The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
There’s nothing like a good dose of Matthew Arnold to cheer you up on a Monday morning, especially on the religion beat. (I am employing irony here.) But I do find it a shame that the treatment of religion-related stories is so often marked by ignorance of the subject matter and a lack of intellectual or moral awareness. For many reporters the Sea of Faith has dried up. They do not hear the resonant roar of belief behind the facts in a story.
I admit that this is not always a fair criticism. I have had stories edited for space where the back end is chopped off, leaving the final piece unbalanced and shoddy. And few stories are given a life of more than 400 words. But there are times when reading an article in one of the ‘quality’ papers I experience a melancholy with what might have been.
It is October and editors are on the lookout for Halloween themed pieces. A natural for this time of year is an item from the North of England. The vicar of St Mary’s Church in Whitby has banned photography in the graveyard. The town hosts a Goth rock festival and devotees of this musical genre have taken to frequenting the cemetery and having their pictures taken while they are draped over its tombstones. The attraction for Goths is that the St Mary’s churchyard figured prominently in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.
Are you clear about the setting? Now there are several ways to knock this one out. For an American paper, I would have taken a lighthearted approach — an English Gothic version of an Elvis Presley film with a Twilight twist. ‘Gee, wiz grandpa, the kids just want to have fun!’ If I were doing this for the Daily Mail, I would focus on the young layabouts overrunning the churchyard with their strange music and clothing. ‘Why don’t they have jobs?’
The Sun would want it to be a photo story, with a scantily clad Goth girl on page 3. For the Guardian I would focus on the vicar’s unsympathetic approach to the Goths, with a counter current on the need to preserve England’s heritage from being despoiled by Goths. However, it might not have made the cut as it falls outside the radar of its readers as the Guardian is a:
a loathsome newspaper; a local north London morning daily for Stalinist metro libtards, perpetually arrogant, snobbish, self-righteous, humourless, dull, relentlessly middle class, cowardly and cheap … which loathes the country and the people who inhabit it beyond the rim of the north circular.
(There, I’ve had my fun quoting Rod Liddle in the Spectator — always a good read) However, what all the articles would have had, save for the Sun, is some mention of the Disneyfication of England.
Let’s turn to the Telegraph and see what they did. It begins thus:
Gothic rock fans flock to Whitby’s historic St Mary’s Church in North Yorkshire during Whitby Goth Weekend to be snapped by photographers in the graveyard.
The cemetary is the place Dracula takes his victim Lucy Westernra during the night in Bram Stoker’s classic novel, overlooked by the imposing abbey.
But now photoraphy is being banned around graves at St Mary’s Church because they say is disrespectful to the dead who are buried there.
Signs have appeared since the last Goth Weekend prohibiting photography on and near gravestones.
John Hemson, the church’s warden said: “The reason the rector did it was I had become unbearable. I sat there one day and in half an hour nine photographers walked past me.
“The Goths stand, sit or even lie on the table graves. there are people in Whitby who had families there even though it closed in 1861 and they object to it very much.”
Editor, where is thy pencil? ‘Cemetery’ is misspelled in the second sentence, as is ‘photography’ in the third. Dracula’s victim was Lucy ‘Westenra’, only one ‘r’. The title of Stoker’s classic novel was ‘Dracula’, not ‘overlooked by the imposing abbey.’
I laughed out loud at the church warden’s explanation that the vicar had kicked the Goths out as “I had become unbearable.” I imagine “it had become unbearable” was what the author had intended to say.
The article offers comments from two voices opposed to the vicar’s ukase. A photographer warns that banning photography might cause the Goth festival to move to another site, and offers the philosophical observation “What’s wrong with the church being used for two days? Everyone is enjoying themselves.”
A second voice from a local resident develops these points, and the article closes with a historical note that “thousands of Goths and punks congregate in the fishing town for the weekend, which began in 1994,” and the date of the next festival.
I realize that my critique is akin to taking a shovel to a souffle and that I have expended more words in comment than are found in the story. However, the God shaped hole in this story I see is the place of Christian edifices in a non-Christian land. The photographer’s quote, “What’s wrong with the church being used for two days?” offers an opportunity for an astute journalist to develop the theme of the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of the ebbing tide of Christian belief in England. Cue Matthew Arnold once more:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, Westminster Abbey and other religious sites have as little religious resonance for Britain as the Temple at Luxor has for Egypt. Both are memories from the past. The photographer’s question was a good one. What purpose should these buildings serve now that their religious significance is shared by a minority? How do you quantify relevance? Here was an opportunity to traverse the darkling plain of British life and set up a story that allowed the ignorant armies to clash by night.
However, we have what you see. Am I being too harsh? Criticizing the story for what it is not, rather than what it does wrong? What say you readers?