I’ve just spent a marvellously absorbing day in Liverpool, on a Beatles tour of post-doctoral erudition led by man called Ricky, whose forensic knowledge of the Fab Four makes my 40-year dedication to them look decidedly amateur. There was so much to ponder, but one thing hit home particularly, and that was the extent to which church featured in their early development.
As an avid reader of books and articles on the Beatles I knew that Paul first met John at St Peter’s, Woolton church hall in July 1957, the same weekend that John’s skiffle band played outdoors at the same church’s annual fete. I knew that John had attended Sunday school, and that Eleanor Rigby was buried in the St Peter’s graveyard. I knew that Father McKenzie was based on Paul’s close observation of local clergy. I knew that George was the only Catholic in the band among three Protestants, and that this had prompted periodic banter between them, not least given the sectarian tensions in a port city that served as a key gateway to and from Ireland. I knew that Strawberry Field (singular) was an orphanage run by the Salvation Army. I knew vaguely that there was a church on the ’roundabout’ mentioned in Paul’s glorious ‘Penny Lane’, and that Paul had sung in the choir of that church. I knew in turn that this had lodged in his consciousness sufficiently to influence the hymn-like ‘Let It Be’.
But it’s one thing to read about such ecclesiastical motifs in the Beatles’ biography and discography; quite another to see and experience them in person. To stand on the very church-owned spot where Paul made such a deep first impression on John with his knowledge of the chords to ‘Twenty Flight Rock’. To set foot on the same consecrated ground that John’s Quarrymen occupied when they performed for those Woolton parishioners almost 60 years ago. To see all four Beatles’ childhood homes, and inside John Lennon’s house on Menlove Avenue to read his actual Sunday school attendance card. To view the modest family grave containing Eleanor Rigby. To look across that roundabout from the Penny Lane barber’s shop to St Barnabas church, and wonder how Macca’s boy soprano voice might have sounded in its chancel. To take in George’s terraced house in Speake and the city’s imposing Catholic Cathedral, and to wonder what led him to turn from his Christian heritage towards Indian spiritualities – sitars, Hare Krishna et al.
As the Fifties gave way to the Sixties the Beatles’ childhood links with church faded away. The rebellious spirit of rock n’ roll, the existentialist influences at Lennon’s and Stu Sutcliffe’s art school, the drugs and prostitution of Hamburg, the avant gardism of Astrid, Klaus and their other German friends – all appear to have played their part. As the Sixties wore on and their fame went stellar, they both reflected and defined the increasingly permissive spirit of the age – free love, anti-establishment philosophies, radical aesthetics and politics. Along the way, Lennon pronounced the Beatles to be bigger than Jesus while Harrison turned to avatars and gurus, and for a time persuaded the other three to follow the Maharishi. In the process McCartney and Starr’s church affiliations became ever more nominal. Indeed, while Lennon’s and Harrison’s abandonment of their childhood church formation might have been more explicit, it was McCartney’s image of Father McKenzie, ‘writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear’ which perhaps most poignantly evoked the dramatic loss of Christian influence in British society during this period – a period of disastrous decline in church attendances, not least among the young.
In more recent times, as various members of the Beatles’ circle have passed away and as some have been given Christian funerals, we have seen Paul and Ringo in church again – perhaps with more frequency than at any time since they were teenagers. But obviously the context is very specific – and, if anything, a reminder that for vast numbers of people since the Sixties, church has essentially become at best a cultural space in which to mark key rites of passage, rather than the more regular feature of life it was for the childhood John, Paul, George and Ringo, their families and their friends.
I adore the Beatles’ music, and I loved the Beatles Tour of Liverpool. But for all I sense the joy and liveliness of God’s Spirit in their songs, for all the resonances with the gospel in their message of peace and love, for all the prophetic insight of their later, more socially conscious material, it came home to me as I moved from Beatle home to Beatle home, from St Peter’s Woolton to St Barnabas, Penny Lane, from Strawberry Field to the Casbah, that they had not only exemplified the church’s startling loss of influence on Britain and Britain’s youth in particular, but that they had become for many representatives of an alternative worldview, an alternative ‘spirituality’ in which church was incidental, or even irrelevant. Ricky, indeed, began the Tour by describing it as a ‘pilgrimage’, and the guides in Lennon’s and McCartney’s houses respectively described them as ‘hallowed ground’.
The challenge for the church today, of course, is to re-energise young people as dynamically and as profoundly as the Beatles did in the Sixties, while recognising that the cultural apparatus of late Christendom with which the Beatles themselves grew up is now far less detectable in Britain, or, indeed, much of the western world. For all his later flat denials of God, Lennon’s 1966 observation that the Beatles had become ‘bigger than Jesus’ was more a melancholy comment on the then-nascent cult of celebrity, and on growing consumerism and secularism, than an outright blasphemy. Viewed from today’s perspective, it in fact seems highly prescient.
I’m sure that the Beatles’ music will continue to enrapture young – and old – for centuries to come. It – and they – are truly extraordinary. I will never stop listening to their wonderful songs, never stop marvelling at how they progressed from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘A Day in the Life’ in five short years. But for all their genius they don’t have the words of eternal life, and they can’t redeem and renew our broken world. Can continued appreciation for the Beatles and their astonishing artistic legacy be accompanied by a reversal of the retreat from church and Christian faith that they both mirrored and embodied? I hope and believe it can. I pray that it will. But as I reflect on a great day out with the Beatles Tour, I know that it won’t be easy, and that it’s likely to take some time.
19 March 2016