Category Archives: Religion

Pomp versus pyres: ways of saying goodbye

This past couple of weeks have brought stark reminders of the huge disparity between the lives – and deaths – of the privileged and the poor in different parts of the world.

It’s said that Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, wanted a simple royal ceremonial funeral rather than a state funeral, with a minimum of fuss. But, as we know, when he died at the age of 99 on 9th April, the event triggered a period of wall-to-wall broadcast, print and online coverage and the implementation of Operation Forth Bridge. This was a pre-planned programme of activities leading up to and following his funeral, which took place on 17th April at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Despite Philip’s wishes that his funeral be a quiet, family affair, the combined forces of traditional royal pomp and circumstance together with massive media coverage prompted many of the viewing and reading public to query whether a single individual’s death could really merit such an all-consuming tsunami of global attention.

Philip certainly led a privileged though distinguished life, amongst innumerable other roles serving as a Royal Navy officer in the Indian Ocean during World War II, while India was still under British rule. Lord Ivar Mountbatten, the last governor of India, was Philip’s maternal uncle. In this photo, a boy from India watches the funeral of Prince Philip.

Boy from India

And it was India that became the next main focus of attention for the world’s media shortly after the Duke’s funeral, as the Covid-19 pandemic raced like wildfire through the country. Major political rallies had been allowed; mass religious festival were celebrated with little or no concern for social distancing or other protective measures. Religion and politics took priority over people’s lives. All too soon, hospitals were overwhelmed. The situation became so bad in Delhi that workers were forced to use public amenities such as public parks and car parks outside hospitals to build makeshift funeral pyres as a way of disposing of thousands of bodies.

For over a year, the British public had been presented with nightly pandemic updates with charts showing the latest data, always qualified with the aside that “no death is just a statistic; every one represents a beloved family member”.

And maybe it was this tragic background of suffering both in the UK and around the world that threw the Prince Philip media blitz into sharp relief? If all deaths are tragic in a world soaked in grief and anguish, does it feel right that one man’s death should be projected so powerfully into our homes?

Well, it turned out that many thought not. Thousands voiced their annoyance as nearly all British broadcasters switched to wall-to-wall coverage of the man, his life and times and his funeral, with the BBC receiving a record 110,000+ complaints about its scheduling. All BBC TV and radio channels were completely turned over to various slants on the subject, whether news-based or historical, for two or three days.

TV audiences plummeted. People compared the BBC’s approach with the kind of brainwashing output that might be expected in North Korea and Russia. Although some rushed to the defence of the Corporation, most people seemed to feel that most media had got it wrong. On BBC Radio Four‘s Feedback programme, a gentleman called John Bains called to make a related point: “I’m sure the Duke would have been embarrassed by the [ … ] sycophantic gushing that he would have abhorred”.

What are we left with? Maybe the Duke’s life will be to an extent remembered in terms of the over-the-top media focus it was subjected to? Or maybe not. For in reality how will he be remembered as the decades and centuries roll by? Times have changed so much in this age of mass media and digital archiving. History may not be a good guide to how prominent people will be assessed in the future, whether by historians or by curious members of the public.

By coincidence I was reading a piece by the eighteenth century essayist, poet, playwright and politician Joseph Addison (1672-1719) recently. Unlike me, Addison was quite religious. But I can identify with his attitude to nature, when he says ” … though I am always serious, I do not know what it is to be melancholy, and can therefore take a view of nature in her deep and solemn scenes, with the same pleasure as in her most gay and delightful ones”. He goes on …

addison“When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents on a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow; when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions, and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs – of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago – I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together”.

 

 

Image credits

A boy from India watching the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh on 17 April, 2021: author UkShah2004 – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Ukshah2004&action=edit&redlink=1

Joseph Addison: public domain

 

 

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The day I stayed out of School Assembly

Every morning at school, we’d file into the main hall for Assembly, the youngest boys in the front rows, the oldest at the back. After the Upper Sixth Form and Lower Sixth Form boys had taken their places, members of the teaching staff would file in via the walkway in the centre of the room, between the rows of chairs and thence onto the stage, thus facing the assembled ‘congregation’. Finally, the headmaster would take his place on the platform, mounting the steps to the left and taking a central position, rather like a priest.

