Sir David Amess and Britain’s Christian Problem | Oscar Yuill
Until last week I had never heard of Sir David Amess. Nor was I ever likely to. Though interested in political philosophy, I am far from a political junkie and could name no more than a few backbenchers. Given the circumstances of his death, therefore, I rather wish I had never heard of him: no news is better than bad news.
His death has had more of an effect on me than I thought it would, chiefly because he was a Roman Catholic. This might seem by-the-by. Certainly it does nothing to make his death more or less tragic than anyone else’s. The reason it looms large in my own estimation, however, is that I recently decided to join the Roman Catholic Church myself. As with any convert to any religion, I continue to have my reservations. With each step forward comes the shuffle backwards, away from the ledge from which I know I shall have to leap.
Reading about Amess’ faith, I was reminded of an evening about three years ago, when I first became interested in Roman Catholicism. I was helping to serve food at a soup kitchen beneath St. Patrick’s, Soho Square. Afterwards, the organiser (and son of a novelist I much admire) said to me, ‘That was Catholicism in action.’
Here cynicism — not all of it irrational, alas — rears its mug; the Catholic Church has much to answer for. But it can also answer for much that is good, and, judging by David Amess’ life, his seemingly boundless energy for the pro-life cause, animal welfare, women suffering from endometriosis, etc., it’s clear that his own faith was a potent motivator.
Which brings me to frankly the most infuriating aspect of the whole sordid case. That is, Essex police refusing to allow Amess’ parish priest, Father Jeff Woolnough, to administer Last Rites. This on the grounds that only emergency personnel were allowed past the cordon. It didn’t take long for all sorts of excuses on behalf of this decision to proliferate on social media. None of them bear scrutiny. Many were outright bigoted.
Last Rites is a sacrament. As such, it is of extreme importance for dying Catholics. It is absurd to think that Amess would not have wished to receive it.
Then again, it is absurd to suppose that the powers that be — the police, the media, universities, and much of the population — any longer have even a rudimentary knowledge of the merest Christianity. Or, if such a knowledge exists, it is downplayed.
I have encountered this personally many times. I will aver, for example, to the simple fact that Christianity has furnished the West with our metaphysics, our calendar, huge swathes of our metaphor, idiom, and allegory, our ethical presuppositions (as even Nietzsche, though for critical reasons, accepted), our art and architecture, our imaginations, and so on; and that our rapid disavowal of this edifice may have unintended consequences. Not an especially controversial statement, one would have thought.
The usual response involves pointing out the fractures in Christendom, the differences in theology, lingering paganism, Jewish and Muslim diasporas; followed by a slipshod dismantling of the very possibility of a coherent culture or civilisation which sounds as though it were lifted straight from the pages of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. As though (I think, sighing) I was unaware of these exceptions; unaware that culture can and should change; unaware that Christendom was not Utopia; unaware of the existence and contributions of other religions; as though, for that matter, I even support the notion of Christendom (which I do not). And so, in the minds of my interlocuters, Christianity has had little more than a coincidental relationship with the last 1,500 years of European history, and anyone who says otherwise probably would have admired Franco, no?
Well, no, indeed. At any rate Britain, which since at least the eighteenth century has had a rickety and fluctuating relationship with the Faith, is no longer a Christian country. I very much doubt the police officer who blocked Fr. Woolnough’s entry had ever heard of a sacrament, let alone the Extreme Unction that it was Amess’ right to receive as he lay dying; just as I very much doubt that the police officers who stormed a Polish Catholic Church during lockdown had ever heard of Good Friday.
Fifty years ago (let us say), a Catholic priest would without doubt have been considered ‘emergency personnel’ if the victim were Catholic. To David Amess, Fr. Woolnough was ‘emergency personnel’. He was ‘emergency personnel’ to anyone capable of putting their prejudices aside and seeing things from Amess’ point of view.
The truth is that Britain is fast becoming an anti-Christian country. It gets no free passes. Its public expressions are treated with ridicule. By the far-left it is lumped in vaguely with past evils such as colonialism (never mind that Christians are the most persecuted religious minority on earth by a long, long shot: a fact of which few are aware because it seldom reported). By cosy metropolitan liberals it is made synonymous with bigotry. The police despise it — in part, I suspect, because it’s an easy target. Its adherents don’t tend to fight back.
I suppose the only exception to this rule, at least from my own experience, is that large but diminishing portion of largely Anglican Christians for whom the Faith means being nice. Insofar as the Church of England has capitulated to the zeitgeist — BLM; ‘decolonising’ church statues and memorials; the equality and diversity ideology — this kind of Christian is considered harmless by the powers that be. Jesus (à la John Robinson) preached some nice things. Though much in the Bible is evidently metaphorical or allegorical, God forbid any of it is literal. Archbishop Justin Welby can dismantle the parish system, surrender to Caesar (aka Al ‘Boris’ Johnson) by closing the churches for the first time since the 12th century without so much as a fuss, and broadcast services from his kitchen. Fluffy vicars can air their banalities on Thought for the Week. And none of it much matters because, as I say, this kind of Christianity, which I don’t doubt has its peculiarly English charms, is seen to be harmless.
