Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Dying of the Light

Recently, on the Irish Conservatives Forum, there's been a bit of discussion about the spiritual life of England-- more particularly, how healthy it is, whether it still exists, and whether (assuming it's moribund) it has any hope of revival.

This is an article I wrote for the Catholic Voice some years ago. (I jumped when I re-read the reference to being thirty-six!) It was written for an Irish readership, so there are some Irish cultural references that non-Irish people are unlikely to get. But not many. I'm not sure why I listed I'm Alan Partridge among shows I've never watched, since I've often watched it and know some scenes almost off by heart. A slip, no doubt.

My writing style grows more fastidious with the years-- sometimes I wince when I read something I've written even as recently as this. I would never talk about a "trunkful" of anything now, unless it was actually filling a trunk.

The Light of Faith

“Once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim”. These beautiful words are taken from Lumen Fidei, the last encyclical written by Pope Benedict XVI (with some finishing touches from Pope Francis). I believe in their truth with all my heart. I see evidence of it everywhere. And I think it’s a point that Christians should make insistently and forcefully, in our efforts to re-evangelise the Western world.

Pope Emeritus Benedict has often written of the boredom that afflicts modern man when he rejects God, and when he rejects the transcendental dimension of life. (From his Introduction of Christianity: “In the leaden loneliness of a God-forsaken world, in its interior boredom, the search for mysticism, for any sort of contact with the divine, has sprung up anew.”)

‘Boredom’ is a strange word to use, perhaps, in describing a godless society. We tend to reach for words like ‘emptiness’, or ‘meaninglessness’, or ‘alienation’, instead. Perhaps, in envisaging a society that has turned its back on God, we picture neon lights and nightclubs and dancing girls, or similarly heady images. But boredom? Surely not boredom.

And yet, I think that Pope Benedict—profound and original thinker that he is—has got it exactly right, in this instance as in so many others. When a society rejects God, it becomes a boring society. And not only boring, but banal. The banality of post-Christian society is perhaps the worst thing about it. And if not the worst, it’s certainly the most pervasive.

A post-Christian society is boring, and bored, because only the sacred and the otherworldly can satisfy the human capacity for awe and wonder.

I am thirty-six years of age. I grew up in a post-Christian society. I never experienced a world where Christianity was simply assumed to be true. Matthew Arnold had written about the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “sea of faith” even before my grandparents were born. (Like King Charles II, God has been “an unconscionable long time dying”.)

So I cannot claim to have witnessed Ireland’s transition from a Catholic to a post-Catholic nation. But I suppose I came in at the end, and caught the last act of the drama. And it seems glaringly obvious to me that even the difference between a residually Christian society (like the Ireland of the nineteen-eighties) and a predominately secular one (like the Ireland of today), is quite substantial.

Take any example. Take the most trivial example you can think of. Take, for instance, the difference between The Late Late Show of Gay Byrne and The Late Late Show of Ryan Tubridy. Or take Charlie Haughey and Garrett Fitzgerald, as opposed to Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny. Or the comedian Dave Allen as opposed to Tommy Tiernan.

Now, these are all deliberately trivial examples, and I’m certainly not expressing wild enthusiasm for any of the first set. But isn’t there a perceptible decline in class, in depth, in gravitas, even here? Isn’t even a Church-bashing comedian like Dave Allen, coming from a more Christian context, a lot classier than a Church-bashing so-called comedian like Tommy Tiernan? Isn’t even a liberal like Garrett Fitzgerald, reared in a strongly Christian atmosphere, more intellectually serious than a political opportunist like Enda Kenny?

I firmly believe that even this small difference—as well as the much greater difference between the Ireland of W.B. Yeats and John McCormack and Walter Macken and all those other luminaries, and the Ireland of today—comes down to Christianity. “Once the light of faith goes out, all other lights begin to dim.” A Christian culture is saturated with ideas of the sacred, of the sublime, of the eternal, of mystery. Even the village atheist (and Ireland certainly had her share of village atheists) can’t help absorbing these ideas—and reflecting them.

But, though the banality of secularism has entered deeply into the soul of Ireland, I would venture to say that the process is far from complete. The sun may have set but the evening light lingers in the sky. I think we have to look across the Irish Sea—to the country that Matthew Arnold was writing about in his poem ‘Dover Beach’, which I quoted above—to see the banality of secularism in its full glory.

There’ll Always Be an England?

But before I start writing about England, I want to make one thing clear. I have been an anglophile all my life. I can’t remember a time when my imagination was not stirred by the land of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, P.G. Wodehouse, Lord Tennyson, John Betjeman, Hammer horrors, Carry On movies, Keith Waterhouse and Tom Sharpe. Even the rugged beauty of place-names like Sussex and Brompton and Halifax speak to something deep in my soul.

So I take no pleasure at all in the claim that I am going to make here; that the soul of England has perished, and that this is because it has so completely rejected its Christian heritage.

