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28 February 2000

The last days of the Protestants

Who takes religion seriously now? Only those who can use it to fuel old animosities

By John Lloyd

Must faith be blind? It is an old question, revived in the latest E L Doctorow novel, City of God, by the hero, an Episcopalian preacher. Not by chance an Episcopalian; for it would have to be a Protestant – a rational, thoughtful, moderate, Episcopalian clergyman – who, above all other priests, would after a while come to think that what he is telling his flock is “bullshit”.

Other Christians, and even more other religions, could answer the question on the blindness of faith with a resounding: “Yes! It must!” It must be blind because it is beyond reason: it is simply there, a given, the law. But Doctorow’s hero, the Reverend Thomas Pemberton, is enmeshed in reason and doubt.

The same could be said of the princes of the Protestant churches, who we see grappling with falling church attendance and the toils of being – as George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, put it – “relevant”. In a recent speech to the clergy of the Chelmsford diocese, the Archbishop bravely made headlines with a soundbite about politicians: “why should we have confidence in someone in public life who cannot be trusted not to cheat in his private life?” But the most radical comment by the Archbishop went virtually ignored.

In a second speech at Chelmsford, Carey endorsed the argument – made by Francis Fukuyama in his most recent book, The Great Disruption – that (as Fukuyama writes) “instead of community arising as a by-product of religious belief, people will come to belief because of their desire for community. In other words, people will return to religious tradition not necessarily because they accept the truth of revelation, but precisely because the absence of community and the transience of social ties in the secular world make them hungry for ritual and cultural tradition.” This, comments Carey, “is an interesting thought and one we should ponder as we seek to assess what it is that holds this world of ours together”.

It is an astonishing thing for an archbishop to say. For it cedes the centrality of revelation to a “faith” embraced through alienation, loneliness and a “hunger for ritual and cultural tradition”. Once that is allowed, everything is relative. In a sermon in January to London church leaders in the Methodist Central Hall, Carey broached the topic of the government’s plan to scrap Clause 28, which bans the promotion of homosexuality in schools. “I have openly and honestly to say that this is a matter of concern to me,” he began promisingly – but then he fudged the issue by saying that “with or without Clause 28, we need to be sure there are adequate safeguards in place for schools and pupils”. Is the established Church for or against the government’s attempt to scrap it? We cannot tell.

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There is nothing to be done about this. The Church of England is not in itself a democracy, but it has embraced liberal democratic values in which it cannot make a definitive statement about much, even (it seems) about the revelation of faith. Yet it is still expected to sound the trumpet with a certain note.

In a recent article in the Sunday Times on the forthcoming National Gallery exhibition, “Seeing Salvation: the Image of Christ”, Brian Appleyard wrote that “we have no choice but to start from here” – here being the centrality of Christianity to our way of experiencing the world. Appleyard inveighed against multiculturalism: “The mediocre neutrality of the Dome arises from a fear of making any one statement, however large, for fear of appearing the exclusive Faith.”

Yet when only a small minority of British Christians are actively religious, the making of a “large statement” will itself be a gesture into emptiness. The very liberality of the main British Protestant churches and their increasing embrace of politically progressive positions have made large gestures impossible. Large gestures are made by Churches that are sure of the base of their faith; a Church that is content to see people come back to it because they are socially atomised is not such a Church.

The absence of open combat between the faiths in England and Wales – it is less the case in Scotland, and not at all the case in Ireland – has contributed to the decline. Faith thrives in animosity to another faith, or to secularism. Irish Catholicism grew great and gripped the population, as it did in Poland, because of its identification with national adversity and its implicit or explicit opposition to the colonial or occupying powers. The most vigorous Protestant group in the UK is the Church headed by Dr Ian Paisley, which thrives on a roaring hatred of Catholicism.

