On a Winter’s Afternoon

Last week, there were only two children at Sunday school at my local parish church – one of them was my eight-year-old son, the other a girl of about the same age. They duly reported back to the congregation, got a round of applause for what they had managed to remember of the story of John the Baptist, and then had great fun chasing each other around the church. The average age of the congregation must be well over 60. Forty years ago, the church hall was full of children.

This morning, mine was the only child in Sunday school. After lighting the Advent candles, he duly went out during the first hymn, accompanied by Sunday school teacher plus helper, and returned later to report back and read out an Advent prayer, for which he got a round of applause – an experience he would never have at school. After the service, he repaired at high speed to the organ loft to play ‘Away in a manger’ with our beloved organist on hand to push in the stops that he was busy pulling out to maximise the volume. Not a bad way to spend Sunday morning.

It’s not a multicultural parish – yet. True, if you close your eyes for a moment in the playground over the road, which serves the estate, you might as well be in Bratislava, Bucharest, or Warsaw. But there are plenty of privileged middle-class professional English living nearby to take advantage of the private schools concentrated in the area. It’s just that they feel no need to go to church.

I am no more selfless, pious or ‘prayerful’ than the next person, and I am more sceptical than most. I cannot pretend that I really believe in the literal truth of the Virgin birth and the Resurrection; and because this is central to the Christian creed, I choose not even to think about it. I cannot even pretend that the prospect of sending my children to a nice Church secondary school has never weighed on my mind. Yet there are moments in the service, the processions, the liturgy, occasionally the sermons, and most of all in the glorious hymns of old, when the Christian message of hope and redemption speaks louder than desiccated reason. I remember during my candlelit confirmation procession, being overwhelmed by the extraordinarily beautiful and moving words of the hymn ‘Come down, O love divine’. The lines that fell like a hammer blow and shattered the impeccably logical premises of my then-under-preparation thesis on the principles of moral philosophy were from the last verse:

And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long,
shall far outpass the power of human telling;
For none can guess its grace, till they become the place
where-in the Holy Spirit finds a dwelling.

Then there is the experience of being part of a congregation of ordinary down-to-earth people who, though not intellectuals or philosophers, are self-evidently, supremely, good and decent. Quite a contrast to the self-righteous self-obsessed social justice warriors of academia for whom personal acts of kindness and generosity merely entrench the status quo and distract from the radical political agitation that would institute the commune.

But there is something else that might make one want to attend church, even the modern-day Church of England, even the church whose hierarchy is so wedded to the tenets of multiculturalism that it cannot publicly support calls by leading Catholics for asylum to be offered to a persecuted Pakistani Christian woman. And that is that it is the Church of England. It is our church, its history is our history, and its yearning for faith, for something beyond material things, is our yearning. To put it crudely, going to church these days is an act of solidarity.

Alfred Sherman, Mrs Thatcher’s erstwhile guru, who was Jewish, encapsulated it in the pages of The Salisbury Review shortly before his death. He wrote, ‘There is a strong resistance to defining the West as Christian. But if so, what is it?’ He went on, ‘democracy describes a system of government, not society’s content’, and warned, ‘Judeo-Christian ethics cannot be treated as an optional extra, without disarming our society.’ T S Eliot had argued this forty years earlier. It is, argues Eliot, ‘against a background of Christianity that all our thought has significance … If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes’.

Are those comfortably-off professionals, the beneficiaries of our national culture, safe for now in their godless suburban enclaves, their tasteful Christmas decorations illuminating tree-lined avenues, aware that their culture hangs by a thread? In Little Gidding, Eliot famously paid tribute to our national church: ‘So, while the light fails, On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel, History is now and England.’ Do these bourgeois liberals know that the light is soon to be extinguished?






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23 Comments on On a Winter’s Afternoon

  1. Do these bourgeois liberals know that the light is soon to be extinguished?

    Of course they do. They are the ones extinguishing the candle.

    They are the ones replacing the tantalisingly serene music with a brutal cacophony, the lyrics of which are little else other than licence and self-pity. England is now a business park.

  2. This discussion is very interesting. However, it is, as I suggested on 18 December, still orbiting round the question of belief, or not. Sorry, the pivotal question is whether the Christian theology is true, or not. That is the matter on which we have to focus our attention. It may be argued that it is not provable, but we can with good conscience disagree.

    For a first step, we need to consider the wonder of the universe, and more particularly of the world, and more particularly still of the bodies, in which we live. They are literally fantastic, as a little thought will indicate, will prove. Some people, sitting on the fence, concede “intelligent design”. Fine, but who was the intelligent designer? Then why is “evolution” so strongly advocated, right across the board? Because, to admit of a supremely intelligent designer, who can be no other than the God of whom we can read in the Bible, is to open the door wide to personal responsibility, personal accountability. So, I can be an ostrich, stick my head in the sand, or turn a Nelsonian blind eye, and say “I can see no God”, so that absolves me of my responsibility, my accountability. Sorry, not so.

