Eleanor Mills: Without God, culture is lost
Whether or not you believe in a Christian god, that is a rich cultural inheritance. English literature is permeated with Christian stories
Published: 10 October 2010
- Christianity is woven into British life. The Queen is head of the Church of England, bishops sit in the House of Lords, the smallest organisational unit in our democracy is the parish.
A city is only a city if it has a cathedral. Christian architecture is all around us, yet it increasingly feels like a remnant of another age; the religious fervour of our forefathers seems almost as irrelevant to today as the Norman castles that litter our landscape.
Of course prime real estate sacred or otherwise will always find new uses.
Many churches, deconsecrated or not, host day nurseries, salsa classes, ballet lessons, restaurants and some even have a bar built in. Everywhere they are being reinvented for modern lives.
Without such renaissances they would be mighty white elephants. A study published by the Church of England last week revealed a new nadir for our established religion: it found that only 15% of British adults claim to be regular (once a month) church-goers. For those aged 16-24 that figure is less than 10%. By contrast, 45% of those aged 16-24 said they had never been to church and were unlikely to do so.
That sounds dire, but the figures taken from an actual head count of attendance nationwide on a particular Sunday show things are probably even worse. The Church Census found that half of churches in England had no 11 to 14-year-olds in the congregation on the day of the survey and 59% had no 15 to 19-year-olds.
Established religions retain their power and traditions through what Danièle Hervieu-Léger, the eminent French sociologist, describes as the chain of memory.
Religion, she argues, means not just subscribing to a particular set of beliefs but rather an active participation in the culture of faith its convictions, stories, language and ritual.
These days our youngsters are so ignorant of Christianity that most cant even recite the Lords prayer (although immigrants from black Caribbean and African cultures in some inner cities buck the trend). Generally, though, our national religion is taught as just another belief system in schools in some, hymns such as Jerusalem and Onward Christian Soldiers are heard only on CDs as part of RE lessons.
Generation X those born between 1961 and 1981 is the most secular in our society, brought up almost entirely outside formal places of worship.
Many baby-boomer parents were atheists or had church rammed down their throats as children and thought they would spare their own offspring the tedious sermons, fire and brimstone and old-fashioned customs.
How can you enjoy the wonderful poems of someone such as George Herbert without knowing the psalms on which they are based? In the 1970s and 1980s most schools still sang hymns and featured bible readings at morning assembly. The legacy of that immersion is a familiarity with stirring tunes, but more than that the way the powerful cadences and rhythms of the King James Bible murmur through the mind. Whether or not you believe in a Christian god, that is a rich cultural inheritance. English literature is permeated with Christian stories.
Last week at the Tory party conference in Birmingham, Michael Gove, the education secretary, argued passionately for a return to high standards in schools. British history is a key part of his project; he is employing Simon Schama, the historian, to redraft our island story for 21st-century kids so they know about kings and queens, rebellions and values.
As part of this push, Gove wants the likes of Dryden, Shelley, Keats, Milton and Pope to be put back at the heart of the curriculum. Now this is all very laudable but, given the barren state of our childrens biblical knowledge, it is pretty far-fetched, if not impossible. To study English literature, particularly the kind of luminaries Gove is so keen on, is impossible without some knowledge of the classics. Dryden, Keats, Pope and Shelley are all drenched in Virgil, Ovid and Homer; to get a handle on them it is crucial to have a rudimentary grasp of such texts. They are, of course, also permeated by western civilisations other cornerstone, Christianity.
School used to inculcate enough of the good Samaritan, Jonah, Lucifer, crucifixion, garden of Eden, psalms and so on through daily collective worship to make comprehensible the multitudinous Christian allusions of such texts.
The problem with Goves plan to revive the literary canon in schools is that a generation entirely ignorant of the Christian faith is going to find it incredibly difficult probably impossible to get to grips with large chunks of our most famous literature.
How can you enjoy the wonderful poems of someone such as George Herbert without knowing the psalms on which they are based? How can you understand Milton if you know absolutely nothing of the Bible?
And thats just the literature. When it comes to art, the iconography of our most famous paintings is even more suffused with Christianity. Listening to a few hymns on a CD and appearing in a nativity play are not going to imbue our children with the cultural tools they need to unlock Britains greatest writers and artists.
Our educated forebears were steeped in the Bible, in the rhythms, phrases and beliefs of Anglicanism; everybody went to church, its rituals christenings, confirmations, marriages, funerals, Sunday services were the stuff of life. Its values love thy neighbour, honour thy father and mother, do as you would be done by are the basis not just of our literary and artistic culture, but also of our democracy itself.
Some of my atheist friends realise this. They take their children to church because they want them to understand their heritage. One father takes his daughter to an array of services, high church, low church, Pentecostal, to give her a sense of the Christian tradition. I try to sing my favourite hymns and psalms to my children as lullabies; I read them bible stories alongside fairy tales so those characters and cadences are stored in their heads for later.
The physical fabric of the church can easily be reinvented to serve modern life; to save and give meaning to the intellectual inheritance of our Christian past in a secular, scientific age is much harder. But if we are to hang on not only to our culture, but also to the morality that underpins it, we have got to try.
Interesting reading. I have put a hard copy in the Church for reading as well.