Even bishops are forgetting the community
Notebook, Patrick West
Whenever an Anglican bishop makes the headlines, I find it hard not to think of Dr Spacely-Trellis, the fictitious Bishop of Bevendon. The monstrous creation of the Daily Telegraph’s late Michael Wharton, he was the trendy, go-ahead cleric who wants to jettison such “outmoded” ideas as belief in the Immaculate Conception, the Trinity, the Resurrection and so on.
The latest real-life candidate is the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, who has called for an end to mandatory collective worship in schools. The 70-year-old legal requirement belongs more to the 1940s, he says, than to a 21st-century Britain in which Christianity is but one faith among many (and none).
The comparison with Wharton’s grotesque is admittedly a little unfair. One of the Church of England’s greatest merits is that it’s never really been literal-minded. My father, for example, would always conscientiously go to St Giles-in-the-Fields in central London to sing hymns and hear sermons about the Somme, and he still enjoys Songs of Praise. But like many church-goers, he’s never been especially interested in the theological aspect of religion. And like many conservative Anglicans, he is suspicious of Evangelical "do-gooder” types.
To my father, being an Anglican and singing hymns is merely part of being an Englishman. And now that the Irish community in England has to all intents completely assimilated, a similar case could be made for the ritualistic, congregational, community-centred nature of English Catholicism.
In my mind, the real problem with religion, and indeed atheism, is when it forgets its communal role and starts to become too literal-minded. Witness the wilful ignorance of young earth creationists or bellicose homophobes who cherry pick Leviticus – or, even worse, intolerant Islamism. Richard Dawkins’s reported disapproval of telling children fairy tales is a milder version of this mindset, as is the Bishop of Oxford’s opinion on daily prayer in schools. Both the bishop and Dawkins overlook the role of communal ritual, religious narrative and England’s Christian heritage.
Far from creating imaginary divisions, daily acts of communal ritual bind people together. As Jonathan Sacks argued in his splendid 2009 book, The Homes We Build Together, the best way to bring people together is encourage them to do things together. This is the key to creating harmony in a multi-ethnic country such as ours – not to “respect” or “celebrate” difference, but rather to ignore difference.
Of course. a lot people do take their theology very seriously. But my hunch, as an ex-atheist, born-again agnostic, is that most Catholics and Anglicans go to church on a Sunday more for the ritual, the stories, the sense of community and the sheer mental escape, rather than for answers to the big questions. Even religious groups who aren’t big on theology, such as the Quakers, recognise the importance of communal ritual.
I have a friend, who now works on the Guardian, whose Hindu parents came from India, and yet he attended a Quaker school in Reading. He’s an exemplar of how multicultural Britain is a success story when we don’t make a fuss about cultural difference, but instead concentrate on what we have in common. A basic Christian daily ritual offends only attention-seeking self-flaggellants.
This brings me to another fictitious cleric, Fr Dougal Maguire from Father Ted who, when asked his thoughts about religion, replied: “Ah, come on. You’re not meant to take it seriously.” Most of you wouldn’t agree, of course, but these words are worth thinking about the next time you’re at Mass: the very act of communal prayer might sometimes be as important as what is said during it.