It’s easy enough (which is why I do it) to look at society as it is now and to compare it with some lost golden age; for some reason that age is usually one when the person doing the talking or writing was young and vigorous; it was all better back then. This is particularly true when thinking of religion. When I was a lad everyone, more or less, in these parts, went to church or chapel on a Sunday – some of us twice. My old dad was thought a great rebel, not least by himself, because he declared the whole thing was nonsense and preferred to stay at home and read the newspapers. He darkened the door of a church only thrice: when he was baptised; when he was wed; and when we buried him, and on all three occasions because of the intervention of a woman – his own mother in the first case, and mine in the last two. But did all those numbers in church mean Christianity was in a good and healthy place?
Catholic friends, including good ones here, will sometimes write as though Vatican II was the origin of all their discontents. We Baptists didn’t have one, any more than the Anglicans did, but we’ve all suffered from the same problems – banal new hymns, forms of service, guitars and clergy so wet you could shoot snipe off ’em. So there’s something more here than Vatican II going on, and what’s more, it was going on in that lost golden age when I was young.
I’ve been excavating some of the books I’ve not looked at for a bit, and happened on a once well-known theologian, Martin Thornton, and his English Spirituality. Published in 1963, it was one of those books I devoured at College, and if you can get a copy, there’s much wisdom in it. What struck me, beginning to reread, was his conviction that a ‘new spiritual revival’ was underway. Yes, I can recall feeling that way back then. But it didn’t really happen did it?
I’m far from qualified to say why that was, but whatever the reasons, they did not begin in the 1960s. There was a whole generation in the priesthood or the ministry in the 1960s who failed to pass on the traditions which they had inherited, who went a whoring after strange new ways, they seemed to lose faith in what they had received so quickly as to make me wonder whether they had really had any in the first place? Some clearly thought the new ways would bring folk in, which suggests that even then they were worrying about the young. I say the last because so much of what was adopted back then was aimed to make it ‘easier’ for the ‘young’ to access the Church. We had the same nonsense in education. Those who, like me, argued long and hard that there was no substitute for hard work, and that some learning was tedious and boring, until you grasped what was being taught, were derided as ‘reactionaries’ – yet I think we were right.
Bereft of any sense that what was being offered was worth working to grasp, what was then offered was not valued or sought. I always found my pupils valued things they’d had to work for – and vice versa. Now that’s not to say Christianity is some dort of exam or test – except there is a sense in which it is. We can apprehend that the Father has dragged us to belief, and we can be grateful for it – but then comes the hard stuff – living what we have professed with our lips through our lives. That requires of us a rejection of some of the things which the children of this world find to their taste, and it requires us to run the good race to the end. How much easier to subside into rhetoric about love – whilst doing nothing to help the stranger at our gate, or clothe the poor and feed them. How much easier to stand in the temple thanking God we’re not like those other sinners than to beat our breast and ask God to have mercy on me, a sinner – with what follows.
So, in the end, perhaps it’s nothing more than what was there when I was young, but it was camoflaged by outward expressions of piety – such as going to church twice on Sunday, whilst being a heathen the rest of the week. I can recall talking to Catholic friends back then, and indeed attending a Mass or two, and at the front there was a priest facing the altar doing whatever it was he was doing, there were women in the pews praying their rosaires, others mumbling the responses, and a general sense that whatever was going on up front was nothing to do with them – something was being done for them and on their behalf, but apart from the fact it was a mortal sin to miss Mass, they wouldn’t have been there at all.
Perhaps there wqas a lost golden age, but I suspect there wasn’t, and that dismay at what has happened since has lent a rose-tinted hue to our memories.