    Back now to Christianity. The God of the Bible declares we are all sinners. The same God became incarnate at Christmas – named Jesus, “for he shall save his people from their sins” – and went to the cross on Good Friday to do just that.

    Now these are all facts – or lies, totally regardless of our belief in them or otherwise. Christians are in fact people who have faced up to these questions, recognised the facts as facts, as truth, and taken the first steps to identify themselves with that real Jesus. Those who throw the facts out of the window will one day have to become unacceptably but unavoidably accountable. As is the old saying, that’s their problem. You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

    So, back to where we began – is Christianity true or false? That is the question, to which we have to have an answer. Fortunately that answer is blindingly obvious. Acknowledge it, and belief can easily follow.

  3. “I cannot pretend that I really believe in the literal truth of the Virgin birth and the Resurrection”

    Then what use is all the beautiful liturgy, the songs, the acts of kindness, if you don’t believe this to be the truth? If Christ was not born of a virgin and was not resurrected, then the rest is meaningless.

    This is the real sickness at the heart of our culture and the Church. Even those who like the institution for its baubles are often unwilling to choose to believe in its essence.

    • If the tenets of Christian doctrine were merely literal truths provable through rational argument, then there would be no need for faith. Won’t the nature of our faith, our trust and our belief in God vary from person to person? Though there are those who have had a miraculous conversion experience, there are probably many more for whom faith has been a journey. There may be no ‘leap of faith’. A person might not believe, and yet passionately want to believe. A person might lose their faith and then regain it – or lose it altogether. It may only be through worship and through the act of taking communion over many years that faith is deepened.

      As for essence, it may be that the example of Christ has something to do with it: Love your God with all your heart … and love your neighbour as yourself. I think Queen Elizabeth I got it right when the Church of England was first founded. Attendance was required, but as for doctrinal assent, she declared, ‘I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.’

  4. Another direct assault upon our past and how we got here can be read about in the link below. The Queen’s University of Belfast will not allow any new students to enter the Union Theological College, the complaints from the University authorities include the statement “The undergraduate curriculum in theology, however diverse the subject matter, is taught almost entirely from a particular theological and religious perspective.” This appears to mean that a Christian theological college will not be allowed to fully support Christianity. The crassness of those in charge of almost every institution within the United Kingdom cannot be overestimated. Good things still happen in spite of those in charge never because of them; flowers are put in churches by volunteers, companies function because people in the main ‘want to do a good job’, nurses and doctors still look after patients in spite of NHS management, soldiers show courage and their officers leadership in spite of the senior bureaucrats, and the people voted to leave the EU in spite of the propaganda, bullying and threats of the overpaid. There is hope but it comes from the ordinary Briton from their Christian culture and history, not from the over indulged panjandrums.

    • Lions led by donkeys in almost every Western institution, the backbone of healthy democracies. Schools, Universities, the Judiciary, the Bar, the Civil Service, the Press, political parties, social services, medical services all infiltrated and suborned by liberals.

  5. My nice (attractive, not beautiful) parish averages about 500 people during our 3 non-weekday Masses, plus 20-30 youngsters at the Mass when there’s a children’s liturgy for the little b***ers downstairs so they aren’t miseducated on doctrine during the sermon.

  6. You speak for so many more than just the English, Mr. Miller.

    The point in attending Church is not so much a commitment to the doctrine, although it may be; it could be, it should be. It is all in the ritual, in the communion, in going through the motions, through which a connection with the ancestors is attained. Not doing this because one is too cool for school simply means that the ties that bind one’s present with the past frays, endangering the future. When a young Englishman sometime in the future chances on a review of English society and wonders how it all went wrong, he could begin by exploring the quaint idea of attending mass at the Church of England on the weekend.

    I am not a Christian and cannot speak in depth about the religion. Leave alone the zealotry of the Muslims (five times a day and all that); but a wholesale abandonment of the motions of the religious life does leave society at sea. This applies to any religious practice. The idea of religious observance, whatever it be, is affirmation, especially with the English. I hope it stays; Christianity and all.

  7. The arguments always eventually follow a closing spiral to the point of whether or not one believes in the Christian theology. Whether one believes or not is almost immaterial to the factual point; the real question is “Is it the truth”. No skirmishing, no being clever, it is the pivotal question. It is not a matter of opinion, it is a question of truth, of fact. It has to be a bold person indeed who can say without a quiver, including at Christmas, that Christianity is a lie, that the Gospel records are false, and that Jesus Christ was a liar in making his personal claims. The acceptance of the undergirding Christian theology, along with its moral standards, even by people who were personally not committed, was the strength of our nation in former days. Jumping slightly sideways, I read recently on an American site, that Make America Great Again (MAGA) cannot happen without MAMA – Make America Moral Again. The same applies to the UK. If you have a Bible, look up 2 Chronicles 7:14. And think.

