Tuesday 3 July 2012

Here's a truly radical idea: let's value tradition

Amidst all the millenarian gloom arising from last week’s Biblical deluge, it was good to be reminded on Saturday of the helping hand that God extended to Noah, and to the children of Israel at the Red Sea.

The occasion for these reflections was the baptism of my younger son, James. Yes, I know I wrote that I had given up trying to organise this, but I reckoned without the steely determination of my Muslim wife.

Not that Mrs Hann ever demonstrates any of the conventional signs of adherence to Islam, like attending a mosque, reciting the Koran, praying to Allah five times a day, wearing a burka or eschewing pork. But she does have Iranian parents and invariably announces, “I’m terribly sorry, I’m a Muslim,” when the Jehovah’s Witnesses pay us a call.

Suitably fortified by wifely insistence, I somehow managed to arrange a service that stuck rigidly to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, over the twitching corpse of the rector whose church we were borrowing.

“Surely you would prefer the modern service,” he quibbled. “I find there is far too much sin in the BCP.”

So, just as the church now likes to omit the traditional bit about the prevention of fornication in the marriage service, and would no doubt prefer to skirt around anything as downbeat as death during funerals, it strives to avoid the whole point of baptism, which is the mystical washing away of original sin.

And it is not just me. All present agreed that it was a thoroughly uplifting spiritual occasion, replete with “tingle factor” phrases that have echoed down the ages such as “Ask, and ye shall have; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you”; and “Suffer little children to come unto me.” 

What could possibly be better than hearing three godparents solemnly promise to “renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh”?

In its attitude to its liturgy, the Church resembles a stately home owner who feels so embarrassed by his riches that he is moved to store all the Old Masters in a basement, whitewash the walls and put up some polystyrene tiles to hide the frescoes on the ceiling.

We might as well ban Shakespeare from the theatre, because the words of Eminem or Frankie Boyle would be more accessible.

It is the same possibly well-intentioned but ultimately vandalistic spirit that motivates Nick Clegg (who would make a perfect modern vicar if only he were prepared to undergo a sex change) when he seeks to destroy another institution that has worked perfectly well for hundreds of years, the House of Lords. 

No one disputes that the current mode of entry to the Lords is a touch eccentric, but it has produced a revising chamber that combines unparalleled specialist expertise with robust common sense.

It could once be argued that it suffered from inbuilt bias, but even when it was stuffed with Conservative hereditary peers, it defeated Mrs Thatcher’s government on more than 170 occasions, while the Commons did so only four times.

When discussing Tony Blair’s attempts to reform the constitution, I recycled Evelyn Waugh’s aphorism about it being like seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee. With Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems, it is more like being trapped in a small room with a troop of howler monkeys and a live hand grenade.

What sort of nonentity is going to stand for election to the reformed Lords? Oh yes, the many Lib Dem MPs who will be made redundant come the next election.

We should treasure and rejoice in the great riches we have in our language, culture and institutions. And amongst these, there can surely be none greater than the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and the dear old House of Lords. Please just let them be. Amen.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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