Flickering symbols

by Geoffrey Kirk

 

What is it about candles? If you, like me, are an addict of television whodunnits – involving as they invariably do, ladies in surgical gloves weighing the internal organs of unfortunate victims – you will have noticed, in all that self-confident scientific modernity, that religion makes a more frequent appearance than one might expect.

There is almost invariably a scene in a church. And the church, of course, though deserted of worshippers in the middle of an afternoon, is ablaze with candles when our hero or heroine arrives. Not votive lights, mind you, reminding us of the continuing prayers of those now absent, but substantial candles in free-standing candelabra, tastefully distributed around the building for no other reason than the current performance.

Why? Why, when verisimilitude is the order of the day in every other filmed interior, are churches subjected to this extravagant flight of romantic fantasy, which must strike terror into the hearts of the management of the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group?

Candles, it seems to me, in the world beyond Church, have become a nebulous symbol of the ‘spiritual.’ In the more downmarket interior design emporia of the Tottenham Court Road, they are sold in quantity to those who wish to create an environment in which, as they say, to ‘chill out.’ People of little faith or no faith at all light them at the sites of motorcar accidents and other fatalities, much as they pile up flowers and multiply teddy bears. Candles – like it or not – are a derivation from the Diana Effect, flickering emblems of a post-religious sentimentality.

Which is probably why the mainstream Church of England (where. let’s face it. candles were, in most of our lifetimes, a suspect feature associated with Romanism) has taken them to its heart. ‘Alternative liturgy’ in the CofE now reads like an advertisement for Charles Farris & Co.

The candles in the churches of our television whodunits are paying religion an elegant backhanded compliment. They allow, assert even, that it is poetic and picturesque. They insist, nevertheless, that, in most people’s lives it is now peripheral and ephemeral.

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