Why the Church of England is our best defence against religious enthusiasm
It couldn’t happen here, they say. We are unlike the Americans. The English are viscerally sceptical of religious enthusiasm — always have been. Waves of evangelism in our history the Nonconformist movement for example have been comparatively mild affairs, broadly benevolent. It is inconceivable that a religious Right in Britain could ever co-ordinate the muscle and confidence to bully prime ministers in the way its American counterparts bully presidents.
Well, is it inconceivable? Usually I incline to think so, but there are moments in the dead of night when one wonders if that kind of thing really might catch on here. Are we so different from our American cousins? The grip of faith on the poor or distressed is easy to account for — as Nietzsche said of the Church, ‘to abolish any distress ran counter to its deepest advantages’ — but religious certainty in a rich and confident society like America is harder to explain. Wealth there is doing nothing to weaken faith among a substantial minority. Why should we be confident that this minority might not find a voice here too?
Some time ago I was part of a skiing holiday in Switzerland in which a couple of our group were those Alpha people. They were not among Nietzsche’s distressed; they were young, they were rich, they were confident and pretty; they had careers and sports cars. They were a perfectly sophisticated young couple — and pleasant company with it. They were genuinely nice people.
But they thought they were Saved. Something had gone wrong in a small part of their brains, and it made their demeanour slightly yet potently odd: like those people you encounter whose English is flawless — better than yours — and you cannot put your finger on what’s missing, and who turn out to be Dutch.
So could religious enthusiasm cross the Atlantic? I watch the idiocies of the Terri Schiavo case in Florida, watch the antics of evangelical ultras in Britain blackmailing charities out of accepting the proceeds of shows they consider blasphemous, watch Tory nostrils twitch as what the media were ready to call a ‘gaffe’ by Michael Howard over abortion turned out not to be, and watch Tony Blair’s attempts to have it both ways by flattering an evangelical ‘Faithworks’ audience while trying to extract from the visit the headline that he doesn’t want to mix faith with politics. I watch these things, and wonder. And an unexpected twinge troubles me. I’m beginning to miss the good old Church of England. Was she perhaps on the agnostics’ side all along? As the Established Church flounders I ask myself whether it might, after all, be a pity if she sinks. Having railed against bishops, flocks and frocks all my life, having thumbed my nose at simpering Anglicanism, having mocked woolly minds and shaken my tiny journalistic fist at the miasma of amiable evasion which passes for doctrine in the English Church, an awful thought occurs. Was that the wrong target? Have I spent my life as an atheist trying to break down what has in fact been our nation’s sturdiest bulwark against serious Christian belief?
Could it be that for centuries the Church of England has been riding the punches of religious enthusiasm, absorbing the blows and protecting national life from its shock? Was there perhaps a point to all that cotton wool?
‘Sir,’ said Bishop Joseph Butler to John Wesley in the middle of the 18th century, ‘the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing.’ The Established Church of which the lucid Butler was part understood in her bones two great truths: the English are wary about religion; but the English do not want to be atheists. To the English mind, atheism itself carries an unpleasant whiff of enthusiasm. To the English mind the universe is a very mysterious thing, and should be allowed to remain so.
And so the Anglican Church became what right up to our own day it has always remained: a God-fearing receptacle for intelligent doubt; the marrying of a quietist belief in order, duty, decency and the evident difference between right and wrong with a shrewd suspicion that anyone who thinks he can be sure of more than that is probably dangerous. The ground of existing Christian custom and practice was the obvious site for the Church of England’s foundation, but in other times and circumstances she could have been founded equally securely on paganism, Zoroastrianism or Islam. The formula would have been essentially the same: mount no central challenge to the orthodoxy of the day; indulge the human need for a ritual bending of the knee to something or other Big; and get on with the job of leading, and helping others lead, an honourable and ordered life.
The recent death of my old housemaster in Africa, R.A. Roseveare, has prompted these thoughts. I have known too many good men who set good examples — gently inspirational, strong and kind but whose actual beliefs never quite surfaced — to be unaware of the potency of the unspecific. The architecture of an Established Church has made a shape and a shelter for doubts which nevertheless know their duty.
That, right at the centre of our national life, should for so long have stood this great and lovely edifice of sort-of religion, adorned (through her buildings, her rituals, her art and her music) with so much beauty, so much grace and so much balm for troubled spirits, and served in her priesthood by so many luminously decent men, has surely for centuries helped confound atheism on the one hand, and serious religious enthusiasm on the other. Not so much religious belief as religious relief, this has calmed everybody down. ‘You really don’t need to decide’ has been Anglicanism’s refrain, ‘and besides, who knows?’ Jesus or Mohammed, who did know, would have raged against it.
I cannot but think, therefore, that the slow collapse of the Church of England over the last half century and the strange recent twitchings of religious muscle in our country may be related. A writer, cricketer and friend, Ed Smith, has for years been telling me he thinks that in the history of European thought, and after a thousand years of tense and awkward co-existence, ours may be the epoch when Faith and Reason must agree to go their separate ways.
In a million comfortable vacuities and by a million evasions, ducking every certainty, the Church of England has tried to postpone that irretrievable breakdown. The attempt has often been risible, but we may miss her when she’s gone, for Faith unchained is a horrid thing. Nobody asked me for an Easter message last week, but it would have been this: Unbelievers all, join your local Church of England!
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.