Kingsley Amis would like to believe in God but cannot. He explains why he has a right to call the Church of England to order
MY grandparents were Baptists of the Denmark Hill Community in south-east London. My parents, who first met in chapel there, moved eventually away from the chapel and towards the church, like not a few English Nonconformists of that era, but by the time I started taking notice of such concerns they no longer visibly prac- tised any religion. When I was a boy they took me to a few services, at Easter and at Christmas and on Armistice Day, but they never gave me religious instruction, told me to say my prayers or anything like that. This was policy much more than laziness; my father, laughably as I once thought, considered himself a rebel in these matters, an emancipator. What I missed at home I was given at school, in the measure then prevailing: morning prayers, weekly Scripture (I got a credit in the subject in School Certificate) and, when the war transformed us from daily grammar school into boarding school, Sunday chapel. I had less in the way of religion than some of my contemporaries — no parish and no Sunday school — but more than others — Greek Testament in the Classical Sixth and, a less superficial experience, the chapel choir. This I joined entirely for musical reasons, or so I would have said then. But I must also have been drawn to what was on offer besides the music, and come to be familiar with it. Choir practice is in itself an unregarded form of religious training.
Except in detail, I have described the common experience of many thousands of my age-group and those younger. It would hardly have been worth recounting if large parts of my subsequent experience, beliefs and attitudes were not also common, as they surely are, and connected with it in all sorts of ways, as they must be. Something, at any rate, has made me an unwilling unbeliever, one with a sense of deep and continuous attachment to the Christian religion, a fascination with its doctrines and its and their history, and an inquisitive interest in the Church of my country and its doings and sayings.
My belief is not uniform. Notions of God's omnipresence, of his knowing every- ing I think, of my ability to reach him through prayer, even of my being a part of him, I feel I could accept if I could accept other things, anterior things. But I have no belief in the existence of God, not the first beginning of one, not a shred, and never have had as far back as I can remember not no belief in him as all-wise, all-loving, all-powerful, difficult as these might be to acquire, just no belief in him as an eternal supreme being. How could the idea of such an entity be believable? Logic will not help and the rest is poetry at best: 'I believe in order that I may understand' — 'It is believable because it is absurd' — 'I believe because it is impossible' (Augus- tine? Tertullian?) — a lamentably dis- couraging and frivolous remark, the more so for its quibble between it-as-belief and it-as-thing-to-be-believed.
But there the belief under discussion was of course not God as a general concept but the Christian God and all the immense structure of Christianity. Once more I feel I could take the second step as soon as I had taken the first, and accept a God who became man. But how can all the rest be accepted, every piece of it, and if just one piece, even the smallest, can be dropped, then why not others, why not all? I will never understand how and why not, until I believe, and I know well enough by this time that belief does not come by looking for the answers to questions. Faith is evidently not an explanation or a discovery but a gift.
One principle I can accede to is that human beings without faith are the poorer for it in every part of their lives. But many of those in that condition are far from being entirely pauperised, indeed are de- cidedly rich compared to the truly godless, those who know and care nothing about God at all. To us who were brought up or partly brought up as Christians but who cannot believe, a world without religion in it would nevertheless be as sad and dread- ful a place as a world without art. In fact it would be a world in which art as we have known it might become impossible to create, and great tracts of existing art would for certain become fatally impover- ished.
English poetry is such a tract. Specifical- ly religious poetry in English is on any reckoning one of its great beauties. To read such poetry from the outside, with only a swotted-up knowledge of the reli- gion in it, is to experience a bloodless simulacrum of it. Something ominous can be learnt from imagining what it would be like to have read a poem of George Herbert's, as it might be 'Redemption' (`Having been tenant long to a rich lord'), with no more than footnotes for illumina- tion. This is doubtless an extreme case, but from beginning to end English poetry as a whole has been shaped by religion, con- stantly reflects it, looks back to it often when it seems furthest away. I imagine it would not be hard to make out similar cases where other arts are concerned.
We in this country, not uniquely, may be entering a world without religion, by which I mean a world without Christian belief. Any attempt to hatch such a thing by direct means, as we now know, will go wrong. This would have been the worst cruelty of the communists, because irreparable, but the attempt has been their most ludicrous failure.
What will bring it off, in this country, is the Church of England itself, out of no malice to anybody, in a general honest thbught and common good to all, assisted b'y a number of less attractive qualities like stupidity, cowardice and — is there a polite word for it? — flattery, sycophancy, desire to appease bien-pertsant sentiment at almost any cost.
