The death of Christian England
Anything Benedict and Francis can do, our lads can do better. It’s nice to see former Archbishop Rowan and new boy Justin singing from the same hymn sheet. I admire the co-operation, it’s just that I’m not too keen on the sound of their singing.
Both men have said recently that Britain is no longer the Christian country it was for so many centuries. Of course, as tactful and diplomatic guys, Rowan and Justin are careful to qualify their judgement. Rowan has stressed the tremendous influence that Christian values have exerted on our national customs and institutions; and Justin has kindly let it be known that he thinks there is still a place for the “moderate” Christian. So that’s all right then: just no room for the immoderate Christians who try to keep Our Lord’s command to rejoice under persecution; no place for martyrs, stroppy types such as Polycarp, Thomas More, Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer. Certainly, it was not very nice to see Christians put to death, but at least these deaths indicated an age when Christianity had not yet been emptied of all practical meaning.
What really makes my eyes water though is the opinion of both Archbishops to the effect that historical and social changes are inevitable and so the church must accommodate itself to them. Rowan said as much in his last sermon before he retired: that the church had a lot of catching up to do with changes in secular mores. Whatever happened to “Be ye not conformed to this world…”? And in any case, the idea that historical change is inevitable is the Marxist view of history.
The Archbishops are right, though, to notice that great changes in the character of Christian England have surely occurred. We might even put this dramatically and say that the old Christian England has died. But we should notice that its death was not from natural causes, and it was not murdered. It was in fact suicide over the long-drawn-out period when the mind of the church was disturbed. There was true psychological and spiritual pathology and I shall identify the symptoms in due course, but first I should like us to recall the church when it was in the full bloom of health.
After the Second World War, the church enjoyed a prolonged period of life and growth. All through the 1950s attendances held up; baptism, confirmation and marriage were popular. There was a sustained increase in the number of men offering themselves for Holy Orders. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, and to be young was very heaven. I know, because I was there. In the working class parish of St Bartholomew, Leeds, where I was brought up, there were three of us candidates for the priesthood; and we were all three ordained. Downtown Armley between the gas works and the jail – and there were over a hundred of us at the Sung Eucharist every Sunday. Lights, colours, music accompanied by the mighty Schultze organ and theological sermons.
Then – and I can date it precisely – the first signs of disease. It was 1963, the same year identified by Philip Larkin as the beginnings of sexual intercourse: “between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP.” That was the year when Bishop JAT Robinson’s iconoclastic tract Honest to God appeared and went into nine editions. Honest John Robinson advertised his book with an article in The Observer in which he told us “our image of God must go.” Specifically: “We no longer believe in a God who is literally and physically up there…” – but we never did, Bish – “…nor can we believe in a God who is metaphysically out there.” It was the start of practical atheism. The sense was of a huge cat being let out of a giant bag. And not just one cat but two.
For if theology was debunked, could the rubbishing of morality be far behind? Chapter six of Honest to God explicitly rejected deontological biblical morality and recommended instead something called “situation ethics.” You just decided the difference between right and wrong on the spot. This was also called “the new morality” – satirised at the time as “…only the old immorality in a miniskirt.”
There was metastasis in this mental illness and the suicidal tendencies increased and spread. These destroyed those wholesome nutriments: The King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer. These were replaced over a period of 30 years by increasingly degenerating versions of scripture and forms of service of mind-numbing banality. New worship songs and choruses led us into vain repetitions, 10 times over, of stuff that wasn’t worth singing once.
Finally, there was the political revolution. The C of E had never really been the Tory Party at prayer. Perhaps it used to bear resemblance to the Liberal Party at the sherry morning. But over the last three decades of the 20th century, it came to look like the Socialist Party at the barricade. Every trendy, lefty policy and every innovation in secular morality was enthusiastically taken up until the one-nation church of Hooker, Law, Lancelot Andrewes and TS Eliot was turned into a sect. The C of E effectually resigned.
So this is how we came to be where we are now which is, as Rowan and Justin have correctly described it, an entity that is no longer a Christian country in the old sense. Today’s C of E is part of the museum culture, the heritage tradition – something for the tourists to gawp at. Traditional doctrines were long since abandoned. The real Bible and the real Prayer Book – for centuries the unifying factors among all Anglicans, High, Low and Broad – ripped up. The political equilibrium, painfully achieved, was sacrificed in the interest of the bishops and Synod and turned into a left-wing pressure group.
But the notion that all this was merely accidental is as foolish as it is wicked. The death of the old Christian England was willed. Moreover, we know who dunnit and we know where they buried the body.