Yes, I remember the Church of England, much more than a name, a living thing. As it happens, my own religiously confused family was not churchgoing. By the early 1950s, most of the respectable English middle class had ceased to be especially religious, though they continued to respect faith. Church attendance had ceased to be normal in most of Britain around the time of the 1914–18 war, and had begun to be abnormal after the 1939–45 war. But parents brought up in the lost age of faith still felt it right that their children should be taught beliefs they themselves had lost, but be taught them by someone else.
So through various schools I was exposed to the last enchantments of Anglicanism as it once was, full of the might, majesty, dominion, and power granted to it by the first Queen Elizabeth. These men had crowned the second Elizabeth before an astonished world in 1953, and made an ordinary young woman our anointed monarch in a ceremony of grandeur, mystery, and poetry, a vast moth-eaten musical brocade that in those days still comfortingly covered up the peeling wallpaper and cracked plaster of our national home.
I spent time as a non-singing pupil at a cathedral choir school in the softest corner of Southern England, what George Orwell called the sleekest landscape in the world. The cathedral cities of England are unknown elsewhere. Other countries may have cathedrals; one thinks of Chartres, Cologne, or Milan. But they do not have these uniquely English holy places. The great church broods over the small town, once a seat of power but long overtaken in size and importance by some shapeless industrial blob nearby. There is usually an elegant close of eighteenth-century gentlemen’s houses, breathing the sweet combination of Scripture, reason, and tradition which is the whole point of the Anglican compromise. There are gardens and trees almost as ancient as the buildings. All is regulated in an unworldly rhythm by bells and choirs, matins and evensong. They are shrines to a particular view of life, thought, and death.
Here we were inducted into the mysteries of our national religion, reasonable, surprisingly masculine for a faith that might at first glance seem soppy and weak, confident, and perhaps above all things unself-consciously beautiful. The beauty came from elsewhere as a free gift, in the language of worship and Scripture chosen in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For three hundred years it was just so, not especially treasured or remarked, but constant.
Now it has almost entirely vanished. You can still catch it at Christmas in a village church when a small child with a strong country accent grapples for the first time with the nativity story in the King James Bible, and the music of the eternal flows into the silent building through his hesitating tongue. The tongue is a fire. Likewise, the voice of the dullest and most banal curate is forced to soar as he reads the unaffected, lovely, heartbreaking words of the 1662 order for Holy Matrimony, or its elegiac twin, the earthy, uncompromising burial service. But these treasures, intricate ancient workmanship polished in use to a soft, deep gleam, are now rarely heard. Blander, more diffident, and less disturbing rituals, substituting syrupy banality for alarming majesty, have replaced them.
When I was small, these lovely, disturbing things were normal. There were no alternative modern services or sensible, rewritten Bibles from which every trace of poetry had been carefully removed. There were no jolly modern hymns. The bloodthirsty, vengeful bits of the Psalms were still sung in the ancient monastic cycle inherited from the Romish past. Priests and ministers (the title depending on how Protestant they were) wore academic hoods and gowns to remind us that they were learned, thoughtful men. These flashes of red and blue were, in fact, their chief adornments, worn atop austere Calvinist black and white surplices. The cathedral into which we filed, sometimes twice a day, was both richly ornamented and austere, a combination I have found nowhere else and which satisfies a profoundly English desire for modesty and restraint, even in the presence of glory.
I was brought up among such people, and I shared this taste. I still do. It is one of the most important things about me over which I have no control. Amid these crumbling arches stood and stands the Arundel Tomb which Philip Larkin was to make famous in his great poem, where he teeters (as he so often does) on the brink of faith before turning abruptly away . . . qualifying the seemingly confident, semi-biblical proclamation that “what will survive of us is love” with the words “our almost-instinct, almost true.”
“Almost” is the word Larkin uses when he wants to believe, yet decides not to, as in “The trees are coming into leaf, like something almost being said.” Actually, if the yearly revival of the woodlands catches you that way, as it does in my case, there is no “almost” about it. His hesitation, as he surely knew, was an Anglican characteristic. No minister or preacher, his bare dusty words surrounded by the ancient canticles and psalmody which were then the context of all our worship, would have dared to be emphatic, let alone enthusiastic. Ambiguity and loveliness helped us to accept, quite happily and without effort, something which is very difficult to credit. We believed completely in the entire creed, but poetically and musically and architecturally, in ways which naked prose cannot express.
I have never understood why people jeer at this form of belief. “Oh,” they say dismissively, “You just like the old buildings and the music, and the Shakespearean language.” They say this as if “liking” these things were a meaningless self-indulgence, an aesthetic fancy, like preferring China tea to Indian (which I don’t). My own view, then and ever since, is that the languages of architecture, music, and poetry work mightily on us when we are not aware of it, slip past our everyday defenses and so convey the unspeakable grandeur of God to us better than any other means. The haunting rhythms and shadowy shapes of the eternal disturb the banalities of the temporal, and no properly conscious human being comes out of a cathedral or ancient parish church the same as he or she went in. You might have thought that these were gifts we should take care to treasure and use aright. By themselves, simply by being there, they must have quietly wafted the spirit of God into millions of lives.
