19 FEBRUARY 1921, Page 9


WE were all taught as children that a certain solem- nity of demeanour befitted us in church. Our elders ceased to laugh and talk as they went in at the door, and we imitated them whether a service was in progress or not. The Bishop of St. Albans would like to break, or at any rate to modify, this convention, which has, he thinks, done harm. " I want to see people laugh in St. Albans Abbey," he is reported to have said in a speech delivered lately at Luton. " We must get rid of the awful distinction between religion and life. I want to see young people find their mates at church; then their lives will be consecrated to the service of their fellows."

With the Bishop's object we are surely all in agreement, except those who would like to see religion destroyed as a superstition, but some of us cannot help being a little doubtful as to the means he advocates. We do not of course want to see the power of religion weakened by convention, but we are all by nature such creatures of convention that in the conduct of life we are usually faced not by a choice between convention and liberty, but by a choice between one convention and another. The custom which requires us to adopt a uniform demeanour in church frees us from the tyranny of the thousand different customs which prevail outside. In a place where it is permissible to laugh and make love, it will soon be obligatory to greet our friends and talk of their affairs and ours. The man who goes in to say his prayers will feel an embarrassment. The solemn convention which protected him and provided him with a kind of spiritual privacy would be gone. The performance of devotions in public, unless in a place set apart for the purpose, savours to the Englishman of hypocrisy. He is innately self-conscious. Again, he would have lost the effect which environment exercises in producing a mood. The majority of people desire that a church should at least fulfil two purposes. They want to find in it an environment suitable to a devotional attitude of mind and also one which will induce or deepen such a mood. If it is to be a place of social pleasure, however high, however much inspired by the Apostolic spirit of charity, its devotional influence is gone.

There may be something regrettably formal about the uniformity of demeanour demanded by custom in a place of worship ; on the other hand, it does impress upon the minds of all who enter it the nothingness of our social distinctions not only in the face of the Eternal, but in face of all the great joys and sorrows of life. If that uniformity is destroyed, our little distinctions of habit and custom, the mere con- ventions of class and occupation, once more force them- selves upon us.

It has been lately maintained by more than one philosopher that laughter belongs to the soul. No animal has any idea of what we mean by humour, which is, they say, an exclusively spiritual thing, and probably an attribute of the Divine. At least one poet of the day has attempted to enlarge upon this theme. The subject is a difficult one. It would require great religious genius to cope with its difficulty ; but at any rate the laughter of the ordinary man is the symbol of very varied emotions, most of which have a great deal to do with conventions and oven class distinctions.

It does not mean something common to all alike in the sense that tears do or singing does. There are forms of wit which only the intellectual appreciate and which strike simple people as meaningless or cruel. On the other hand, much which provokes laughter in the simple man provokes irritation in the sophisticated. We cannot help bringing our ideas of what is small and what is great into church with us unless we deliberately keep them out from reverence for our environment. For instance, if the reader goes on a weekday into St. Paul's, and, in accordance with the new convention which the Bishop of St. Albans would inaugurate, finds two statesmen eagerly discussing high finance and smiling or laughing occasionally as they listen to one another's suggestions, he very likely would not feel that any outrage was being done to the sacred precincts. Let him, however, find two farmers discussing the price of bacon, and laughing over perfectly harmless but quite ridiculous incidents occurring in last week's provincial market, and his feelings will be rasped. He may watch with pleasure two young people walking round the Abbey in the evident delight in each other's society which belongs to courtship ; he may hear without distress of mind a low laugh of happiness ; but will ho be as little disturbed if a costermonger with his arm round his girl strolls down the aisle and if she is audibly giggling ? Examined by any serious, certainly any religious, standard, the statesmen and the farmers, the coster, and—shall we say —the curate, and their respective young women are about their equally lawful business and pleasure. None of them is doing anything inconsistent with a profession of Chris- tianity ; but it would surely be far more expedient that they should all do it somewhere else and come to church and all assume a detachment which, if their assumption does not induce it in themselves, does at least make it possible for other people. If church were the only place where a man could be religious, the matter would be very different. If it were impossible for a man to be godly in his business and his love affairs and his laughter unless he brought them all with him inside the walls of a consecrated building, we should be in entire agreement with the Bishop. It would be far better to hold courts of justice in church than have no courts of justice ; far better to make honest love in church than make it in " the dark places of the earth "; much better to be merry in church than have no merri- ment but such as good men may be ashamed of. But none of these things is so. Churches exist surely fa devotion, not as places in which to practise a good, sensible, cheerful Christian life : the whole world is before us to do that in. Without doubt stiffness of bearing within " the sacred edifice " may be carried to a silly length. Oddly enough, it is those who regard it simply as a building like another who carry stiffness the farthest. Quakers and Presbyterians are much stiffer than Roman Catholics, especially where children are concerned. The kinship witnessed to by the touch of nature is very often expressed most naturally by laughter, and where this is the case such laughter is not out of place anywhere. Not long ago the present writer heard an audible ripple of laughter go over a group of people in a Roman church, and, to judge by their faces, the heart of the crowd was uplifted by the incident. Two very pretty children came hand-in-hand down the aisle. The bigger child whispered to the little one to make obeisance to the altar. The little thing was too small to comprehend the act of devotion but, with the histrionic instinct of childhood, she was very anxious to perform the rite. Turning with her back to the east, she faced her sister, and gazing up at her with a look of seraphic but inquiring docility, she knelt down and put her hands together. Everybody laughed, and several people said, " Look I look I " The striotest Presbyterian must have been pleased with the pretty picture, and the convention of church demeanour was certainly honoured in the breach. All the same, we cannot help believing that the convention should not be lightly destroyed.