It’s 40 days until one of the highlights of my year: Carols from King’s. If there is anything that triumphs the festiveness of a Sugar Plum Fairy or the gentle waft of mulled cider, it is those first solo notes of Once In Royal David’s City. I used to be notorious amongst friends as the cold-hearted non-crier at all the things that were meant to raise a throat lump. Little did they know that, like the princess being shown the onions, all I needed to make my vision start swimming was the introductory moments of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
I should also reveal the falsity that backdrops this annual emotional outpouring. I very rarely make it to church at any other point. There was a brief phase of Evensong attendance; I went to a couple of Easter events and decided the lilies smelled nice but the songs were substandard compared to those sung in December. On the whole I feel that a Sunday morning walk on the downs is a better way to reflect on all this than attending the Eucharist.
This type of half-arsed relationship with the Church of England is, of course, not unique to me. In fact, compared to a lot of people’s complete separation from it, the beginnings of a memorisation of the Apostles’ Creed makes me seem positively devout. Congregation sizes are resolutely down, the church as an institution has been torn apart by scandal and there’s a lot of talk about this secular or atheist society. Yet describing the Church of England as entirely irrelevant to modern England feels too easy. If nothing else, the idea that an institution once so prevalent in people’s lives could disappear so completely in a short space of time doesn’t quite seem plausible. The clean-sweep ‘CoE is dead’ school of thought also fails to recognise that Christian churches of all denominations often do still have a place and a function, especially in many smaller towns and villages across the country.
Are You There? by Lucy Bell feels both honest and caring in its depiction of the lives of two couples living in Devon. The dramaturg for the play is Bea Roberts, an unsurprising fact given how it shares similarities with And Then Come The Nightjars and Infinity Pool. Like with the first of those works, Are You There? never mocks the characters in its story – which is an important point given that non-pisstaking depictions of people with rural accents on stage or screen are few and far between. As with Emma in Infinity Pool, the two female characters, Shirley and Abi (both played by Joanna Smith), are living lives that on the surface appear as boring as can be. Yet as the narrative progresses, huge amounts of sadness – along with humour and determination – are gradually revealed.
It also provides a different view of the modern church. Even in communities where a belief in the Christian God is pretty lacking, churches are frequently venues for crèches, AA meetings, eating disorder groups, holiday craft-making mornings, and so on. They can, in short, perform a very positive role – and one that is completely different from the pomp of liturgical ceremony. Like other existing community groups, they also end up being the siphon for an amorphous collection of wants and needs. Are You There? is in many overt ways a play about the Church of England (and it is packaged as such) but in a wider sense it actually isn’t. It could as easily be described as a play about motherhood, marriage and community.
Towards the end of Are You There? Shirley locks herself into a room in the church and stays there, rather than going home to her husband and 21-year-old severely disabled daughter. There’s a few mentions of nuns bricking themselves into sanctuaries, but the main desire pulling her towards this complete break-away from the world is not religious devotion. It’s a whirlpool of loneliness edged all over with guilt connected to her mixed feelings towards her daughter. She needs the church in the same way others need to write or paint or make jam to sell at the W.I. stand. It’s all about filling in the empty spaces and concealing the ones filled with not so nice things.
Equally, the middle-class Jock (Philip Perry) who suddenly converts with all the misguided fervour that often involves, is looking for meaning outside of his frustrating and stressful teaching job, and his meticulously controlled Mumsnet-decreed life. Are You There? recognises the importance of these small, personal narratives. It’s a very different and much more human-focused consideration of the church in Britain, and perhaps also a suggestion of why we do or don’t cry when the soloist starts to sing on Christmas Eve.