Not now. If I go back (as I recently did), there are traces of what I saw then. But most of it has been tidied away, along with the crumbling and rather alarming tombs in the grass around the building, which always seemed about to open and disclose their shrouded occupants, climbing out into the modern day like a Stanley Spencer resurrection. New glass doors, modern heating, modern lighting, welcome desks, tea-rooms, and bookstalls come between the visitor and the shadowed spaces. The services are shorter, the Bibles newer, the stone cleaner; the unsettling sweetish whiff of moldering coffins in ancient vaults has gone. So has the peace and so has the air of timeless authority. The modern world has got in. The particular place of which I speak is roiled by shame and anger about the abuse of children by priests, long unchecked and now belatedly acknowledged.
When I experienced that cathedral and city as a child, I saw an ordered, peaceful, gentle England in which two things were entirely taken for granted among all classes: that the courts were just and that we were free people.
I do not think my feeling of almost complete security, in a country where every road ended at the sea and even the worst enemy in the world had not managed to reach us or seriously damage us, was merely personal. I think it was true.
But now that cathedral and that city are the scene of a disturbing episode that has wholly upset my idea of what sort of country I now live in. It concerns the late Bishop George Bell, incomparably the greatest figure produced by the Church of England in modern times. He was a friend and sponsor of the arts in the service of God. He was among those who first discovered the genius of Gerard Manley Hopkins. He encouraged T. S. Eliot to write his great play, Murder in the Cathedral. Later, he was among the first to see the menace of National Socialism in Germany, tirelessly spoke for those persecuted there when this was an unfashionable and awkward cause, and became a close friend of the martyred Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And then, in the face of sour hostility from Winston Churchill, he publicly attacked the policy of bombing German civilians in their homes, to this day a divisive and painful issue in Britain. This almost certainly prevented him from becoming archbishop of Canterbury, a post he would have greatly adorned.
I know people, now in their nineties, who knew him well. They still love him for his quiet, unostentatious goodness and his absolute passion for the truth. One said to me, “He was John Bunyan’s Mr Valiant-for-Truth, from the Pilgrim’s Progress.” The dwindling number who have read that book, once on every English bookshelf, will recall Mr Valiant-for-Truth’s farewell: “My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who will now be my rewarder.” And after he crossed the great river of death, “All the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”
Those who decry or dismiss the Anglican Church as a waffling, directionless bureaucracy, a lifeless state church without passions or real beliefs, cannot really fit the late George Bell into this picture. And perhaps that is why the modern Church of England (which probably is just such a lifeless thing) has now publicly denounced George Bell as a wicked child abuser, on the basis of a single anonymous claim, first made thirty-seven years after his death and forty-five years after the alleged events.
There is little evidence that the claims have been thoroughly investigated, and signs that the Church (which has been feeble over several cases of real and proven abuse) wishes to appear decisive and effective to save itself from the fate that has overtaken the Roman Catholics. Yet many find these claims hard to believe, and they have boiled like a polluted flood through the once tranquil closes and lanes of Chichester, the scene of my childhood introduction to the beauty of holiness. Schools and buildings named after George Bell have been stripped of this association in a frenzy of unpersoning. Even the elegant carved stone monument to Bishop Bell, a few yards away from the Arundel Tomb, is threatened with some sort of revision.
Anyone who thought that these ancient arches and cloisters were a safe home for justice and liberty has now been disabused of his illusions. The presumption of innocence, that greatest of all restraints on the state, which first grew in English soil, seems to have withered away altogether. I shall remain an Anglican despite all this because in some eternal dimension, the existence of the Church I knew continues in the form of the Prayer Book and the King James Bible. But the smearing of George Bell has left me an internal exile. It is odd that the Bell case, in many ways as searingly important as Captain Dreyfus was to Zola’s generation of Frenchmen, has so far barely raised a whisper in English public life, while disputes about homosexual clergy or women bishops command attention.
In fact, a vaguely conscious English person of 2016 probably associates the Established Church much more with sex than with God. Perhaps if I explain a little about a book that was recently withdrawn from publication due to certain disputed facts, I can also explain why the Church of England has passed in a generation from significance to insignificance. The book’s title, That Was the Church That Was, has a double meaning, open only to a certain generation of British persons. The title does not just mean “that was the church that used to be.” It is a conscious reference to a revolutionary moment in British culture, a short-lived TV program called That Was the Week That Was, also called TW3, which was screened late on Saturday evenings for a few short months in 1962 and 1963 and has never been forgotten by those (including this writer) who watched it.
