It is, according to the headline on Melanie McDonagh’s column in the Times yesterday (30 January), “an assault on Christianity”. Could it be referring to the massacre of Christians in Nigeria or the banning of church worship in some cruel atheist dictatorship? No, it’s the London School of Economics (LSE) renaming the Lent academic term “winter”, the Easter break “spring”, and so on.
As GK Chesterton once said, “Journalism largely consists in saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.” And don’t worry, we’re still allowed to describe Chesterton as a Roman Catholic writer.
Actually, we’re allowed to say pretty much whatever we want on this subject, and the faith given to the world by a 1st-century Jewish messiah based on a permanent revolution of love, justice and inclusion is unlikely to be smashed by an innocuous evolution of language at a British university.
In fact, the change is somewhat irrelevant. It’s perhaps slightly gratuitous but entirely understandable in a nation, and a university, that is increasingly post-Christian. Oxford and Cambridge maintain their Christian nomenclature, but then the colleges were often founded as monastic institutions – and one of them is a cathedral!
I doubt whether most LSE students were particularly aware of the names of their academic terms, and it’s worth remembering that in the US – where Christianity is still a major factor in national life, and it would be difficult if not impossible for a non-Christian to be elected president – spring break has an iconic place in college culture.
The Times’s overreaction came the same day as the anniversary of the 1649 execution of King Charles I, which some in the Church of England commemorate, as they do every 30 January. He is revered by these High Church stalwarts as a “saint and martyr”, when in fact he was one of the least competent and most reckless monarchs in British history. Offered a stunningly generous peace offer by his Puritan opponents, Charles instead forced a second civil war that led to thousands of deaths.
Neither as wise as his father nor as tolerant as his son, Charles was more sinner than sinned against. Nonetheless, the cult continues for those who like their Christianity wrapped in patriotism and pomp, and sealed with a nice bow of nostalgia.
And nostalgia is what the LSE objections are largely about. England, though not Britain, may have an established church but hasn’t been a Christian nation in some time. The latest census data from the Office for National Statistics shows, it has been reported this week, that more people in England and Wales under the age of 40 describe themselves as having “no religion” rather than being Christian, the first time that’s ever happened. Those numbers are likely to increase in years to come.
But appearances can be deceptive. Cathedrals and splendid churches pepper the landscape, archbishops are often featured on the news, and respected institutions use, or did use, medieval Christian terminology to divide their years. Churches, however, often struggle to continue, and cathedrals are more popular with tourists than worshippers.
Christianity is in essence a personality cult, the personality in question being an itinerant preacher who, I believe, was also the Son of God. His appeal is not in what he wanted to preserve but in what he insisted on changing. To “assault” him would be to ignore his startlingly refreshing teaching, and that has nothing at all to do with spring break.