The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withd
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
When Matthew Arnold penned these words in 1851, many were the people listening to what seemed to be the “long, withdrawing roar” of God retreating from the world. And many, like him, were those who mourned this retreat, whether or not they were able to maintain their own faith in the face of the world’s growing disenchantment in an age of revolutionary technical progress.
Despite the growing agnosticism of Britain’s educated classes in the wake of the seductive power of science and modernity and the “hammer blows” of German Biblical criticism, the general tenor of public discourse remained deeply wedded to a Christian, or Christian-inspired, view of human life and morality. The efforts to evangelise the alienated masses in our industrial cities had not yet slackened, nor had the assumption that culture should elevate man to the transcendent even if specific religious doctrine could not be established as literally true—a view that Arnold perfectly exemplifies.
Books, newspapers, the pronouncements of public figures, and later public broadcasting all reinforced a moral vision that encouraged a broadly Christian conception of life right up until the 1960s. Indeed, egregious attacks on this vision were prevented by strict censorship laws, supported by most people whose beliefs were otherwise broadly liberal, but who suspected that something sacred was here at stake. Industry and Enlightenment were doing their slow work, but the damn had not yet burst.
Today, our loss of faith sounds less like the slow roar of a withdrawing tide than the terrifying draining of the shallows that precedes a tsunami, and yet no one now seems to be listening. Why, then, has the revolution described in Part 1 of this article been so total, and what does this mean for our future?
In its essentials, the story of the decline of British Christianity is the story of the decline of the Church of England. Roman Catholicism finds adherents wherever it has roots, and it has declined less steeply than other denominations in the last thirty-five years, retaining almost as many nominal adherents as in 1980, and—though benefiting from migration—also enjoying a higher retention rate of ‘cradle’ members. The nonconformist churches, dominant in Wales since the mid 19th century, largely defined themselves in opposition to Anglicanism, and shared much of the hymnal and language that provided the core experience of Anglican membership in the absence of a universally acceptable theology.
The closely paralleled decline of the Church of Scotland does not need an independent explanation because, even where domestic social forces have been different from those in England, its eclipse is largely the result of processes affecting in the first instance Anglican religiosity—because it was through an idea of England that Britain, a mere nation-state, was consecrated, and gave authority to its national churches. And in Northern Ireland, religion has yet been preserved in a spectral half-life by the pressure of an intermittent war.
The Anglican Church is best understood as the soul of a nation, a nation that has almost vanished beneath a tide of garbage. Though it claims to be the authoritative expression of Jesus Christ’s ministry, its doctrine is deliberately undemanding of specific intellectual commitments, and it has never concealed from its members the political reasons for its institutional form. In fact, one of the most striking things about the Church, to the abstractly-inclined, is the absence of systematic theology produced in its defence.
The two great systematic apologies for the Elizabethan settlement, Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity and Jewel’s Apology of the Church of England, largely treat issues such as grace, salvation, and atonement only insofar as they relate to their primary concern of church government. For the most part, Anglican theology since then has been ad hoc, written in response to the needs of the Church at a particular moment.
Systematic theology has been written by people who were Anglicans (such as John Keble or Charles Gore), but insofar as it is systematic, little of it is distinctively Anglican. Where a specifically Anglican theology is defined, it is through a latitudinarian defence of diversity in doctrine. Fundamental since the end of the last great religious upheaval in 1662 has been the interplay of three very different religious types—evangelicals, liberals, and Catholics who could not quite bring themselves to swim the Tiber—of whom Rowan Williams has written that “each of these has a place in the church’s life”. There is thus no core theological principle that defines an Anglican, and many indeed many Anglican ministers today see this is as one of the Church’s great strengths.
None of this should be taken to mean that it is impossible to be a sincere, rationally-minded Anglican, or that the Church’s theological foundations are necessarily unjustified, only that beliefs about those foundations, insofar as they could be formulated as abstract propositions, were never the primary thing about it.
The Church of England was, in the last analysis, defined not by what it claimed but by what it did, and what it did was to consecrate, and imbue with transcendent meaning, a particular culture and way of life. It is the death of this way of life that is also causing the death of the Church.
To understand its demise, then, we need to look less at man’s beliefs about God and more at his instinctive sense of God’s of presence in a specific place and time.
England was perceived by its inhabitants as a home for a community of strangers, consecrated by Christian rites. Until the mid-twentieth century, well over ninety percent of its members defined themselves as Christians and most of them as Anglicans, because the rites of the Anglican Church were part of its sense of communal membership. The presence of Anglicanism in Parliament, the law courts, schools, homes, and civil society served the need to imbue life with sacred meaning. Its function was to enchant our shared home.
The form of this enchantment reflected the nature of that home and of the community that dwelt in it. English culture was reserved and stoical, and its religion unshowy and undramatic. English people were famously aloof and emotionally restrained, and they addressed God as if trying to coax the Holy Spirit into their churches. The English temper was sceptical and undogmatic—being forged in a community defined by a secular common law and learning an aversion to abstraction through the ideological carnage of the seventeenth century—and so the English religion drew on language, not theology, as its core mark of membership.
The philosopher Sir Roger Scruton has perhaps the deepest appreciation of this culture of anyone now alive. Here is his summation of the Anglican experience from his book Our Church:
The English Church recognised that, in the last analysis, God is not distinct from the way of representing Him, yet identical with no physical thing…God, as represented by the sacred text and liturgy of the Anglican Church, was an Englishman, uncomfortable in the presence of enthusiasm, reluctant to make a fuss, but trapped into making public speeches…
Sir Roger Scruton Our Church
It is not a surprise therefore, that the English God has not survived the “forbidding of England” that Scuton describes. The experience of membership that He enchanted has disappeared, replaced by a residual attachment to a nation-state that has lost a meaningful identity.
