I was flicking channels a few Sundays ago and came (very briefly) across Songs of Praise (I think it was). Now, I remember that programme from my childhood. Organ music, Victorian hymns, and a congregation in regulation Church attire – suits and ties for the men; twin sets, pearls and hats for the ladies. How times have changed. Now it seems, electric guitars, gospel tunes and ‘smart casual’ as Alan Partridge would say, are very much the thing. But it wasn’t any of that that caught my eye. It was the posture of the congregation. No one it seems kneels to pray any more, and whether praying or singing, the vogue now is to close the eyes, throw the head back, adopt a transcendental expression, sway from side to side, and wave palms in the air. When I was a kid at junior school, we would be told – ‘hands together and eyes closed’; or we would be enjoined to ‘bow our heads in prayer’. At church, old maids would spend their spare hours making pretty (but pious) needlecraft covers for the little cushions that would be placed in all the pews for the aging faithful to rest their knees upon when praying. Moses bowed low to the earth to pray (Exodus 34:8); Elijah went one better and crouched down and put his face between his knees (I Kings 18:42). Muslims of course also prostrate themselves with forehead to the floor, several times a day. All of which seems in body language terms to be saying to the divinity: ‘You are my sovereign lord; I adopt the posture of a supplicant in recognition that I am nothing and you are everything’ – or words to that effect. But no longer for many Christians it seems.
The current vogue for waving palms has biblical endorsement too: ‘I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands’ (I Timothy 2:8). But why has Paul’s ideal of waving palms taken the place of Elijah’s grovelling? I think it reflects a shift in Christian sensibility. Believers want a different relationship with their God nowadays – less hierarchical and more chummy; less distant and more intimate .The Victorian paterfamilias model has gone out of the window. What we want now it seems is a ‘relationship’ with the divine. A Victorian father wouldn’t have cared what the child wanted: he would issue instructions and expect them to be obeyed. A 21st Century father seeks to understand, empathise and bond emotionally with his child and Christians want the same from their deity. God the Father and God the Son take a back seat in this scenario it seems to the third member of the Trinity - God the Holy Spirit, who isn’t there to command or to save, but to give intense ‘spiritual’ (for which, read ‘emotional’) experience. The modern ‘charismatic’ movement has had a huge influence on this. Not all these palm wavers necessarily believe in speaking in tongues and all the other tricks of the mind and the emotions that characterises that movement; but they do subscribe to the idea that modern religion is about emotion and relationship, reflected in the new posture which seems (to me at least) to be verging on the erotic. (‘If God could ravish the Virgin Mary, why not me?’) One of the titles accorded to the Holy Spirit is ‘Comforter’. That is also the word used for a baby’s dummy – a substitute for the real thing. Enough said.