We Are in Denial about the Divine: Many of Us like to Think That We Live in a Secular Society-And Yet We Have an Established Church. So What Do We Mean by Secularism? and What Would We Lose If We Tried to Ditch Religion Altogether?

Article excerpt

The same thing happens in both the first and second episodes of BBC2's new comedy series Rev. StSaviour's, a run-down inner-city church with usually a tiny congregation, is suddenly filled with newcomers. In the first episode, Reverend Adam Smallbone is baffled by an invasion of rich, middle-class families. In the second, he lends his Sunday service to a fashionable evangelist who fills the place with partying kids and a smoothie bar.

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In each case, Smallbone drives out the invaders. He will not be corrupted by the money of the aspiring middle classes, who, it turns out, are only there because they want to get their kids into the local CofE school. Nor will he tolerate the cold bigotry that lies not far beneath the surface of the evangelicals' smiles. Instead he will return to his almost empty services and to the maddening eccentricities and demands of his poor parishioners.

The BBC's last comedy take on the Church of England was the unfunny Vicar of Dibley. It was not about faith at all, but about soppy niceness, local "characters" and the mild novelty of a woman vicar (Dawn French). There is no faith involved in the character of The Simpsons' Reverend Timothy Lovejoy, either, nor in Channel 4's Father Ted. Belief has been an encumbrance for comedy priests. But Smallbone is different. He is passionate. He prays intently. His relationship with God is the heart of the matter and we are intended to approve of this relationship.

James Wood, the writer of the series, plainly knows where he stands. In the first episode, builders moon and abuse the vicar, jeering and calling him the vicar of Dibley. Finally, Small-bone loses his temper, rips off his dog collar and tells them to "fuck off". Dibley is dead and religion, it seems, is not quite as far down the BBC's agenda as we thought it was or, perhaps, as the BBC thinks it is.

So is the bien pensant attitude to the established Church--condescension, baffled disinterest, outright contempt--being revised upwards? Not if you are a footballer. During the World Cup, some of the England team sang the national anthem and some--notably Wayne Rooney--did not. What did they mean by this? That they would not wish well to the Queen, head of the established Church, or they would not bow the knee to God or their country? Or, either way, that they did not belong anywhere? Meanwhile, players from the Catholic countries crossed themselves as they ran on and off the pitch and offered thanks to God for every goal. The English showed no signs of praying to anyone other than their agents, ox, in Rooney's case, Alex Ferguson.

Britain, it is commonly said, is a secular society. In strict constitutional terms, this is completely wrong. We have an established church and a national church that embody, in theory, the nation's faith. Legally, we are not just a Christian country, we are a Church of England country and Adam Smallbone is an agent of the state.

But this may reasonably be seen as a relic from another age, an antique eccentricity like Channel 4's Countdown or Bruce Forsyth. The reality is that, except for the odd blip caused by evangelicals and middle-class school-grabbers, fewer people attend church each year--15 per cent of the adult population attends church regularly. One million churchgoers fell away in the 1990s alone. The fall has slowed thanks to the enthusiasm of some ethnic minorities--roughly half of London's church congregations are black--but the trend is clear: at some point in this century most churches will be empty.

Furthermore, we have become a much more diverse society. What sense can contemporary British Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs or even Catholics make of the idea of one local sect being elevated to the highest ranks of the state? Or, perhaps more importantly, what sense can any tolerant, liberal-minded atheist make of it? Religion, thinks the liberal, must be a matter of individual conscience, not of state approval. …