BBC Radio 4:Catherine Pepinster - 09/09/2017

This week, statistics from the British Social Attitudes Survey revealed decline in religious affiliation. Among its findings was that just three per cent of people under 24 describe themselves as members of the Church of England.

The figures raise questions about the role of religion in Britain. On the day of the Last Night of the Proms, they prompted me to think about what that decline in religious practice means for culture.

The Last Night of the Proms is famous for patriotic songs such as Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory. But it’s also the culmination of a series of 75 Prom concerts and this year one of their key themes has been the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

It’s highlighted the profound part that Christianity has played in Western culture and the influence of music and Christianity on one another. After the Reformation, church music was no longer sung just by monks and choirs. There was the development of congregational singing. It inspired choral music too; without Christianity and the Reformation, Bach would not have expressed his genius in the way he did through his Passions and cantatas.

What the growth of music in Christianity did was to ensure that physical expression is a vital part of worship. Christians believe in the Incarnation: that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ. Faith in that Incarnation is mirrored through the bodily expression of music: through using the lungs, throat and mouth, eyes and ears, not just the mind.

Yet Christian music is hardly exclusive. It has moved from churches to concert halls where many people without a faith will listen or participate themselves. But as Christianity apparently declines in this country, there’s a risk that a deeper understanding of what inspired the great composers from Bach to Beethoven to Britten will decline as well.

Nevertheless something does still draw people to religious music. When I went to evensong at Westminster Abbey recently, this was apparent from people I talked to; they found the prayerful music deeply affecting even if they weren’t regular churchgoers. There is still a yearning amongst many people, for something numinous, something greater than themselves. The sociologist Grace Davie calls this believing without belonging. Tonight at the Proms, a hymn of praise, Te Deum, by the Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly, will be played. Kodaly said that there is no complete spiritual life without music. Perhaps for many there is no complete musical life without some sense of the depth of the human spirit and in some way, of the divine.

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