Dr Damian Thompson, now of the Catholic Herald and Spectator, formerly the host to many of the original commentators here when he ran the Daily Telegraph blogs pages (and jolly good they were, even if some oaf from Ceylon banned me), has written that rarest of things, a real ‘must-read’ article. It can be found in The Spectator, entitled The End of British Christianity. BY 2067 the ‘last native born Christian’ will have perished. He, rightly (as befits someone with a doctorate in social sciences) hedges his argument around with caveats, but the central thrust is clear and stark – and the figures he presents depressing and compelling (do read it, it’s good). It amounts to a massive failure of ‘mission’, not least by the Established Church, but there’s no church that has cause for congratulation; if the number of Catholics has not declined by the same as the number of Anglicans, that’s because there are no Polish Anglican immigrants.
The causes are various, and I’m not sure what I’d give priority to, not least since everyone will have their favourite scapegoat, ranging from Vatican II to changing the Prayer Book; it is also hard to pin down what ‘secularisation’ is – though we know it when we see it. Dr Thompson hits a nail very hard on the head when he writes about the way secularisation within the Churches is as important as any assault from without. I’ve lost count of the number of clergymen to whom I’ve spoken who were good fellows, but whose sense of the other-worldly nature of Christianity was nugatory. That was why they thought in terms of adapting the faith to their times, instead of adapting the times to the faith ‘once received’. Seeking to make Christianity more ‘relevant’, they forget to ask ‘relevant to what’? A people with no sense of sin will have no need of forgiveness.
Our society had preferred to medicalise unease, as well as disease. ‘Guilt’ is felt to be a bad thing for which you can have counselling when, in fact, it’s a good thing as it’s your conscience working, doing what it is there for – warning you you’re on the wrong path. Pop a pill, see a shrink, medicalise it and treat the symptoms rather than the causes of your unease.
Then there’s education, to which Dr T refers in his article. I’d echo what he says when he advises those protesting about faith schools to go into one and see what really happens. In terms of passing on the Christian faith, the answer is usually nothing much. Most children learn as much about other faiths, none of which shaped the country in which they live, as they do about Christianity, which did. But since we’ve reached a stage where younger generations of teachers and parents know nothing about Christianity either, there’s little chance of reversing the situation; the language of religion is a foreign tongue.
But does there come a point at which those who believe in God are, as it were, the ‘hard core’ – those who believe because they have faith, and who are passing on the faith, and will continue to pass it on? It’s not as though any professed believer now is one for social reasons. When I was a lad it was more or less compulsory to go to church, so no one had any idea of who really believed in God – the pews were full, but what that meant in terms of belief, who could tell? Now we can. He emphasises he’s talking about Europe and North America, and it may yet be that Africa, which was brought to the Gospel by Europeans, will end by bringing Europe back to it. Dr Thompson offers us naught for our comfort – and I’m not sure we deserve anything for it, either.