This daily ritual would include the often passionate singing of wonderful Welsh hymns, accompanied by the powerful school organ, a memory I treasure and something I’ll never forget. Here’s one of my favourite hymns, sung by the Morriston Orpheus Choir.

It was fundamentally a religious ceremony, incorporating a Bible reading and prayers. Needless to say, most of the hymns had religious content. The whole process would usually end with the singing of another rousing Welsh language hymn – and then the boys would file out again and prepare for lessons. This was back in the 1960s. It was taken for granted that everyone had an identical Christian faith, apart from one group: Roman Catholics were allowed to be absent and stay in a designated room for the duration of Assembly. There was no room for scepticism.

And, for all I know, this procedure still goes on at what was then the boys-only Caerphilly Grammar-Technical School but is now the coeducational (mixed sex) comprehensive, St Martins School.

I remember it all so well. But I also remember my own epiphany moment when I decided that there was no God. Alongside lessons in Biology, Chemistry and Physics that offered rational explanations for so many aspects of existence – including Darwin‘s theory of evolution, complex chemical theories and Einstein‘s theory of relativity, none of which bore any relation to anything in the Bible – I was expected to believe in what I came to regard as nonsensical cant. I was also taught Religious Education, during which Bible stories were presented as historical fact.

And one day I decided that I wasn’t going to take part in Assembly anymore. My hard-working father had died suddenly of a severe brain infection at the age of 38. I was fourteen and my younger brother seven years of age. Thus my mother was left to bring up two young boys on her own. I did have time to pray for my Dad’s recovery, even though I was already quite sceptical about the existence of a god. But clearly the prayers I’d said when Dad was on his death bed in hospital were a meaningless gesture.

I’d mused about the idea for some time; but I remember the very point in the very road where I experienced the realisation that I’d been hoodwinked – like a reverse revelation. All those school assemblies, all the beautiful hymns, all those Sunday school attendances at St Catherine’s (recently rebuilt), reading the gospels religiously and saying all those prayers – it was all just a waste of time. Furthermore, I felt that I’d been brainwashed. Yet daily attendance at school assembly was compulsory.

Being in that hall every morning and going through such a meaningless ceremony began to feel like I was having salt rubbed into my wound. As I saw it, I was being forced to thank God for taking away my beloved Dad. I fairly quickly concluded that there was no god – and that even if there had been, he wouldn’t deserve any praise from me. As far as I was concerned, I had every right to absent myself from Assembly. So, one morning, that’s what I did. I stayed in my classroom … aware that my absence would bring the full weight of school discipline crashing down on my head.

By the way, I was delighted to read, last week, that a couple in Burford, West Oxfordshire, had won a concession by Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust (ODST) after challenging their policy of collective compulsory worship.

Lee and Lizanne Harris challenged compulsory collective worship in school assembly on human rights grounds. They’d discovered that their children’s school insisted that their kids pray and watch re-enactments of Bible scenes during assemblies at academy school Burford Primary School, despite the school’s having no religious character. Bible stories were presented as fact. In addition, their children were made to attend past school leavers’ ceremonies held in a local church, during which students were presented with a bible as a ‘guide to life.’

Backed by Humanists UK, the couple withdrew their application for judicial review after ODST agreed to provide “a meaningful alternative assembly of equal educational worth for all pupils withdrawn from compulsory prayers”.

As soon as it was discovered I had stayed out of Assembly I was given a severe reprimand by my form master – but, much more dramatically, I was sent to the Headmaster’s office. Actually, from what I recall Mr Bell-Jones (left) gave me quite a mild talking-to. But he did leave me in no doubt that I’d get into severe hot water if I repeated my protest. So I never did.

But my opinion hasn’t changed after all these years, and I’m not in such a small minority anymore. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, over half – 53% – of all UK adults describe themselves as having no religious affiliation, up from 48% in 2015. The latest figure is the highest since the BSA survey began tracking religious affiliation in 1983, when 31% said they had no religion.

With these figures in mind, I wonder how much compulsory worship is still in operation in UK schools currently.

I pat myself on the back for having stayed out of Assembly that morning. I feel just as strongly that no religion should be forced on any child. What’s more I had no hesitation in completely agreeing with Stephen Fry‘s sentiments around the notion of meeting God, in his memorable interview with the late Gay Byrne.

 

 

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