The Church of England had to close 1,500 churches between 1969 and 2002. Only about six per cent of the UK’s population go to church. Back in March, The Daily Mail reported that just 800,000 people attend Church of England services on an average Sunday. This in a nation of fifty-six million souls. It’s true that attendance is higher amongst Catholics, and that Pentecostal and Evangelical churches are growing. But these have made very little impact on the surrounding culture.

The idea has even grown up that England is an intrinsically irreligious nation, that the muddle-headedness of Anglican theology is simply the proper spirituality of a people who hate dogma and are embarrassed by anything as earnest and emotive as religion.

A funny notion, really, for a nation whose Civil War, only a few centuries ago, was close to being a war of religion; for the land of St. Thomas More, St. Thomas Beckett, John Milton, Thomas Cranmer, John Wesley and Guy Fawkes, The Canterbury Tales and The Pilgrim’s Progress.

I cherish this refrain from a medieval English drinking song: “Bring us in good ale, and bring us in good ale, for our blessed Lady’s sake, bring us in good ale.” In those few words are expressed the deeply Christian soul of ‘Merrie England’.

So how can I say that the soul of England is now dead? For one thing, because it’s not just me saying it. In recent times, there has been almost an industry of books lamenting the death of England. The Abolition of Britain by Peter Hitchens is the best I’ve read, while England: an Elegy by Roger Scruton follows close behind. Similar titles (which I haven’t read) include The Death of Britain? by John Redwood and Anyone for England? by Clive Aslett.

If you want to see evidence of the death of England, just turn on your television and tune in to the BBC or any other British channel. There is a deeply depressive, nearly nihilistic undertone to almost every broadcast. I see this in many of the British shows which (I hasten to add) I don’t watch, but snippets of which I’ve seen. Shows like The Inbetweeners, I’m Alan Partridge, Teachers and The Royle Family reflect such a bleak view of human nature and of human life that it’s staggering. Characters are rude to each other as a matter of course. Everybody seems to be miserable all the time. Most of all, nobody seems to believe in anything—not just in God, but in anything.

This is true even of good English TV shows. I watched the comedy series Rev, which follows a Church-of-England vicar who shepherds a vanishingly-small inner-city congregation in London. The show is notable for taking religion seriously, but it’s almost relentlessly downbeat. The reverend Adam Smallbone’s best friend is a down-and-out who smokes cannabis (Adam sometimes joins him) and reads pornographic magazines. The handful of people who turn up to church are eccentric and directionless. The Archdeacon who makes Adam’s life a misery is a snobbish careerist. London is presented in the dingiest and grungiest light possible.

Or take the very successful show The Office, which was a ‘mockumentary’ set in a paper office in Slough, and won a trunkful of awards. I loved it when it came out, but since I’ve become a fan of the later American version, I can’t watch the English version anymore. The American Office is more or less upbeat, warm-hearted and life affirming. The English Office is almost sadistically bleak. I believe that the difference is down to the fact that America is a Christian country and England is not.

Contemporary English entertainments that do take a romantic view of life tend to be either set in the past—the endless proliferation of costume dramas and period detective mysteries—or else in an imaginary world that draws on the past, such as the Harry Potter series, which owes so much to Enid Blyton-style school stories of yesteryear.

No More Beer and Sandwiches

I see the same absence of any kind of deep belief, any source of unabashed idealism, when I read the opinion pieces of English newspapers. Any discussion of religion, or of English national identity, or of any other ‘high-flown’ subject, is inevitably conducted in an infuriatingly flippant manner. Public intellectuals like Terry Eagleton, Will Self and Simon Schama seem to wear a perpetual simper, and to trade in an all-embracing irony.

It was not always thus. I was deeply surprised, not long ago, when I learned that a ‘National Festival of Light’, in protest against the permissive society and the increase of sex and violence in the mass media, had been held in England in 1970. Its leading figures included Malcolm Muggeridge, Mary Whitehouse and Cliff Richard. Amazingly, almost half a million people joined its rally in London, and a hundred thousand people took part in smaller rallies around the nation. Four decades later, this is impossible even to imagine.

It isn’t just Christian idealism that seems to have disappeared from English life. Where is the beer-and-sandwiches socialism of the working men’s clubs and the night schools? Where are all the port-drinking, Punch-reading High Tories? What vision of human life animates English souls today? None that I can think of. And, in their absence, the nation seems to have sunk into an atmosphere of all-pervading cynicism at worst, of ironic world-weariness at best.

It’s true that a certain gloom has always been a part of the English psyche. Eeyore, of the Winnie the Pooh stories, is a typically English creation. English culture, from the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf to the paintings of L.S. Lowry, has always shown a rather Eeyorish streak.

