On secularism, establishment, and the Olympic opening ceremonies

I didn’t watch them. I was at the theater with friends but my twitter feed was full of comments from Americans and Brits about what they saw and didn’t see. One of the most poignant moments of the entire ceremony was the ballet set to “Abide With Me” in memory of “those who are not here.” NBC cut to an interview with Michael Phelps.

I wondered what that says about the US and Great Britain, about how an established church, even if relatively unimportant, helps to shape the self-understanding of a people. In addition to the “Abide With Me” sequence, the opening ceremonies began with Blake’s “Jerusalem.” The Dean of Durham comments:

Instead, Boyle was true to Blake’s text, which is his Christian vision of a just and caring society. But it has to be formed and helped to flourish with the native gifts and characteristics that make us what we are.  This nuanced awareness is, I think, an aspect of the spirituality of our islands that we cherish.  It’s embedded in the way we do liturgy and theology. In its eloquence and simplicity, that moment carried great power.

Of “Abide with me” he writes:

The other moment where faith broke through was in the invitation to remember ‘those who are not here’.  After the spectacle and the celebration, what heralded the arrival of the athletes was not a grand rhetorical climax but the silencing of the crowd, an act of recollection, the words of a prayer.  For yes, unbelievably, we had all of ‘Abide with me’ sung quietly while a simple ballet on the theme of being lost and found was performed on the stage.  It was a clever choice because of its Cup Final resonances; and yet once again, it was subverted in a way that restored meaning to a great hymn and personalised it.  ‘Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes / Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies’: who would have thought we would hear such words charged with Christian hope and expectation at an Olympic opening ceremony?  For me it was among the most moving aspects of the whole event.

I doubt anything of the sort could be produced in the US. We lack a lingua france of liturgy and theology. It’s not just that there would be protests from the separation of church and state people. There would also be conflict over who would get to shape and define whatever religious expression was being made. And the secularists who are completely tone-deaf about religion would probably cut to an interview with Michael Phelps.

He concludes:

There is more to ‘spirituality’ than when it surfaces and becomes explicit.  It has an intuitive side that doesn’t get expressed in words but is still alive in most people’s experience of life.  Perhaps in the joy and exuberance of last night, something more about life and about God was hinted at.  Perhaps some may have experienced it as a kind of liturgy.  Perhaps, even, the sight of thousands of people of every age, background and ethnicity throwing themselves into this genuinely democratic celebration offered a glimpse of Jerusalem and of the kingdom of heaven itself.

Read it all here.

The “Abide with me” sequence is available here.

Whatever the meaning of this for the British, it seems to me to make clear the barrenness of religion’s role in American culture.


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