Catholicism, for those like myself who are not a part of it, is a uniquely glamorous branch of religion. The ceremony, the incense, the costumes, the miracles and the never-ending saints’ days hold within them a mystique not shared by their various Protestant counterparts. Failed Catholics are endlessly good fodder for literature – Sebastian Flyte and Kenneth Toomey being notable examples – because the protagonists go about their crises of faith with the same level of drama that the Catholic church itself displays during its services and rituals.
To put on a show then, about being an angsty Catholic is firstly nothing new and, secondly, sets the bar of comparison with other works rather high. Amy Mason’s show Mass has its heart in all the right places – places of compassion, egalitarianism and generosity – but unfortunately it repeatedly feels insubstantial, like wafts of smoke from a thurible.
Whilst questioning God – in all its various guises – has been going on since time immemorial, Mass also claims to be a particularly timely show. ‘Timely’ because British society is almost entirely irreligious nowadays. Or at least that is a commonly accepted fact. But like a lot of commonly accepted things, this is not quite as true as it sounds. Church attendance numbers might indeed have steeply dropped with successive generations, and religion per se is very ill-received in the press, categorised as ‘Medieval’, supportive of sexism, homophobia and extremism. Yet claiming that ‘society is not religious anymore’ tends to overstate the importance of Christianity in Britain, for whilst chapels and abbeys might be used increasingly less, what about the mosques, synagogues and temples? Additionally, whilst it seems like ‘everyone’ – and by ‘everyone’ I wager that we actually mean some particularly over-represented [usually white and middle class] voices in the media – avoids going to church, if you try to attend the Easter Sunday or Christmas Eve service in, for example, Bristol Cathedral it is literally standing room only, with people being turned away at the door for lack of space. Furthermore issues like whether being Jewish makes you part of a race or a religion or both complicate claims about a multicultural society’s religiosity yet more.
However, it would be trite to entirely claim that religion is not a prevalent issue right now and therefore this show potentially offered a chance to explore an old issue in a fashion unique to 2015. Somehow though, it just didn’t. Instead it relied too heavily on slightly hackneyed assumptions such as: we [atheists] no longer know how to deal with death, whereas ‘back in the day’ people did. Nostalgic assertions like this appear on first glance to be indisputable, but on a second thought one thinks, “Don’t we? Did they? Says whom?” Because these thoughts seem too easy, too readily agreeable. Religion might well give people a specific language and ritual to employ when dealing with death, birth or marriage, but it doesn’t follow that this makes grief fundamentally easier to deal with – in fact, it would be just as easy to claim that a heavy framework of routine words and behaviours can make truly engaging with an emotive event even harder because they allow for a person to flit on to autopilot mode when trauma occurs.
During the show, Mason takes up Alain de Botton’s idea of a ‘religion for atheists’ and proposes a different form of the Catholic mass. As the Church of England has been demonstrating for the last few hundred years, this is a fairly popular idea and indeed the basic principles of her ‘new’ church are all very good – love thy neighbour and fuck Tesco and the like. But as with the basic idea of taking the mass and making something new of it, the ‘new’ church with its colourful robes, scripture in plain English [Hi, Tyndale], good music and friendly demeanour looks bizarrely familiar. It looks, to be precise, like a mishmash of several different forms of well-established Christianity, as evidenced by various parts of Pentecostalism, Baptists, Unitarianism and any church that gospel music is played in.
Mass then does not so much as argue for atheism as for swinging, singin’ Southern American Protestantism and a form of worship not like that experienced in Mason’s Catholic upbringing. Since I am sure that is not what she was aiming for, I think the show should have focused much more on exploring the fundamental issue of not believing in a higher being, rather than not believing in a specific form of religion –as most of her suggestions for a ‘new’ church can already be found being practiced by religious people around the world.
For losing one’s faith to be a really big deal the lost faith has to be intrinsically doctrinaire. I was bought up attending – on an infrequent basis – Quaker meetings. Unlike Catholicism, this is a branch of Christianity that is so laid back attendees are required to do literally nothing, if that so pleases them, during a meeting. You might know of it from oats or conscientious objectors. It has given me no language or ritual or idea of what to do if someone goes underneath a bus I am on. It offers almost no beautiful spectacle or funny hats to wear, but it also offers no guilt or pressure. Religion has a bad press right now and so, quite specifically, does the Catholic church as an institution. But it would be a shame to imagine that there are only two options – atheism or really heavy versions of religious practice – available when quite quietly any number of people week in and week out across the country attend various forms of worship sans angst, including many who are entirely undecided on the question of God and in no great hurry to find an answer.