen Christian until 9/11 when, long story short (as our transatlantic cousins say), I began to see that Christianity could not be “the one true way” because that would mean that all Muslims were doomed to eternal fire … clearly nonsense. Continuing that line I realised that God was not the answer. Studying physics didn’t help as I realised that the god I had once thought existed was simply the ‘god of the gaps’ and no thinking person could believe in a god that was invented simply to fill in the gaps left by our current scientific knowledge. I don’t know what turned others away from the faith but I guess it was some combination of my views and simple lethargy … they couldn’t care less.

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    • I think your answer illustrates the fact that it’s not a simple question. I don’t want to delve too deeply into religion or politics. There were many related factors.

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  8. I missed this when you first posted. Well done for tackling this subject.

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