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May 13, 2005

Tsunami 2004: A Service of Remembrance - The Sentimentalisation of Compassion

Posted by Peter Mullen

On Wednesday 11th May 2005 a national service of remembrance for the Indian Ocean Tsunami was held at St Paul's Cathedral. Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen examines its order of service - and finds it wanting: true compassion has been replaced with cheap sentimentality.

On the front of the service order, it says TSUNAMI 2004 and you think to yourself, "What's this?" Is it a product of the everlastingly industrious General Synod, a new form of liturgy, as in Matins, Evensong Holy Communion – and Tsunami? No, TSUNAMI 2004 – it is another borrowing from the world of advertising as in WIMBLEDON 2000 or PROMS 2005. It is subtitled A SERVICE OF REMEMBRANCE and it was held in memory of the victims of the Indian Ocean disaster.

Except it is not called a disaster, but in the debauched lingo of media hype, a "tragedy" in which anything can be so described from the murder of a child to defeat in a notable football match. But a tragedy is not the same thing as a natural disaster. A tragedy, we were told when we were taught literature at schools, is a drama in which is represented the unfortunate consequences arising out of the central character's fatal flaw – as it might be ambition in Caesar or indecision in Hamlet. But the word "tragedy" is repeated umpteen times in this service order – so negligible is the intelligence in the end.

Among the many infelicities and desecrations contained in the order is a naked contradiction. On page three the survivors of the tragedy are said to be "overwhelmed", but by page ten they are "not overwhelmed". Literature is one thing. Clearly theological consistency is another thing altogether.

The service is the usual mixture of matchless biblical prose and the tasteless jabber of sham antique. Who but someone with a tin ear could follow the perfection of "O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me" with "See the home of God is among mortals". It is of course a banal rendering of "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men". But obsessive modernity will not let them say "behold" and political correctness won't let them say "men" – so they have to say instead something that sounds as if it's from Dr Who.

They included the lovely anthem, the express image of pity and love, "God be in my head". As everyone knows, there is one incomparable setting of those words and it is by Walford Davies. But here it is the sub-Lloyd-webberese of John Rutter (born 1945) – a man who has made more money out of maudlin display than Fergal Keane.

There is the infantilisation of thought on a grand scale. The congregation is made to pray for these victims whose lives were taken "in ways beyond our understanding". No they weren't. They were taken in cruel and terrible ways, to be sure, but we are sadly only too familiar with the occurrence of drowning or being crushed to death in falling buildings.

How should we pray for those who lost their homes? That they might be provided with shelter and ready help, perhaps? Not here. We pray for them that God will "Restore dignity". This is to add insult to injury. My God, if dignity is all they have lost…

But not even the accumulated malapropishness of the whole liturgical commission could have invented the crassness of the prayer that follows. They thank God for the relief agencies - for their "continued professionalism". Words like that just don't belong in public prayers. Might as well add that the continued professionalism is being "actively monitored by the instruments of compliance".

The central act of the service was the silence while thousands of rose petals were dropped from the galleries. It was like a Diana Fest. It reminded me of that event when for weeks it seemed as if the chief pastime of the British people was to watch posh funerals on television, interrupting the tedium now and again to rush out into the street to throw teddy bears at passing hearses.

It was sentimental. It was pagan. T.S. Eliot's words came to mind:

With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

It certainly wasn't Christian. It was what they now call "multifaith". But must the livid commandment to offend no one always corrupt our spiritual expression with sentimentality? The Burial of the Dead from The Book of Common Prayer would have said it all.

Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live and is full of misery. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow and never continueth in one stay…

What's wrong with that then? St Paul's is a Christian church, after all. Or was.

Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen is Rector of St Michael's, Cornhill & Chaplain to the Stock Exchange. He is the co-editor (with Digby Anderson) of Faking It: The Sentimentalisation of Modern Society.


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What a marvellous piece.

Posted by: s masty at May 14, 2005 05:01 PM
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