Magazine article The Spectator

Why the Church of England Is Our Best Defence against Religious Enthusiasm

Magazine article The Spectator

Why the Church of England Is Our Best Defence against Religious Enthusiasm

Article excerpt

It couldn't happen here, they say. We are unlike the Americans. The English are viscerally sceptical of religious enthusiasm - always have been. Waves of evangelism in our history - the Nonconformist movement for example - have been comparatively mild affairs, broadly benevolent. It is inconceivable that a religious Right in Britain could ever co-ordinate the muscle and confidence to bully prime ministers in the way its American counterparts bully presidents.

Well, is it inconceivable? Usually I incline to think so, but there are moments in the dead of night when one wonders if that kind of thing really might catch on here. Are we so different from our American cousins? The grip of faith on the poor or distressed is easy to account for - as Nietzsche said of the Church, 'to abolish any distress ran counter to its deepest advantages' - but religious certainty in a rich and confident society like America is harder to explain. Wealth there is doing nothing to weaken faith among a substantial minority. Why should we be confident that this minority might not find a voice here too?

Some time ago I was part of a skiing holiday in Switzerland in which a couple of our group were those Alpha people. They were not among Nietzsche's distressed; they were young, they were rich, they were confident and pretty; they had careers and sports cars. They were a perfectly sophisticated young couple - and pleasant company with it. They were genuinely nice people.

But they thought they were Saved. Something had gone wrong in a small part of their brains, and it made their demeanour slightly yet potently odd: like those people you encounter whose English is flawless - better than yours - and you cannot put your finger on what's missing, and who turn out to be Dutch.

So could religious enthusiasm cross the Atlantic? I watch the idiocies of the Terri Schiavo case in Florida, watch the antics of evangelical ultras in Britain blackmailing charities out of accepting the proceeds of shows they consider blasphemous, watch Tory nostrils twitch as what the media were ready to call a 'gaffe' by Michael Howard over abortion turned out not to be, and watch Tony Blair's attempts to have it both ways by flattering an evangelical 'Faithworks' audience while trying to extract from the visit the headline that he doesn't want to mix faith with politics. I watch these things, and wonder.

And an unexpected twinge troubles me. I'm beginning to miss the good old Church of England. Was she perhaps on the agnostics' side all along? As the Established Church flounders I ask myself whether it might, after all, be a pity if she sinks. Having railed against bishops, flocks and frocks all my life, having thumbed my nose at simpering Anglicanism, having mocked woolly minds and shaken my tiny journalistic fist at the miasma of amiable evasion which passes for doctrine in the English Church, an awful thought occurs. Was that the wrong target? Have I spent my life as an atheist trying to break down what has in fact been our nation's sturdiest bulwark against serious Christian belief?

Could it be that for centuries the Church of England has been riding the punches of religious enthusiasm, absorbing the blows and protecting national life from its shock? Was there perhaps a point to all that cotton wool?

'Sir,' said Bishop Joseph Butler to John Wesley in the middle of the 18th century, 'the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing. …

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