We spent the end of last week on an overnight trip to the Norfolk coast, along the North Sea. A short getaway we decided to do on the spur of the moment. It is about a two and a half hour drive out there from here in Hertfordshire:
While in the car, we had noticed also that there seemed to be churches everywhere – including rather impressive ones towering over small communities. Norfolk had once been more relatively heavily populated. (Centuries ago, Norwich was England’s second biggest city.) Many churches probably date back to that era.
I thought this might be appropriate for a Sunday post.
Winston Churchill knew many hymns by heart and could quote Bible verses off the top of his head (both normal for a man of his class and education in his time), but Great Britain’s most famous prime minister wasn’t especially religious. More recently, then prime minister Tony Blair’s (1997-2007) communications director, Alastair Campbell, once (now famously) remarked (of a prime minister), “We don’t do God.” A British prime minister generally steers clear of religion – unlike American presidents who are always talking about God and declaring the likes of “God Bless the United States…”
Yet also unlike the United States, Great Britain is an officially Christian country. The Church of England (CoE), founded in the Reformation and King Henry VIII’s often violent break with the Roman Catholic Church in the 1530s, is England’s established church. Anglican (shorthand for the Church of England) Christianity is officially a matter of state; the monarchy is based on it and the Queen is head of the church.
That is a major reason I suspect many in British media seem so fascinated by many American officials’ public displays of personal (Christian) religiosity in a state that is constitutionally religiously “neutral.” Great Britain is in many ways the exact opposite: officially it is a Christian country, yet most of its politicians don’t carry on about Christianity or their personal faith (including lack thereof).
Neither does the bulk of the population. For example, there was the woman at the Norfolk inn where we had stayed overnight. At checkout, casually she had asked where we were headed next: “Are you off home?”
My wife noted – because she had been asked – that we were stopping at Walsingham, which was about 20 minutes away, on our drive back to Hertfordshire. Evidently that surprised the woman. With a respectful acknowledgment, she replied, simply, “Oh.”
I suspect she was at least culturally Anglican because if she had been a Roman Catholic (or a Muslim, or of another faith), that conversation would have probably continued a little bit longer. In the U.S., especially if she had been an evangelical Christian, that exchange possibly would have ended with her even inviting us to HER church. Many Americans readily discuss religion in a social manner with strangers in ways most British just don’t.
The woman probably suspected we were headed for the Roman Catholic shrine at Walsingham – which we were. There is an Anglican shrine there too (and it is spectacular), but most Anglicans don’t tend to go to shrines either. And she would have considered it improper and intrusive to have asked us which one…
Most Anglicans don’t attend church regularly, if at all, and often appear irreligious. So in a prime minister not invoking God, Campbell had a point. Even most observant Anglicans would be uncomfortable with an American president’s overtly voiced Christianity as far too evangelical and “pushy” – Anglicans consider themselves “moderates,” falling between “old-fashioned” and “inflexible” Roman Catholics and “fundamentalist” Protestants.
England contains just about every Christian denomination, and non-Christian faith, on earth. Certainly the Church of England “does do God” – christenings, matrimony, funerals, and much more, of course. Indeed some Catholics (especially liberals) have been drawn into joining it.
But that doesn’t happen very often. There are about 5-6 million Roman Catholics in England and Wales and probably at least 5-6 times as many “official” Anglicans, but it appears more Catholics attend Mass each Sunday than Anglicans attend CoE services. (Probably more Muslims – there are about 3 million of them – also attend mosque on Fridays.) Catholics will often look at a magnificent 1,000 year old parish church and think, “That was ours. We had to build new ones that mostly aren’t nearly so fantastic. What a waste those gorgeous structures are so empty most of the time.”
But low Church of England attendance is not a new thing. You can read 300 year old complaints among officials and clergy about it. In the 1600s and 1700s, to try to keep up numbers, you could have even been fined for non-attendance.
That “state church” heritage may inadvertently create an apathy. People know that lovely church and genial vicar is there if they need it, and that is “comforting.” But it is always there and it seems most people just don’t think about it very much most of the time.
That said, otherwise religiously indifferent British would likely go to battle stations if some government bureaucrat dared to inform them, “Look, attendance is so small, we will pull that church down and put up a brand new shopping centre.” They would be APPALLED at the historical vandalism; they would organize an angry letter-writing campaign to their MP; they would host teas and cake sales to raise money to save it; they would hire lawyers to challenge the move in court; and some would at the last minute even probably chain themselves to the church door when the demolition vehicles appeared. Yet just attending ordinary Sunday services for a hour weekly at that church somehow would never cross most of their minds.
I’ve been to a Church of England service and it is similar to our Roman Catholic one in some ways. It was celebrated by a pleasant woman vicar (which definitely means it is not Roman Catholic), and it was fine; but it is not my religious tradition and I don’t think I would do that every week – although if I had no other church choice I probably could. What is a shame is that people who claim to be Anglicans don’t go in greater numbers each week; likely many more go to the local pub.
When Tony Blair had wanted to address the British people in a televised speech in March 2003 over Britain’s joining in the attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, he turned to Campbell and reportedly asked, “How should I start?” Campbell joked in reply, “How about ‘My fellow Americans’?” Interestingly, after he left the prime ministership in 2007, the previously Anglican Blair converted officially to Roman Catholicism; and Campbell is seen popping up now and then doing American-style loudmouth punditry on TV and social media and has flat out declared he is an atheist.
Hope you’re having a good weekend! 🙂