The Last Waltz:

how the Church never made it past 1967 [part 1]

The middle years of the 1960s were the last great era of faith. Faith, that is, in science and technology as saviours, makers of a new heaven and a new earth coming down from outer space. The later years of the decade marked a turning point, as scientific progress ceased to be an unquestioned good, as the environmental and social costs of modernity became a cause for concern. The turn of the tide was visible early in seemingly superficial things. Modernist styles in fashion and design were supplemented or replaced by historical revivals. Musical culture concentrated ever more on sensual, irrational experience. Design guru Paul Reilly, writing in 1966, sensed that television and magazines had undermined modernity, as people saw the historical and the modern side by side as equals to be chosen or mixed, rather than as a linear progression with the modern superseding the historical. The stylistic and behavioural revolutions of the 60s were the firstfruits of an enduring cultural change. Somewhere between 1965 and 1968, Western society crossed the boundary from modern to postmodern.

People now in their 60s and 70s were in their 30s during the 1960s. Some embraced the new culture. Some saw themselves as already too old. And many followed the changes up to a point where the aesthetic and cultural break with their own formative years was too great, and stopped there. The sea-change in sentiment can be symbolised by the failure of the Beatles' single 'Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane', the firstfruits of the 'Sergeant Pepper' sessions, to reach number 1 in February 1967 - their first single to miss number 1 since 'Love Me Do'. The song that outsold it, 'Release Me' by Engelbert Humperdinck, illustrates the desire of a significant - generally older - part of the pop audience for a more straightforward and comforting music.

This has been noted by several writers on the period, because it contradicts the myth of 1967 as belonging to the counterculture. In the year of Jimi Hendrix and the Monterey pop festival, 'Sergeant Pepper' and the Summer of Love, the three best-selling singles were all by Humperdinck. As the Beatles and others turned to sonic experimentation, and pop music abandoned traditional song-and-melody structures for groove or noise, a generation of older followers turned back. Over the next few years record shops would invent the category 'Easy Listening' as a catch-all meaning 'anything liked by people over a certain age' - and the term speaks volumes for what those people thought of the new directions in rock and soul. Interestingly, this was the age group who were going to be leaders in their churches for the rest of the 20th century.

When we look at the age profile of the English Church as revealed in current statistics it is clear that the 'missing generations' are those who were young in the 1960s and after. It seems very much as if the 1960s cultural shift is passing upward through the population, eliminating Christianity as it goes. Why should the Church be hit so hard in this way? Many things could be said, but in essence most churches have never achieved a form of Christian spirituality native to the new culture, but have lingered in the old order, through nostalgia, distaste, fear or uncertainty.

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