  8. Christianity is not ‘mumbo-jumbo’. Thinking so is the fatal error which has brought our Civilisation – founded in the Church and by the Church – to the edge of perdition.

  9. Mr Miller asks if our culture can be saved and answers no, via Eliot. Another question to be asked is that if Christianity cannot save us, what can?

  10. There is no need to BE Christian or religious in order to acknowledge and support the Christian foundations of Western society. There was both good and bad in Christianity, as in all other religions, but even atheists can take the good and use it as the foundation for a secular society that has a Christian tradition. For example, “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” can be adopted by a post-Christian society unaltered. Atheists can also appreciate the good in Christianity by preserving the wonderful music and architecture it generated without having to sign up to the mumbo-jumbo.

    • All that you say is true Sheilagh, but it doesn’t address the important point about saving our culture. I’m still not sure what can save us, but one thing I do know is that a decadent tribe which believes in nothing can only be subsumed by an austere tribe with a fanatical belief in supremacy.

    • Sheilagh – It goes without saying that the doctrinal tenets of religion are mumbo jumbo from a rational standpoint. The point, surely, is that religious faith answers to a different need, a need most of humanity has felt for most of human history.

      Also, I can’t see how any moral or ethical code (and much else besides) can be justified on purely rational grounds: there are no first principles of ethics that can be deduced rationally a priori – moral principles can only ever be constituted as part of a tradition into which people are habituated. True, Kant came up with transcendental universal principles, and these are invaluable in reinforcing an abstract universal conception of human rights, but they are powerless to motivate individuals to behave well, and they are devoid of the positive content that would give substance to our desire to lead worthwhile lives, as opposed to merely maximising transient pleasure.

      The human need for the sacred, and the place of the church in giving expression to this, has been eloquently described by Roger Scruton (the founder of this magazine) in ‘Our Church’. Do read the last chapter if you can. Of course, the rituals and doctrines of the church, and the very idea of God, cannot be justified by rational argument. They are expressions of our trying coming to terms with the mysteries of life and death, proxies ‘for profound intuitions concerning the nature of God and the kind of love that God encompasses’.

      If one’s response to all this is to be an atheist, then that’s fine. But the question remains ‘can the Christian tradition survive the demise of the Christian church?’ Like Paul Weston, I suspect that the answer is ‘no’. If the church goes, and most people’s desire for ‘higher values’ remains, Western secular society as we know it will disintegrate and be replaced by something very different. It might, for example, be Islam. Or it might be the commune – an atheist utopia.

      • Sadly, it’s hardly surprising that your church is devoid of the young when you, someone who takes the trouble to bring his son to church, cannot ‘really’ believe in the essentials of faith.

        Calling yourself a Christian and going through the motions whilst not accepting its most basic and necessary beliefs is completely irrational. A belief in God is not. Religious faith, lived in accordance with the tenets of that religion, is entirely logical and rational (where are the contradictions or non-sequiturs in the Apostle’s Creed?). The rationality here is in the processes of thought, not the truth or otherwise of the claims of the religion (that is why belief is faith-based – no one can prove or disprove God).

        Roger Scruton’s book ‘England: an elegy’ provides a heartbreakingly beautiful account of the decline of Anglicanism and, by extension, the death of England. The history of England is in its churches, not in its media or schools. No wonder the secular establishment is so keen to marginalise them.

        As brilliant as Eliot is, as eloquent as Scruton is, Christianity cannot thrive in a purely nostalgic, poetic or intellectual sphere. Pray for faith. Get on your knees in front of the tabernacle and stay there until you believe everything that being a Christian demands – the Virgin Birth, Miracles, the Resurrection – until you literally believe them and are unafraid to say so. When you stagger to your feet you will be a different man; someone who can evangelise; someone who can say he ran the race.

      • In reply to Mr Miller’s points:

        1. Faith supplying a need
        Religion supplied a need in a pre-scientific world; it also provided (and still provides for some) a framework for bearing the inevitable suffering in this “vale of tears”.

        But religious faith requires accepting as axiomatic propositions which are the starting point of enquiry for non-believers/infidels. Belief is simply a refusal to question, a dereliction of one’s intellectual faculties. Religion also enables bigotry and righteousness, which can lead to the most atrocious crimes against humanity ever imagined. Religious people say that religious wars are not the fault of religion itself, but religion provides easy excuses for criminal behavior: e.g. the recent Yazidi genocide for their being kaffr without a “Book”, and for being “devil-worshippers”.