In a more civilised vein, the composer James MacMillan used an address at last summer’s Edinburgh Festival to claim that Catholicism was still the object of discrimination in Scotland. MacMillan was rather late in his complaint: Catholicism is now as well established as the Church of Scotland, and rather more lively and self-confident. (True, there are some eccentric bursts of anti-Catholic prejudice, such as when the deputy chairman of Rangers, at a private function last year, sang “The sash my father wore”, a celebration of the defeat of the Catholic forces at the Battle of the Boyne three centuries ago. But the culprit was then forced to resign.) Cardinal Thomas Winning is the best-known prelate in Scotland, latterly because of his unswerving opposition to scrapping Clause 28 – a campaign he shares with Brian Souter, the founder and boss of the bus line Stagecoach, who is a member of a fundamentalist Protestant group.

Cardinal Winning will find support from Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the newly appointed Archbishop of Westminster, leader of Britain’s four million Catholics. A more urbane figure than the pugilistic Winning, he represents himself as “solidly conservative” on matters of abortion, divorce and women’s ordination. The furthest he will go in his early interviews is to admit the possibility of a consideration of the potential future ordination of married men who wish to become priests.

He seems to have concluded that the best tactic in an uncertain world is to remain faithful to the old disciplines and prohibitions, conduct guerrilla raids on liberalism when the occasion presents itself (as with the scrapping of Clause 28) and otherwise remain as a steady moral plank which the faithful and the faltering can grasp when they feel the need of it.

It is not just Christian faith that is intensified by struggle and animosity.

Indeed, the phenomenon is much more visible elsewhere, especially in the Muslim world. The late Ayatollah Khomeini came to wield a totalitarian power over Iran much more cruel than that of the Shah because he captured both the nationalist and the religious constituencies by opposing the extraterritorial rights that the Shah had granted to the US. In the former Soviet Union, the Muslim extremists of Chechnya took the leadership of the state because they were the doughtiest fighters against the Russians.

But the Russians are fighting back, through religion as well as in the field. The man who gave political leadership to the campaign, the acting president, Vladimir Putin, released the interesting fact that, before he started his career in the KGB, he had been baptised, on the intervention of his grandmother. Indeed, Putin has gone a step further and made it clear that he is a believer. In a ceremony in the Kremlin over Christmas, he appeared before his high officials, the diplomatic corps and other guests with the patriarch, Alexei II: the temporal power knelt before the spiritual, and kissed his ring.

It was a moment whose irony one hopes the acting president appreciated: one of his closest friends and colleagues, the deputy head of the Federal Security Service (the domestic successor to the KGB), General Victor Cherkesov, was known in St Petersburg as the “dissident hater” who persecuted religious dissidents with particular zeal.

More piquantly, Alexei II had been revealed a decade ago as a KGB “trusty” (as were all senior clergy in the Soviet period) who, when he was a young Bishop of Estonia, had been noted on the KGB files as being particularly helpful. Religion has always been an affair of the state in Russia and remains one now: Putin’s discovery of Christianity, sincere or not, inevitably has the dimension of the Orthodox power reasserting its unity at the top.

The great withdrawing roar often trickles into farcical channels. In the recent controversy over religious broadcasting, the BBC pointed to a newly commissioned programme in which a celebrity non-believer (as yet un-named) will be turned into a virtual Jesus, following His footsteps through modern Israel. It seems to think this is a serious religious programme. Yet the really serious Heart of the Matter – whose presenter, Joan Bakewell, resigned earlier this month rather than present the show in a graveyard slot – will be cut.

It is the worst of all worlds. Heart of the Matter took the problems of faith and the lack of faith as fundamental issues, and chewed over them; a show about an agnostic substitute for Christ does the Biblical figure neither the service of believing in Him, nor the dignity of arguing about His true meaning.

Christianity was the central cultural shaper of our European consciousness. But it does not hold us now: and thus no appeal can be made for it simply to re-assert its old rights. We have “Protested” ourselves out of faith, and are left with only its beautiful artefacts – which we can look at with vague wonder, but no longer in awe.