Conversely, insofar as Roman Catholic Christianity (let alone Eastern Orthodox or certain strains of fundamentalist Protestantism) upholds a more full-blooded version of the Faith: to that extent are they the scapegoat. I can’t say that certain of the Church’s teachings on e.g. homosexuality or contraception don’t trouble me. But I also understand that, while Catholics are obliged to submit their judgment to the Magisterium’s, the history of the Church is in large part the history of sinners becoming saints. Some of my favourite Catholics — C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Wilde, Beardsley, Waugh, David Jones — thought that it was better to sin inside the Church than out; and the Church, however much hardliners and integralists and crypto-fascists doth protest, has benefitted greatly from the intellectual agitation this has fostered.
Perhaps this is a kind of cowardice; perhaps, as I like to think, it is something more nuanced. At any rate there is something tragically funny in the spectacle of your average middle-of-the-road liberal becoming outraged when a Catholic says something Catholic. The Pope upholds Catholic teaching? Shock-horror! A prominent Catholic politician can’t support abortion or same-sex marriage? What next, a Buddhist defending reincarnation?
None of which is to say that non-Catholics don’t have every right to criticise such views. If they want to, they should. It is, however, very telling that they should shock anyone. If ignorance is bliss, after all, so is enlightenment discombobulating. The reason such views are increasingly pathologised as phobias — irrational hatreds — is because it hasn’t occurred to the pathologisers that someone might have a motive other than hatred for believing them.
As it happens, my experience of Catholics — both Roman and Anglo- — has generally been quite a welcoming one. Where disagreement on sexuality, for instance, has been voiced, it has never been voiced with anything other than recourse to Church teaching.
My experience of the opposite has been quite different. In my own town on the Essex coast, a Reverend and town councillor was subjected to weeks of quite astonishing vitriol (all in the name of tolerance of course) simply for having expressed, in rather mild language, his opposition to gay marriage. Despite his having said that he had no issue at all with flying the pride flag during pride week, this man — in his late 80s — was called a bigot, a homophobe, a scumbag; he was forced, effectively, into hiding; and inaugurated, as a response, the festooning of the high street with the new, and extremely contentious, pride flag that was designed in none other than Portland, Oregon, where a version of that same ideology has contributed to soaring murder rates (defund the police), racial tension, and one attempt at secession.
British Christians have a right to feel beleaguered. And it won’t matter to their enemies when they become, as they are fast becoming, just another minority faith in the multicultural smelting pot. The work of deconstruction is already underway, as institutions such as Humanists UK – entirely at peace with the prevailing orthodoxy that has infected the police, corporations, the government itself – seek to deny that Christianity ever commanded our minds, hearts and affections. Those Christians who speak out against this revisionism will be accused of hyperbole and of dog-whistling to fellow ‘bigots’. But it’s the dog that hears the whistle.
Some years ago I read a book called The Lord of the World (1907) by Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson. While in some respects strikingly similar to Orwell’s 1984 (Benson, like Orwell, divides his world into warring superstates), Benson’s dystopia has proved less palatable to posterity. But in my opinion it is much the more prophetic.Britain is ruled by a single-party State on the principles of Marxism, atheism and secular humanism. And near the beginning we have the following:
Mabel scarcely knew what happened next; but she found herself a moment later forced forward by some violent pressure from behind, till she stood shaking from head to foot, with some kind of smashed body of a man moaning and stretching at her feet. There was a sort of articulate language coming from it; she caught distinctly the names of Jesus and Mary; then a voice hissed suddenly in her ears:
‘Let me through. I am a priest.’
She stood there a moment longer, dazed by the suddenness of the whole affair, and watched almost unintelligently the grey-haired young priest on his knees, with his coat torn open, and a crucifix out; she saw him bend close, wave his hand in a swift sign, and heard a murmur of a language she did not know. Then he was up again, holding the crucifix before him, and she saw him begin to move forward into the midst of the red-flooded pavement, looking this way and that as if for a signal. Down the steps of the great hospital on her right came figures running now, hatless, each carrying what looked like an old-fashioned camera. She knew what those men were, and her heart leaped in relief. They were the ministers of euthanasia. Then she felt herself taken by the shoulder and pulled back, and immediately found herself in the front rank of a crowd that was swaying and crying out, and behind a line of police and civilians who had formed themselves into a cordon to keep the pressure back.
Many of Amess’ constituents have claimed that they suspect his Catholicism may well have made him a target for the man who killed him. If this is true then, odium fidei, Sir David Amess was a martyr.