But the point is that, for a millennia and a half, this was offset by the joy of the Christian Gospel. In every culture it meets, Christianity takes whatever it encounters, purifies it, and ennobles it. The sun of Christianity, shining on the soil of England, gave the world the poetry of William Blake, the paintings of John Constable, the ghost stories of M.R. James, the fussy vicars of Anthony Trollope, and ten thousand other cultural treasures besides. But now—in my opinion, at least—that England is dead and gone. And our own nation seems to be well along the same path.

Truly, when once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim.


  1. In last week's paper there was a coloured photo of some choir boys ice skating in full regalia in England. The caption mentioned that they were the chapel choir of such-and-such a chapel of such-and-such a castle which was used by Henry VIII (obviously not inhabited by any major royalty now, at least they didn't say so.) It made me think: Just how many chapel choirs exist in Britain, just counting vice regal buildings alone? I mentioned it to a choir director/organist friend last Saturday. It's curious- if Anglican membership is decreasing so much, how long can all this last? I joked whether half the choristers were named Mahomet (or Aisha for the fewer mixed choirs; another point- it's usually harder to get boys interested these days). She said that, definitely, Catholics were well represented in these choirs, even in Australia a lot of classically trained Catholics sing in Anglican churches. She said that she would accommodate them if they got in contact, but of course most catholic churches have nothing to suit them or their training.... There is, in it's place, modern-style 'music ministry'. A different point,I know. No doubt some are involved for the sake of scholarships etc., but really- if Anglicans themselves start disappearing could all this survive?

    1. It's almost as if things have to hit rock bottom before they can re-surface. I grew up at a time and in a part of Ireland where people were being shot because they were Catholic. And we are now throwing over the faith at a frightening rate. And yet I went to Mass this morning in Carlow and there was a large crowd for the Immaculate Conception. Where there's life, there's hope.

    2. Yes, I'm very far from being fatalistic myself.

  2. I often have similar thoughts about Ireland. Maybe it's because I'm a pessimist, or because I take nothing for granted, but I'm actually surprised at the extent to which Catholic "infrastructure" is holding up. Every time I hear about some programme or office or secretariat in the Irish Catholic Church I think the same long can it last? Surely there will come a time when just having a priest in each parish is going to be a stretch.

    By the way, I had a similar thought (to your other one) about choristers when I went to St. Kevin's. Seeing the choir file in at the start made me wonder how many of them were professing Catholics. That's part of why I'm not really into the heavy aesthetic side of Catholicism, including the Latin Mass, because it introduces another motive.

  3. Traditional Mass communities can be fairly choosie about who they allow to sing. Having said that- St Anne's has a semi-professional group about once a month, only a couple seem to really follow the Mass; as it's a small church, it's hard not to notice. Church musicians seem to almost form a category of their own. They're at some church most weekends but it can be obvious with some that their 'practising' is based on this. But they won't be there at all if NO ONE takes their faith seriously

  4. PS
    What was the significance of the Battle-Star-Galactica-fella?

    1. Ha ha ha! That's a running joke on this blog. You're the first person who's ever picked up on it.

    2. Subliminally, he has become very familiar over the years! Now I understand... Well, almost!

    3. You understand as much as there is to understand!

  5. Well, I didn't really know whether or not he'd been in any of the shows you mentioned, but I was FAIRLY certain that he wasn't English

    1. Ha ha ha! Every blog post is better for having a bit of Dirk Benedict.

  6. Thank you for this. Rather moving to read, as an Englishman, and also troubling: I'm afraid the portrait you have painted has much truth to it. England has smothered herself in banality: the squat retail park, the cheap sniggering television, the hollowness and soullessness even to everyday speech and thought. The gentleness; the quietness of England is in open retreat.

    The future of England lies, I think, in the pockets of resistance that I know exist because I have witnessed them and belong to them. Most of the time they are underground, and only rarely become visible enough that the media can ignore them no longer (such as BXVI's triumphant visit in 2010), but they are there all the same. I have belonged to two University 'Cathsocs' — one well-established and organised; the other with very few material resources but plenty of resourcefulness — both were full of energy, orthodoxy, good humour and ideas. Another point is that children, who are not easily fooled, will see the barrenness of the culture all around them and may well set about livening it up when they grow up. (Even if almost everything about England has changed, her children have not). I also know plenty of non-Catholics whose lives contradict modern Britain considerably more cheerfully than mine does.

    Thanks by the way for mentioning the Festival of Light! I only found out that this had happened a few years ago. It is worth knowing that this happened, and what a success it was.

    1. Yes, as I say, I actually feel a great deal of hope. To me, the only questions is the matter of timeline. I don't think the human spirit can be satisfied with banality and vulgarity indefinitely; but how many decades a revolt against it might take, I don't know. Certainly your Catholic Society experiences are encouraging.

  7. Re-reading this essay four years later, I find it just as moving and just as true. Thank you once again.

    1. Thanks so much, Dominic! I must admit I'm pleased with this particular piece. Hopefully it won't remain true indefinitely.