All Western countries have experienced three great social transformations since the 1960s: a steep decline in Christian socialisation over two generations, a liberalisation of sexual values and mores, and a loss of rootedness caused by the acceleration of modernisation and the globalization of communications and commerce. In all cases
this has put pressure on the traditional cultures of these countries, but in England the three forces worked in a unique tandem, and the culture has consequently undergone a unique disintegration.
The sexual revolution and the decline of Christianity were everywhere connected, because in abolishing a consensual standard of moral pollution it made redundant the purity offered by religious rites of passage, and it removed the need for absolution by proclaiming that there was no such thing as sin. But whereas the core of some cultures could survive this process, England’s could not.
Because English identity was based neither on a nation (as the nineteenth century ‘nationalists’ imagined it) nor a state, but on a more-or-less organic community, its moral transformation removed the markers with which its coherence was maintained. And simultaneously with this, the physical environment of the countrywas transformed by a wave of slum clearance, suburbanization, motorway-building, and intensive farming—removing markers seen, as if to match the loss of those felt and imagined.
Nineteenth century industrialization—for all its “dark, Satanic mills”—had eventually given rise to new, civic instantiations of a culture previously embodied in folk traditions, but the destruction of the late twentieth produced only a surge in demand for American movies and music as we sat huddled round the TV in our new brutalist tower blocks and never-ending suburban estates.
The result has been the complete forgetting of a culture. All the landmarks that we pointed to when asked to explain an identity we always struggled to define are now either vanished or have lost their meaning—the common law, the monarchy and the subtle gradations of rank it surmounted, the hatred of armies and uniforms, the sense of restraint and decorum now mocked as having a “stiff upper lip”.
The Church consecrated a community, and the community has disappeared. This is why an unreconstructed conservative Englishman tends to see faith, patriotism, and a sense of cultural rootedness as inextricably linked, and suspects any attempt to give them ordinal ranking. It is no coincidence that Peter Hitchens has written of The Abolition of Britain, not just of its moral decline or transformation, or that Scruton’s book on English culture is subtitled An Elegy.
And this process has affected all churches in Britain: the established Church of Scotland derived much of its authority from the enchantment of the British state through a vision of Anglican England, and the nonconformist denominations embodied a tradition of dissent from within that acknowledged the Anglican establishment through rejection.
The prognosis for British Christianity is therefore grim. Whilst Anglican Christianity is of course a universalist faith, and expressions of it found fertile soil in the lands the English colonised, there is no reason to think likely a successful re-conversion of a people whose link to it has been wholly severed. Nowhere in the western world are mainline Protestant denominations growing, and nowhere in England have traditional forms of Christianity remained vital.
Justin Welby has claimed that the Church of England can turn a corner within his term of office, but there is a difference between the Church of England and Anglicanism. Welby was ordained through Holy Trinity Brompton, a charismatic movement whose members speak in tongues and which has little in common with Anglicanism as most English people conceive of it.
The twenty percent of the population who still call themselves of Anglicans but rarely attend church, and most of the fifty-odd percent who call themselves Christians, feel a residual loyalty to the church of their parents’ or grandparent’s time, and recognise that it still plays some role in consecrating their lives at key moments like marriage. The connection between this role, and the kind of Christianity found at Holy Trinity Brompton, is minimal, and almost all the church growth Welby is witnessing is in similar evangelical and charismatic movements.
Even if evangelical churches within the institution of the Church of England were able to convert five, ten, or twenty percent of the population, therefore, it would have no impact on the secularisation and disenchantment of wider society. You can open Parliament with words from Common Prayer but you cannot do so by inviting MPs to
spontaneously express the workings of the Spirit. A country that contains a large number of Christians is not a Christian country in the communal sense in which we once were one.
It is overwhelmingly likely that British Christianity as we have known it is utterly and entirely doomed. Conservatives can hold out hope if they want, but it will be an act of faith—and not the kind that seeks understanding. The country
churches will be bought up by the National Trust and turned into museums; urban ones will go the way of the Methodist Halls and become carpet warehouses. Charles will be crowned in a meaningless multi-faith ceremony, the choirs will fall silent and the only people cycling through the morning mists will work for Deliveroo.
If conservatism is fundamentally based on the disposition to conserve—as it was for Burke, for Michael Oakeshott, for Roger Scruton—it loses its moorings when we first have to ask “conserve what?”, when there is no longer anything meaningful for the disposition to take as its object. Conservatism becomes a fetish, and takes on the character of masturbation: cravatte-wearing youths drenching themselves in port and shouting about the “divine right of Kings”.
The ship of state runs aground and traditionalism becomes incoherent, for the simple reason that there are no serious traditions. We have felt for a long time that Oakeshott’s injunction “to prefer the familiar to the unknown” was a sound maxim because it was harder to build great things than to destroy them, and because we owed a duty of piety to our forefathers. But conserving our current dispensation now entails complicity in ongoing destruction, and our forefathers would be baffled and horrified by almost everything we do.
British Christianity is dead because Britain is dead. We inhabit a floodlit concrete playground built on its grave, haunted by the incessant howl of traffic, which we drown with the orgiastic sound of popular music. Anything that resembles the country we once were is now strung along country roads in the corners of our dormitory-villages,
hemmed in by the asphalt tendrils of the motorways that shoot, torpedo-like, from the great stain of London.
Conservatives will have to abandon three centuries of practice and rediscover the love of abstract thought. A country with no natural vitality, whose culture and institutions decay further with each passing year, is a country in need of reconstruction from first principles. Determining what those principles are, and what of our former culture can be resuscitated, will be the first task of the new conservatism. Wandering the wasteland, it is time for conservatives to rediscover the importance of ideology.