Christians need to find some old-time zeal
There’s little reason for us Christians to cry “Praise be!” about yesterday’s decision by the European Court of Human Rights. Nadia Eweida won her right to wear a cross as a BA employee, but a nurse was denied a similar right when it infringed health and safety regulations and two public servants were told that they couldn’t refuse to carry out work that contradicted their beliefs on homosexuality. The ECHR has green-lit the bearing of religious symbols but denied the freedom of Christians to articulate the beliefs that those symbols imply.
The patriot in me sees this as a classic example of Europe telling us what to do, that these plaintiffs are the theological equivalent of the metric martyrs. But the Christian in me understands that the judgment reflects a pattern of de-Christianisation within Britain itself. We are no longer the voice of a presumed majority, but rather the voice of one minority among many. Our right to practise what we believe is, understandably, being weighed up against the rights of those who don’t agree with us – with a slight bias towards the latter. It’s Christianity versus modernity, and modernity is winning.
Take gay marriage. Although the Government insists that no church will be compelled to carry out gay marriages, more than 1,000 Catholic priests wrote a letter to this newspaper last week protesting that equalities legislation makes a nonsense of this guarantee and that attempts to legalise gay marriage amount to the renewal of historic persecution against Catholics. I, too, am a Catholic – and the idea that the wedding of Adam and Steve can be likened to Cromwell’s rampage across Ireland strikes me as hysterical. But it reflects a wider panic among religious conservatives – the fear that a metropolitan political establishment is conspiring against us.
It is certainly historically unusual that the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Prime Minister are self-described atheists, while the Prime Minister ascribes to a faith as noncommittal (and, one suspects, expedient) as his position on Europe. But our elites aren’t that distant from the values of their constituents. The 2011 census showed that the proportion of Britons describing themselves as Christian fell in the past decade from 71.7 per cent to 59.3 per cent. Although technically still a majority, if you interrogated that 59.3 per cent as to what they mean by “Christian”, then you’d probably find the traditional definition being imaginatively stretched.
A 2012 survey by the Theos think tank found that only 31 per cent believe Jesus rose from the dead and 41 per cent believe in life after death; 25 per cent prefer the very un-Christian notion of reincarnation.
Moreover, the real test of a living faith is public worship – and C of E attendance has fallen to a pitiful 1.5 per cent or so of the population. To put this in perspective, every year fewer children are baptised in an Anglican church than there are people who told the census that they are practising Jedi.
Secularists who try to tell us that Britain has never really “done” Christianity anyway need to Google it. Christianity has shaped our culture and constitution. And far from having always adhered to a mythical English reasonableness, it has often “out-fundamentalled” the American fundamentalists.
For instance, today’s Quakers might seem a dwindling sect bordering on agnosticism, but there was a time when they were a mass movement that threatened the social order of England. Although nominally pacifists, they outraged the religious establishment of the 17th century by disrupting church services and preaching nude in imitation of the prophet Isaiah. On July 29 1667, Samuel Pepys wrote: “A man, a Quaker, came naked through the [Westminster] Hall, only very civilly tied about the privates to avoid scandal, and with a chafing-dish of fire and brimstone burning upon his head… crying, 'Repent! repent!’ ”
But the apocalyptic universe of British Christianity in the 17th century was followed by the relative spiritual malaise of the 18th, when many Church of England temples stood empty. The history of religious observance in Britain is thus one of peaks and troughs. In the mid-19th century, Anglican church attendance hit about 50 per cent. But while we imagine the Fifties were an age of cultural conservatism, attendance by then had fallen to 25 per cent.
None the less, the key difference between the Britain of the Fifties and the Britain of today is the decline in passive identification with Christianity. About 67 per cent of infants were baptised in the post-war years, reflecting an almost subconscious association between national and religious identity. You were born British, so you were born Christian – and you were taught what that meant in schools. Faith permeated society to the degree that it shaped attitudes towards sexual practice and even the opening hours of shops. It affected politics, too. Recall the old saying that the Labour Party is “more Methodism than Marx”.
So this is what has changed. In our new consumer-driven, postmodern order, Christians have to compete with people pushing other religions or no religion at all. We no longer enjoy a privileged status in the popular imagination. And while it’s easy to blame politicians and courts for this, responsibility ultimately lies with the true believers. The only thing that will renew British Christianity is to drop all the lazy presumptions that Britain is basically Christian, and start again from scratch. If Christians want their country back then they need to drop the complaining and rediscover some of that Quaker zeal. Preferably without the nudity.
Dr Tim Stanley is a historian of the United States. His biography of Pat Buchanan is out now. His personal website is www.timothystanley.co.uk and you can follow him on Twitter @timothy_stanley.