Will the last Christian in post-COVID Britain please turn out the lights? | Joseph Prebble
With appropriate April sunshine and full regalia, Prince Philip has finally been laid to rest. In a ceremony that included a Lesson from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, a personally chosen Psalm, and nods to his Greek Orthodox background, the service put on its fullest display the country’s Christian faith. For a moment you could forget the very public scandals of some of his progeny and the virtual apostasy on the part of the Archbishop. It was Britain as it can be, or once was. Yet the Abbey was nearly empty but for the tiny number of permitted mourners, all taking care to wear black masks and maintain inch-perfect social distancing. Thus they maintained as much decorum as possible while avoiding the consequences of any infraction of the rules.
Perhaps they had learned from the Church of Christ the King, Balham. After a week of hurt the Metropolitan Police issued a not-quite-apology for its interruption of a Catholic worship a couple of weeks ago, expressing ‘deep regret’ that ‘many people were very upset’. Midway through a Polish service of the Good Friday Office at Christ the King, two detectives had entered and made their way to the Sanctuary. In footage that spread like, well, a virus across social media, one of the officers was directed to the lectern by the priest and offered the opportunity to explain the interruption. Informed that ‘this gathering is unfortunately unlawful under the coronavirus regulations’, the parishioners filed out under threat of fines and arrests. Had these officers, of the force they represented, no regard for the sacred? How could they impose themselves on a solemn Christian service filled with worshippers with no apparent mal-intent whatsoever? The answer is that they were enforcing the guidelines as they were written. Why would an Office for Good Friday, or any other religious service, be treated differently from a common gathering? Why wouldn’t these representatives of the law do exactly as the law tells them to do?
It became a sort of Clause IV moment for this ostensibly Christian country. Of course we’re not a Christian country. Not in the slightest. It is true that the edifices of Christianity remain embedded around us, whether in architecture, street and town names, Biblical idioms, or the twelve jurors that judge the case of any defendant. This is the afterglow of Christianity, as Peter Hitchens has often put it. If the culture has drifted from any trace of religion, further still from it is the politics that naturally flows downstream from culture. If it was supposed previously that, while American politicians had to pretend to be Christian in order to be elected, British politicians had to pretend not to be Christian, the pandemic has provided more evidence. Members on both sides of the Commons waved through restrictions that shut the doors of places of worship overnight with few objections. For all that the government is accused of being drawn from too narrow a group – whether too white, too male, too Oxonian and Cantabrigian, too wealthy, or too able-bodied – it is altogether too irreligious if meant to be a reflection of British society. Even supposed Catholic hardliner Jacob Rees-Mogg obediently voted through restrictions banning the public celebration of his beloved Tridentine Rite. Although if you write to your MP in objection, they will most probably tut at the closures and will understand places of worship as abstract sources of emotional sustenance in their community, the vast majority will not share the attachment that their religious constituents have to their places of worship, much less attend one themselves.
Recently, Sir Keir Starmer visited Jesus House in Brent and praised the leaders for their assistance with the vaccination programme and provision of a food bank. Little sooner was the footage up than members within his party demanded a disavowal and apology. The misdemeanour on the part of the church, and in turn by Starmer, was its teachings on same-sex relationships and abortion. There was no suggestion on the part of the clip that Starmer endorsed anything beyond the church’s civic efforts, and at most its existence as a community hub of worshippers. Nonetheless, no association is too remote and, in a distancing that would exclude the Labour Party from the vast majority of Christian churches, including all Catholic and Anglican churches, the video was taken down and an apology issued, followed by a statement reaffirming the Labour Party’s ‘unwavering in its support for the LGBT+ community and a woman’s right to access safe abortions’.
Perhaps Christianity is just not in vogue. Encompassing all denominations, it enjoys neither any lasting cultural footing nor the sympathetic position of a minority religion; after all, a 2019 estimate from the Office for National Statistics put the Christian population at 56.6% of England. This figure is moving firmly in one direction, with a November 2020 YouGov poll putting the proportion of 18-24-year olds believing in a God at 23%. In just about any mid-sized town one will find a church of one denomination or another boarded up or repurposed. No doubt many hanging on for dear life now are destined to a similar fate within a decade. They could become rather like some of the JD Wetherspoon watering holes that have taken over disused churches throughout the country. Alternatively, they could be sold for property, demolished, bought by some eatery chain or, worst of all, taken over by the Jesuits.
If this was already the trend, the pandemic has shut them, and their services, off more. Even if their doors are open, one can, and usually must, book; rarely can one just stroll in. And so churches, and all other places or worship, become ever more as rigid furniture in their localities, with some onerous online form standing between the stranger and admission. No longer, at least for the moment, will a service see a travelling family looking for somewhere to fulfil their obligation, or an indifferent passer-by drawn in by the beauty or just curiosity, or some faraway young chap making his monthly visit in the vain hope of seeing his crush.
How fitting that the catalyst has been a virus that has mutated into a sort of religion itself, complete with commandments and enforcement squad. There is nothing necessarily wrong with sensible restrictions on a invisible virus that is practically a death sentence – and quite a torturous one – for hundreds of thousands of people, nor a common effort to acknowledge and work within them. But from credentialed scientists suggesting that some restrictions may be permanent, to social media users that shriek at people lawfully enjoying newly recovered freedoms in Soho streets or boast of their double masks, a new system of absolute good and evil has taken hold very, very quickly. Traditional observance is firmly in second place, with not even any embrace forthcoming for the Queen sitting alone at her husband’s funeral for fear of the popular backlash. After all, plenty of commoners had been forbidden from embracing a lone widow, parent, sibling, or child at a funeral, though why people who would so rigidly observe this stricture rather than offer comfort should be emulated is another question.
It was in keeping with a life of dutiful obedience to common law in spite of her elevated position. This subordination has seen the supreme governor of the Church of England sign into law the legalisation of abortion, the Thatcherite ruin of Sunday trading laws, the unlawful invasion of Iraq, and the slamming shut of church doors. To do otherwise would have destroyed the monarchy; to do as she has done has made its state religion a laughing stock. How, then, can ceremonial Christianity seem anything more than an old-fashioned eccentricity amongst a generation with access to more materialist explanations for the world and its phenomena than at any point in history? And who is to say whether, or for how how long, we can continue to enjoy its moral precepts while their roots are largely dismissed in public life? Belief in a higher set of ideals, beyond human tinkering, has guarded the liberties and dignities of the believing and non-believing alike including those who, like Roger Scruton, assent to ‘the religion of the English, who don’t believe a word of it’.
Although corruption is a byword in politics and the religious are no more immune to it than the irreligious (as any Vatican auditor will confirm), how much easier it is when officials have only embarrassment to fear and honesty is no longer absolute? Could a Secretary of State otherwise ride out the awarding of contracts to a firm in which he had shares? So we should acknowledge our new enlightenment and see where it will take us. Certainly there is hope, such as in the many Catholics kneeling outside Christ the King on Easter morning, whence many of them had been evicted by the police, rather than miss Mass. No longer reinforced by common observance, law, education, music, art, television, film, politics, the faith must instead adopt a counter-cultural, missionary status and dwell in the hearts of believers, where no officer of the law or bootlicking apologist can touch it.