Bid a fond farewell to the English way of religion

By Theo Hobson, the author of Against Establishment: An Anglican Polemic (THE TIMES, 26/12/06):

You have, if you are an Anglican, probably just attended your first church service of the year. You go to the dentist as often. But that’s all right: this is the Church of England. You don’t have to wear God on your sleeve in this country. We enjoy a subtle, restrained, understated form of religiosity that is compatible with staying at home on Sunday mornings and quietly cringing at dinner parties when cruder souls raise the subject of God.

Does this sketch still ring true? Only partly. The English way of religion is on the way out. Our traditional religious culture is being radically reshaped, and it’s happening surprisingly fast. Every fresh story about veils or crosses is chip-chip-chipping away at the religious culture we have taken for granted for centuries, and creating something new, something far more American.

We used to assume that religion was like an ancient aunt: its waning should be treated with the utmost respect. But that assumption came unstuck on September 11, 2001. Since then we have awoken to the fact that religion has done waning; it’s cockily resurgent. And now we must recognise that our old religious culture cannot accommodate this resurgence. The Anglican tradition cannot regain the ground it has been losing for generations.

What defined British, and especially English, religious culture was reticence. Religion was a part of life that kept its voice down. The Church of England knew that keeping quiet was the key to remaining powerful. It wanted to keep religion in the background, in order to keep it in the picture. The Church was meant to unite the English people in one faith. Some chance. So it evolved a more realistic aim: to keep religious division at bay, by means of an official religious culture in which the extremes were proscribed. The English people chose to sustain the fiction of national religious unity under the Crown, for it led to stability. It also led to a high degree of liberalism: a powerful state church was the means to a society free of religious and political extremism.

Anglicanism could only sustain its established status by being a place of reason, compromise, moderation. And because the established Church has to assume the role of representing the religious character of nation, it has to remain in tune with prevailing social attitudes. Even as church attendance declined over the past 40 years, it could still be claimed that the majority wanted the Church to be there, to marry and bury them, and to stage lovely royal pageantry every few years. That we are still an officially Christian nation is due to the Church’s uniquely liberal form of Christianity.

All has changed, changed utterly. The established Church has become incapable of keeping religion quiet. The primary cause is not Islam. It is the rise of Christianity as a distinct “identity”. This is mainly due to Evangelicalism, which encourages the Christian to see himself as different, set apart from society. The Church of England has traditionally been hostile to this form of theology, but in the 1990s it began to value its ability to put bums on pews. As a result the Church of England is now a contradiction: an established Church that is largely kept afloat by a sectarian form of theology.

This transformation in Christian identity was accelerated by the explosion of religious identity politics after 9/11. The debate about the right of Muslims to dissent from secular liberalism has gradually changed the way that we think about our dominant religious culture. In the past it had always been assumed that Christianity was not a religious subculture; rather society in general was in some sense Christian. Now it has become widespread to think of Christianity as a distinct subculture, a powerful lobby within society.

In a sense, the most important effect of radical Islam has been to mobilise secularist opinion. Of course there have always been atheists but only in the past five years have they acquired teeth for their demand that religion must have no place in public life.

The Church of England is in an impossible position. There is a new pressure on it to “stand up” for the interests of Christians, as in the recent row of wearing crosses. But this is counter-productive. When bishops denounce the creep of secularism, they define themselves as a defensive subculture.

Our religious culture is now halfway across the Atlantic; it is fast developing the key American traits. What defines American religious culture is the opposite of reticence. The nation’s claim to be Christian has to be continually asserted. It has to be fought for, all the time. The nation’s religious character is always up for grabs: it is up to each citizen to determine it, by standing up and being counted for his faith.

In the old English model, the nation just is Christian. Strident declarations of faith do not make it more so, and fashionable atheism does not make it less so. The religious identity of the nation is an ancient fact, like the weather, about which one can do nothing. So whenever someone asserts his Christian identity as something culturally extraordinary, or in need of political protection, he is tacitly denying that we are a naturally Christian culture. This new assertive way of being Christian is now dominant: for better or for worse the era of Anglican reticence is over.