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?