        2. No moral framework possible without Christianity?
        And of course you can have a moral framework without religion, even if it is informed by religious doctrines: do unto your neighbor as you would have him do unto you makes perfect pragmatic sense and doesn’t require the blessing of a higher being.

        Christianity is not a prerequisite for a moral society. Take Japan, for example. There you have a vibrant 2,000-year-old culture, a strong civic society and an ethos of respect, politeness and gratitude and consideration for others drummed into them from a young age, an astonishingly low crime rate for an urban, modern, high-tech nation while being mostly irreligious (Shinto and Buddhism are seen more as a rich tradition (the charming founding myths, the stories about the Buddha and the myriad Bodhisattva do-gooders who stayed behind to help others etc.) rather than something which people actually believe.

        3. Loss of culture without Christianity?
        You mischaracterize a secular society as falling into materialism and believing in “nothing”. Admittedly atheists illogically positively state their belief in no higher being, but both atheists and agnostics are capable of comprehending the mystery of the Universe (I suppose one could call this sense a sort of spirituality, but not in a religious sense of believing in a higher being – it remains just that: a mystery which may not or need not be solved by humans).

        I love your UK churches (York Minster, Wells Cathedral, St. Paul’s) just as much as you do; a secular society would preserve them, just as the Japanese preserve their temples and shrines, of which they are justly proud (even while they make jokes about worldly monks and mumbo-jumbo sutras, recited in Sanskrit and Classical Chinese, so few modern people, who lack the required education in their Classics, have any idea what they mean anyway!).

        Christianity is a better bad choice than most other religions because it has been denatured and attenuated by the Age of Reason and The Enlightenment, and by The Invention of Science (it is inconceivable now that Christians would murder or enslave those who refused to convert; they now just get tetchy), but no religious control would be an even better choice.

        A genuinely secular society would also be a robust bulwark against the moving into the vacuum created by the privatization of religion (i.e. a guarantee of freedom of conscience but insistent on disestablishment) of less benign brands of mumbo-jumbo.

    • Why preserve the architecture and music if it’s based on mumbo jumbo? Preserving the tenet of ‘do undo others’ because it’s pragmatic will not last long simply because it won’t always be pragmatic. Why turn to the light when the dark can serve you better?

      There are indeed admirable ethics in other religions and among the non-religious. However, a businesswoman of my acquaintance who has lived in Japan is of the view that Japanese men effortlessly combine politeness with misogyny.

      Alistair Miller’s article focuses, like a lot of this sort of discussion, on the society that Christianity creates through its influence on custom, habit and law. Yet this was never its original purpose. The faith declares that there is a mysterious need for human beings to be saved. The living of a morally upright life – even if consistently possible – while being commendable cannot yield whatever this salvation is.

      The very description of this need for salvation as mumbo jumbo is evidence of our downward gravitation. In terms of our actual moral performance week by week we are like someone who looks in a mirror and then goes away and forgets what he is really like. Wanting to be morally upright without a Divine authority is human nature wanting to take the throne, and ultimately to do whatever it wishes, cloaked with self-approval. The human heart is deceitful above everything else. And no one knows their own heart truly until they have seen Christ.

      • >Why preserve the architecture and music if it’s based on mumbo jumbo?
        Fair question, but answered easily enough. Because they’re beautiful to behold, hear and play. One doesn’t have to enquire into why something was produced or even agree with the sentiments in order to like something.

        >Pragmatic. Perhaps I should have written “rational” (and therefore enduring).

        Misogynistic Japanese men: a sweeping generalization. Some are, but most foreigners under-estimate Japanese women – most of them are mentally tough as saddle leather and know how to get exactly what they want. The men work 7-11 and 24/7 with no vacations and low pay and are made to feel unwelcome by the wife if they arrive home early, while the women spend all their time browsing in shops and dallying in fancy restaurants complaining to their friends about what losers their husbands are…also a sweeping generalization, but since WWII the misogyny in Japan is hardly on a par with most other parts of the world.

        Divine authority necessary for a moral framework? I think you are missing the point: divine authority is a human creation too. You probably mean that it is a good idea to postulate a higher being who gives immutable laws that humans will then all follow, but I think that man-made rules agreed by all, such as the criminal and civil codes in various countries, work better as they appeal to reason rather than just depending on blind acceptance.

        Also, the problem with divine authority is that it gives its adherents an unjustified sense of superiority over others – religion, like patriotism, can also be the last refuge of righteous scoundrels.

        Salvation: humans are indeed fallible (sinful?), and there is room for a discussion about shame vs guilt cultures here, and the importance of acknowledging being in error (contrition and hummility are important virtues in a secular society too). The Chaucer solution was to purchase a pardon; in some Buddhist sects you just incant a short prayer (Hail Lord Buddha!) and you’re saved!