Not Much Left to Respect: People No Longer Go to Church, Get Married, or Join a Political Party. Our Great Institutions, Once Hallowed, Have Been Hollowed Out

Article excerpt

A cartoon in the current issue of the New Yorker shows two working men pumping up a giant inflatable Christmas tree next to a store that sells Christmas trees. "You know," says one to the other, "it doesn't seem any time at all since we were pumping up the tree last Christmas!"

A mordant cartoon for a merry season. It captures that part of the underlying spirit of Christmas Present: once again, the old symbols are being pumped up feverishly in order to sustain the purchasing boom. But the cartoon emphasises, too, the absence of that which had been the reality, rather than the spirit, of Christmas -- the festival of the birth of one who redeemed the world. We have lived with this for many years. And indeed, Christmas is not the only institution to have a hollow feel about it. From the church to the royal family, the former pillars of society as we know it today look empty.

This past year in Britain, the leaders of both the major Christian denominations -- Anglicanism and Catholicism -- have warned that their faiths were about to disappear. These were utterances as remarkable for not being much remarked upon as for their content: as Brian Appleyard wrote in the New Statesman (17 September), we are on the edge of a life without the prop of the church.

Not that the very large majority of people ever darken its doors. But the church props up so much else: political life, constitutional life, military life, moral reference, the BBC, education, the appearance of Britain's cities, towns and villages, and the sense of self-definition of all the national components -- English, Scots, Welsh and Irish - of British life, as well as of Britishness itself. And its weakness, perhaps terminal weakness, may act as the first domino in the fall of all of our other institutions. It is a fragility that may be good for us: we don't know.

This is the Christmas before next year's Jubilee: the nation will be called upon to celebrate the Queen's 50 years as monarch. The real interest will focus on how far it will evince a popular response: and how far that response will be a wake for royalty rather than a celebration of one long-living royal. If, as some believe, the Jubilee will be the occasion for passing over the duties of state to Crown Prince Charles, we will also be able to see how far the support for the institution of the monarch can jump from the popular Elizabeth to a prince who, although he is no longer seen as the hounder of Diana, has but a fragile hold on his subjects' affection.

If support for the monarchy does not collapse, and Charles succeeds, then his instincts to downsize the grandeur and expunge the absurdities -- such as the barring of Catholics from succession or marriage -- will strip from it the aura of timelessness and make it more of a politically correct, and thus politically determined, affair. Diana, in her vampiric search for adulation, sucked the monarchy nearly dry. Elizabeth may be the last of its branches to survive the drought.

The institution of marriage, which the churches support -- indeed, which they insisted on as a sign of virtuous procreation -- is no longer generally invested with a higher moral status than not * being married. "Views have changed markedly over time," says the latest British Social Attitudes survey, "and for many, marriage is no longer seen as having any advantage over cohabitation in everyday life. Interestingly, women - especially young women - who we might imagine have more at stake (because they are the more practically involved in bringing up children, and are thus most likely to become financially dependent or vulnerable) have the most ambivalent view about marriage as a practical relationship." The percentage of the population with "traditional" views about marriage-that is, who feel it should be the framework within which a couple have children - is around 30 per cent: 34 per cent of men have such views, yet only 28 per cent of women. …