Before it was broadcast, we still had the ability to be shocked and scandalized. Afterwards, we had lost that capacity. We had passed through amazement into acceptance that we were not the country or the people we had once been. It was round about then that most of us probably accepted in our hearts that we would rather sink, giggling, into the sea than take part in any scheme aimed at national salvation.
Every comforting belief, including religion, was turned into a huge joke. It was very funny, but we were a little ashamed of finding it so. Many subsequent TV programs have tried to emulate it, but they cannot, because such delicious shock is something you can only experience once, just as you can only lose your virginity once.
During this brief time of transformation, a sex-and-espionage scandal called the Profumo affair accelerated the collapse, amid gleeful ridicule, of all that was left of Britain’s Victorian establishment. The program’s satire would not seem very potent now, but that is the point: It did then. The show began each week with the scratchy, raucous jazz-club voice of the red-haired singer Millicent Martin. (We somehow knew her hair was red even though our TV was all in black and white. Perhaps it sounded red.) “That was the week that was,” she cawed. “It’s over, let it go.” And then she dismissed the events and people of the previous week with cackling sarcasm.
I remember, one week, that a Church of England vicar had written in to the BBC to complain. They broadcast his complaint in the strange medieval chant familiar to any Anglican churchgoer (however occasional). “Millicent Martin is simply repulsive,” intoned an unseen voice, in the style normally used to plead each morning and evening the timeless and never redundant plea “Give Peace in Our Time, O Lord.” The studio audience laughed mightily. The point about this is that, in 1963, even unbelievers knew and recognized what was being mocked. Now they wouldn’t have the faintest idea, and parsons don’t chant like that anymore. They’re too busy launching group hugs or devising rap liturgies.
The shriveling of the majestic Anglicanism of my childhood into the unending quarrel about sex which it has become is a symbol of its decay. That Was the Church That Was (I think I can reveal without causing any grave difficulties to anyone) is dominated by factional differences between evangelical conservatives and liberal Catholics, by office politics, by money troubles, and by struggles over homosexuality and over the ordination of women. It is hardly at all about trying to maintain the Christian faith in an age of secularism. Nowhere does it discuss the mysterious but willful destruction of the mighty poetic force of the Bible and Prayer Book, which has turned the thunder and trumpets of Anglican worship into a series of squeaks and squawks, accompanied by tambourines and guitars. This rejection of solemnity and mystery helped to make possible the shrinking of a great Church into a series of squabbles. Both events are consequences of the general inability of a once important people to take themselves seriously anymore.
Intellectuals had begun to desert religion long before 1914, but it was Britain’s descent from greatness and wealth to indebtedness and triviality that knocked the buttresses away from the Church of England. This descent was hugely accelerated by our involvement in the 1914–18 war.
Larkin is helpful again, because he describes so well (in “MCMXIV”) the sort of people from all classes who (uniquely among the belligerents) volunteered for death in the first two years of war.
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
They were the faithful, the best, self-selected for early childless death in the mud. We could not afford to lose them. Their names, listed intolerably outside Oxford and Cambridge Colleges, in the chapels of the great schools, and on granite memorials in every city, town, and village, are the names of those who would have maintained our traditions of Christian liberty and justice in every calling, profession, and trade, and who now lie, far from home, dead before they could get children and pass on their virtues. We who were left behind live in the ruins of a lost civilization, scuttling in and out of doorways too tall for us.
So ended a global empire which dispatched fleets of giant gray warships round the world to secure its wealth and which needed to be underpinned by serious ideas, nobly phrased and spoken by serious people. A post-imperial country increasingly famous for the Beatles (for heaven’s sake) and the miniskirt did not need such things. Although the deep old sources of our wealth were drying up, we were for a time affluent. No other power could so effectively have dispelled the austere, hollow-cheeked stoicism, the tolerance of bad food in inadequate amounts, the thin sour beer, watered to help the war effort, the national motto of “mustn’t grumble.”
English Protestantism, with its secret enjoyment of the chilly, the grim, and the frugal, was killed in fifteen years by supermarkets and TV commercials, fake Italian restaurants, cheap holidays in Spain. The Church’s loveliest and most accessible service, Evensong, was killed off in many parishes because, in the days before VCRs, worshippers preferred to watch a dramatization of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga on TV. Thus do great traditions end, and a culture that in living memory still read The Pilgrim’s Progress and readily recognized quotations from Isaiah now watches Sex in the City and thinks Vanity Fair is a magazine. I have learned, in a time of loss where anything good and beloved fights to survive, to mourn such departures but not to imagine that, in this life, what is lost will ever return. It will not. But anyone who is pleased that it is gone for good is a fool.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for The Mail on Sunday.