The newspapers have just loved Dr George Carey’s recent intervention over the future of the Church of England. But of note is the article by A N Wilson in the Daily Telegraph, occasioned by the Carey sermon.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10460230/Lord-Careys-vision-for-the-Church-might-kill-it-off.html. I suggest that it is well worth reading for a realistic assessment of where Christianity – not just the Church of England – is in Britain. Wilson argues that two attitudes are now so deeply entrenched in the majority consciousness that they are hardly questioned. The first is the acceptance of sexual relations at whatever point in a relationship two people want it. This is so far from the Church’s teaching that the sexual relationship belongs only within the married life of a man and woman, as to make the moral position of Christians incomprehensible to the modern mind.
There is a second attitude and Wilson considers it fundamental to the Church’s difficulty in engaging with this generation. This is the widespread inability to believe in the supernatural. In a poem once widely read in schools and at Carol Services, the late poet laureate, John Betjeman, summed up Christmas:
…. that God was Man in Palestine/and lives today in Bread and Wine …
Incarnation – Eucharist – incomprehensible without belief in the power of miracle – and therefore incomprehensible, and largely irrelevant, to the secularised society of western Europe.
There is a certain wistfulness, even sadness, towards the end of Wilson’s article. Indeed, he compares the loss of religious faith with its habits of prayer to the enjoyment of classical music which, we are told, is catastrophically on the wane in Britain. This is no trivial comparison, for the music of centuries of great composers and performers is an integral part of the civilisation of Europe and the movement of its people from darkness to light. To lose such music from the common experience would be to return to the Dark Ages. And the demise of Christian belief, morality and practice, would that also be a return to the darkness?
Like Wilson, I too am 63. The loss of the religious experience of life, like the loss of classical music to ordinary people, has largely happened in my lifetime. How have we allowed such a disaster to befall our age and time? I take this question to be one for society, and not just for the Church.
Some years ago my connections with the 59 Club led me to ask what happened to the highly successful church-led youth clubs of the fifties and sixties. I came to the conclusion, as I wrote then that “the young people of this country were not so much lost to the Church as stolen from her, and that by the forces of an aggressive commercialisation of music, fashion, and interests.” It was vital, in order to relieve impressionable adolescents of their money, that they should be separated from the wisdom and influence of older people. Institutions – schools, the Church, parents and family, politicians, the police – which might advise caution or a longer term view were lampooned and ridiculed in the creation of a ‘generation gap’ which was now under the control of the exploiters.
The painful results of fifty years of such exploitation is now becoming clear: the breakdown of the family and loneliness in later life which stems from divorce, the loss of the fun and innocence of childhood, the banality and ugliness of so much supposedly ‘popular’ music, drunkenness and drug taking, and the evil of abortion. There is widespread cynicism about politics and the people who engage in it, and little vision for the future. A world of celebrities is paraded before us, grossly overpaid, loud-mouthed and protected from criticism by the deference of the media. Their opinions are sought and their life-style imitated. And behind them, pulling their strings – the money makers. We believe ourselves to be free, and yet we are continually manipulated. We hear constant calls for openness and transparency, and yet those who would call us to a better way of life and to a fuller way of living are ignored and silenced.
A N Wilson is right to be sad for a lost way of life. The recovery of a better way , of something lovelier and truer, will be very difficult. Just as it is unthinkable that the music of the ages should be lost to the trivial racket pumped out over the loudspeakers in our supermarkets, so it must be unthinkable that the wisdom of two thousands years of Christianity should be given up without a (spiritual) fight.
An American writer, Francis Kelly, comments “We have undergone a major cultural shift in this (past) century, and it has left a profound impact on society and therefore on the Church. It is pastorally crucial to acknowledge and to accept this changed … context … and to see it as a pastoral challenge…. The new sociocultural situation needs to be faced with tranquillity and with a spirit of discernment. As in the past, it is filled with positive and negative factors, opportunities and perils.” F D Kelly – The Mystery we proclaim – p.31