I pass over for now the atrocities the Church has inflicted on the Bible and Prayer Book, though it is very much part of my argument to suggest that the total effect, or at any rate the strongest effect, of these is to help to render unbelievable the doctrine in and behind the original texts. `The Lord be with you, And with thy spirit': that clearly means something, even if we cannot at once paraphrase it. 'The Lord be with you, And also with you' means nothing, can be forgotten. The motive for the assault is possibly less sinister: by destroying its special language, to damage the status of Christianity as something special in itself, something part- ly detached from the things of this world.
From the progressive point of view, the trouble with Christianity is that like other religions, but unlike modern systems of belief, it is pervasively elitist, indeed it has given us the word 'hierarchical'. Although open to all, it imposes rules, difficult rules, and introduces a struggle in which some succeed while others fail. (Think of that!) Most people in it stay ordinary sinners, a very few become saints, who are regarded as much more exalted than anybody else.
The Church should mdve back to where it was before and preach the Christian religion at whatever price y
Parsons or priests, once called 'men of God', know more and know better than the laity, and have or had a special dress to show their difference, accentuated on those (increasingly rare) ostentatious spe- cial occasions. Above priests come archbishops and popes. And above them What makes the Archbishop of Canter- bury most uncomfortable is his sense of being above other people and knowing more and better than they do. To tell them what he knows, especially what he knows about God, and how in the light of that knowledge they ought to lead their lives, would be authoritarian of him, or at best paternalistic. Better to keep quiet about all that. As he put it in his gloom-spreading interview with Bernard Levin in the Times recently:
If we are to have a free society, which is essential if love not power is going to rule the world, then we can't have some people people who believe in God — in a position to order other people what they should believe and how they should behave.
His Grace's embarrassment is fascinatingly highlighted in a point of grammar. To talk of some people telling other people what they should believe sounds too harmless and commonplace. To talk of some people ordering other people to believe this, that or the other sounds daft, not what anyone ever does. So he coins a totally unEnglish construction and talks of some people people who believe in God — being 'in a position to order other people what they should believe'. But of course 'we can't have' the first lot of people in a position to order or tell another lot of people anything at all. What, then, according to the Archbishop, should the Archbishop's posi- tion be?
Faced with all the difficulties of being a clergyman in a free society, most of them understandably shy away from the elitist propounding of doctrine (never the easiest of options) and settle down to discussing `values'. Here at least Jack's view is as good as his master's, and all can agree that compassion and peace, for instance, are what to believe in. More popular than the Trinity, and much more fun, what with speaking out against Mrs Thatcher and demonstrating against the Bomb.
In a free society, in a liberal society, in a secular age, in sceptical times — however the clergy characterise the times, their nervous consensus is that the Church must move with them. Any Christian in the old-fashioned sense, and anybody in InY own position, is likely to feel that this must be wrong. Let the times move as far as they like, the Church should stand still as it has done in the past. Or rather, things having gone as they have, it should move back to where it was before and preach the Christ- ian religion, at whatever price in incompre- hension, indifference and hostility, and wait for the times to return to it if they will. It may be asked — I ask myself — by what right I lay down the law to a Church I have never embraced. Well, as an English- man, I still call it and think of it as my Church. More important, it is my grand- children's Church. I have said that faith is a gift, and so it is, but it requires a living religion to prepare its recipient and to invest it with meaning. A living religion is in turn inseparable from a living, believing, practising Church. Since I want my grand- children to live in a society in which the Christian faith is still possible, I am surely within my rights in demanding the con- tinued existence of the kind of Church that safeguards that possibility. Unlike many other human institutions and practices, but like a language and like literature, its most intimate associates, a religious belief, once no longer current, is dead and gone for ever. (Some years ago I wrote a novel on that theme.) The early Christians foresaw the Parousia or Second Coming as the return of Christ in glory, either to judge the living and the dead and to terminate this world, or to rule it in person for a thousand years. Just as likely it will be much as before, and with everything to do over again. If so, the chances are not bad that there will still be the Jewish religion to build on, as before. But I gather that 'the prevailing Christian tradition' has opposed speculation on the time and manner of the Second Coming. I am sure that this is one part of that tradition that the contemporary Church has unswervingly followed. It has enough trouble with the First.