Byline: PAUL JOHNSON
PERHAPS the most fundamental change in British life since I was born in 1928 has been the decline in religious awe and observance. When I was a boy in the Thirties, most families still went to church every Sunday in their best clothes, carrying prayer books - father and mother, arm in arm, leading, the children following behind, often in a long crocodile.
Vicars and priests were major figures in the community, respected and deferred to. Men took off their hats to them, just as they took off their hats when they passed a church, or when a funeral procession - a grand and solemn affair in those days - went by in the street.
Children knew their prayers and dozens of hymns by heart. They were familiar with all the stories of the Old Testament and knew the Gospels intimately. The Oxford Dictionary Of Quotations gives nearly 80 pages of passages from the Bible and the Book Of Common Prayer, indicating the extent to which the sacred texts of Christianity had become part of the everyday language of the British people, and in my childhood that was still a fact of life.
Everyone then had a religion - it was the first question they put to you when you joined the Army. People who had none, and admitted it openly, were pointed out in horrified whispers: `He's an atheist, you know.' The public apparatus of society - throne, politics, government, the BBC, the Press, the schools and universities - was still to a great extent geared to reinforce the religious dimension.
I grew up against this background of national religious observance. In my family, religion was more important than any other aspect of life. Not only did we all go to Sunday Mass together, but we attended Benediction (the Roman Catholic equivalent of Anglican Evensong) on Sunday evening and again on Wednesday. We said our morning and evening prayers kneeling by the bedside and were encouraged to visit our local church as often as possible.
My mother went to church every day of her life. My father regularly devoted ten per cent of his income to church funds. We all regularly `gave up' pleasures, such as eating sweets, for Lent. My father stopped smoking, with many groans. We observed all the feast days of the church with great solemnity.
Religion was the structure of our education. My parents and elder sisters instilled into me the fundamentals of the Catholic faith with great assiduity, and anything they missed was supplied at my nursery school by the Dominican nuns, at my prep school by the Christian Brothers and at my public school by the Jesuits.
At Stonyhurst we attended church twice - and sometimes three times - a day. The great festivals of the liturgical year were mounted with extraordinary splendour. Sometimes the high altar was decorated with 2,000 candles, each connected to the next by a thin threat of guncotton: two altar boys would ignite the furthest candle on each side and then the flames would leap from one to another until the entire altar was illuminated.
We got our share of hell-fire too, delivered by a famous order called the Redemptorists, which specialised in preaching hell-fire sermons to boys.
During Lent we had an extra sermon preached on Wednesday. The last four in this series were what was known as eschatological, dealing with death, judgment, hell and heaven.
Considering that they were an extra service, the sermons were remarkably popular. We boys thought of them as out of the ordinary, unsubtle perhaps, but vivid, even entertaining in the same way as a horror movie.
Of course we were frightened, or perhaps impressed is a better word, especially by the third sermon on hell. That evening special confessionals were kept open after the service, so that no boy need go to bed with an unconfessed mortal sin and fear dying during the night.
My last Lent at school I congratulated the Redemptorist preacher after his hell sermon and asked him what it felt like to deliver it. …