Resurgent religion has done away with the country vicar

By Dr Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney and a lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford (THE GUARDIAN, 13/04/06):

There was a time when the country vicar was a staple of the English dramatis personae. This tea-drinking, gentle eccentric, with his polished shoes and kindly manners, represented a type of religion that didn’t make nonreligious people uncomfortable. He wouldn’t break into an existential sweat or press you against a wall to ask if you were saved, still less launch crusades from the pulpit or plant roadside bombs in the name of some higher power.

Safe though he was, the nice country vicar in effect inoculated vast swaths of the English against Christianity. A religion of hospital visiting and flower arranging, with a side offering of heritage conservation, replaced the risk-all faith of a man who asked his adherents to take up their cross and follow him. The nice country vicar represented a very English modus vivendi between the sacred and the secular, with the sacred, in swallowing many of its convictions, paying by far the heaviest price for the deal.

In exchange for a walk-on part during major family occasions and the opportunity to be custodian of the country’s most impressive collection of buildings, the vicar promised discretion in all things pertaining to faith: he agreed to treat God as a private matter. In a country exhausted by wars about religion, the creation of the nonreligious priest was a masterstroke of English inventiveness. And once the priest had been cut off from the source of his fire and reassigned to judge marrows at the village fete, his transformation from figure of fear to figure of fun was complete.

The same genius at containing the power of religion was at work in the establishment of the Church of England. Secularists think this arrangement gives the church too much influence over the state, but it’s the other way round: it secularises the church. When Puritan settlers in America set up a firewall between church and state, it wasn’t to protect the state from the church, but to protect their church from the state. And comparing England and the US, it would seem – however counterintuitive – that it’s precisely this separation that allows the American churches more influence over their government. Establishment domesticates the potentially dangerous enthusiasm of religion so that we might be “quietly governed”.

It’s not simply that the English sought to quarantine God so as to eliminate Him. Take choral evensong. Safe in the knowledge that proceedings will be ordered, beautiful and modest, the English are happy enough to creep in at the back of the church and allow their spirits to take flight on the back of an anthem by Stanford or Howells. In England, even God succumbs to principles of good housekeeping: “a place for everything and everything in its place”.

The country vicar, the established church, choral evensong – they represented threads of a complex settlement that developed over centuries between Christianity and the English. No one has yet worked out the consequences of this settlement having come to an end. But come to an end it most certainly has. The country vicar is a dying breed, his natural habitat slowly eroded as villages become pretty dormitories for people who work in towns. Economics did for the village shop and the pub – and they may well do for the traditional country church too. The only reason disestablishment doesn’t stand a chance is that no government will ever assign it the vast amount of parliamentary time that would be required. And only tourists go to choral evensong these days.

Many people confuse these changes with the declining influence of religion. In fact religion has returned to top of the agenda. Indeed, it was resurgent religion that delivered the coup de grace to the doctrinally inert country vicar. Belief is now back, often red in tooth and claw. In the minds of many, God is about terrorism, hatred and gay-bashing. And the ghost of the country vicar looks on with puzzled anguish. As Yeats put it: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The challenge for today’s church is to prove Yeats wrong. Liberals need to rediscover their fight and evangelicals need to learn that there is much in religious belief that is right and proper to fear.

On Good Friday, Christians remember the crucifixion. Those who welcomed Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday now bay for his blood. Even the hard-nosed career soldier Pontius Pilate fears the passionate intensity of the mob. As day falls, God is butchered on a cross. There’s no way of doing theological justice to any of this without breaking into a serious existential sweat. And that’s why the central-casting country vicar just didn’t add up. But the intense energy of Good Friday is easily purloined for hysterical and destructive purposes. One only has to think of the ways the story of the cross has been used to fuel centuries of anti-semitism. The life of faith has to come with a public health warning: religion can kill.

We are currently witnessing the slow break-up of the last great nationalised industry: the Church of England. And these changing circumstances require a new settlement. As a public body, the English church became mired in procedure, pomp and bureaucracy. It failed to live up to the daring energy and enthusiasm of its founding message.

Even the Archbishop of Canterbury is now calling for a new order: “A lot of the training of clergy has tended to prepare for maintenance rather than expansion, or even sometimes for managing decline. We’ve got to find new ways of encouraging the sort of ministry that will be prepared to be entrepreneurial, that will take risks, that will step outside the conventional patterns, the conventional boundaries of the way church is done.”

The new buzz in the C of E is towards a free market in religious expression. Still frustratingly cautious, none the less these fresh expressions of church suggest a religion without the checks and balances provided by the traditional English settlement. What’s being imagined is a more energetic and vigorous church. And if the transformation to an entrepreneurial model is followed through, it will undoubtedly see many more people coming to church. But it will also see religion conducted beyond the hesitancy for which the old Church of England has always been known. And that will make it unstable and unpredictable. As the old order breaks apart, the worry is that we may release the genie of English religious fanaticism from the establishment box in which it has been dormant for centuries.