Wednesday 23 April 2014

A Christian country?

Before the Easter holidays of 1965, my headmaster delivered a stern talk on the meaning of Good Friday to his class of ten-year-olds.

From this we learned that there were only two proper ways to spend the hours between 12 and 3 that sacred afternoon: in church or indoors at home engaged in quiet reflection on the sufferings of Christ.

We must on no account play noisily in our gardens or elsewhere, in ways that might impinge on the tranquillity of other believers.

I’d already felt obliged to lie when our teacher demanded an essay on “What I did at the weekend” and say that I went to church on Sunday, because every other child in my class claimed to do so. And it wasn’t even a Church school.

That lost England was unmistakably a Christian country and Good Friday was, appropriately enough, the deadest day of the year. No shops opened, no newspapers were published. No fun was to be had beyond the ritual consumption of hot cross buns, which were eaten that day and no other.

But what of the hornets’ nest stirred up by David Cameron’s insistence that Britain in 2014 is still “a Christian country”?

One might be inclined to take him more seriously if he didn’t issue similar messages about the importance he attaches to Judaism, Hinduism and Islam at Passover, Diwali and Eid, suggestive of a desperate sucking up to every faith community.

But, to be fair to the man, he has said similar things about Christianity before and, however harshly the unholy alliance of scientists, authors and comedians may rebuke him on the letters page of the Daily Telegraph, he is certainly correct in law.

The Christian faith of our head of state is proclaimed on every circulating coin and we have established State churches in both England and Scotland.

I go to church no more frequently than my parents did but, like them, I would unfailingly tick the “Christian” box on any form that was impertinent enough to enquire about my religious affiliation.

I was married in church using the 1662 Prayer Book (though five years on I am still waiting for my wife to obey me) and had my two sons baptised in the same style.

The late Sir John Mortimer encapsulated the position of many people like me very well when he described himself as “an atheist for Christ”.

I asked for a picture of John Mortimer in church and this came up; he must be thanking God

We love ancient churches and ritual. Few things delight us more than traditional Evensong sung by a cathedral choir.

Sadly our enthusiasm is rarely shared these days by the people who actually go to church, who seem more intent on ripping out the pews to installing comfy chairs, AV systems and coffee lounges.

When I enter a church I hope to hear comforting old words and sing familiar hymns, not to wave my arms in the air as some shining-eyed loon twangs a guitar.

So we have a small number of actual believers and a large number who consider themselves vaguely Christian and would like the church to continue to be there, doing what it always did and willing to receive us for life’s great rites of passage.

This view of the church is, in fact, curiously like my relationship with the Conservative party. I have been an inactive member all my adult life, attracted more by what the party stood for in the past than by anything it does today.

In that respect, I suppose, it is also akin to being a lifelong supporter of Newcastle United.

As it happens my membership is due for renewal and I was so disgusted with the whole Maria Miller expenses business that I felt seriously minded to pack it in.

Hence last week’s column, erroneously billed by one of my Journal colleagues as a bilious attack on the Labour party, when it was in fact a bilious attack on politicians in general.

Yet seeing the sort of people who oppose David Cameron’s latest pronouncement makes me waver. If only to ensure that I remain on his mailing list to see how he squares his support for traditional Christian values with his enthusiasm for gay marriage.

I wish you a very happy St George’s Day.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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