When a senior member of the Habsburg family dies, and is entombed in the Imperial Crypt under Vienna’s Capuchin Church, the Kapuzinerkirche, the interment is preceded by a remarkable ritual. A herald knocks on the door of the church, and a Capuchin friar asks “Who seeks entry?” The herald lists the numerous styles and titles of the departed, to which the friar responds “We don’t know him”.
A second knock follows; the friar repeats the question. The herald replies with the achievements and honours of the deceased. Once again the friar says “We don’t know him”. After this comes a third knock, and a third demand for identification. This time the herald simply states the given name of the deceased, followed by the words “a mortal, sinful, human being”. The friars of the Kapuzinerkirche then open the door and admit the coffin.
The symbolism is obvious. Be ye ever so mighty, you will face God’s judgment as surely as anyone else, and all your wealth and power and grandeur will avail you nothing. Even for those who do not believe in God, or who view the ceremony cynically as a bit of slick PR by the rich and mighty to sweeten the pill of their dominance for the downtrodden masses, it is surely an impressive moment.
It beautifully illustrates the same point as the old joke about the mourner at a rich man’s funeral, who asks the priest “How much did he leave?” and receives the unbeatably laconic reply “All of it”. The Book of Common Prayer puts it this way: “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out”.
One of the great benefits of formal Christian liturgies, especially those that have not been cackhandedly modernised by well-meaning barbarians, is that they regularly confront the churchgoer with three absolutely fundamental truths of the human condition, namely the fact of our sinfulness, the certainty of our death, and the universal need for mercy and forgiveness. Which is why I think that, to aid national unity and reconciliation in post-Brexit Britain, as a New Year’s resolution we should oblige MPs to attend church on a regular basis.
I have it all planned out. There would, of course, be exemptions for MPs who are members of other faiths. But as for everyone else, from the Prime Minister down to the lowliest backbencher, once a week or so they would be herded over the road to Westminster Abbey, with the Serjeant-at-Arms close behind to make sure no one sneaks off for a cheeky cigarette on College Green.
It would be an ecumenical service, to avoid any sectarian quibbling. The main thing would be to have an old-fashioned full-blooded confession of sin, with lots of kneeling, alongside some well-chosen Bible readings focused on the universality of the Fall, the inevitability of judgment and the dangers of power. The story of the Pharisee and the Publican would get a run-out once every three or four weeks, to make sure that it haunted the dreams of the inveterate moral show-offs who litter the green benches.
Maybe we could also have a recurring role for Romans 3: “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” Ideally the service would be led by one of those tall, severe clergymen with a resonant and faintly intimidating voice, although they are in short supply nowadays. Possibly we could tempt Richard Chartres out of retirement.
I am being a little bit facetious. But if you truly want to address political, cultural and social polarisation, and to start healing the divides exposed and exacerbated by the Brexit convulsions, you could do a lot worse than getting our elites back into church.
At its best, Christian worship is a great leveller. Walk into the main Sunday service at any church in London, and you will almost certainly find more ethnic diversity than in practically any other setting you care to mention. I dare say this diminishes a little as you move further out from the centre, but these days even the most suburban parishes will generally have a more varied racial mix than, say, the Liberal Democrat membership. I attend Catholic Mass in Folkestone, a mid-sized seaside town in Kent, and the congregation is significantly more ethnically diverse than the town itself.
The same applies to class, certainly in the Catholic Church. In many places the social mix in Catholic parishes still bears the mark of the history of the faith in England, with observance kept alive by a small number of upper-class recusants and their loyal dependants, and mostly abandoned by the rising middle and commercial classes, then reinforced in the last couple of centuries by working-class Irish immigration and converts from the intelligentsia.
One of the great things about church is that you don’t get to choose who is there with you. The person next to you may be a fiery Marxist or a staid Tory; they could be a repentant murderer, or a blameless widow who has never missed a Sunday service in seventy years. They could be an immigrant who only arrived at Heathrow three weeks ago, or the second son of a Duke whose family came over with the Conqueror; they could be a brilliant intellectual or someone with profound learning difficulties.
All the same, you pray the same prayers. In churches with traditional liturgy, you turn to them and you offer them Christ’s peace. You kneel together and you ask for the same mercy from the same God. In the Catholic Mass the Confiteor, the confession, is addressed not simply to God but also to our “brothers and sisters”.
And just as in church there is no escaping human equality before God, there is no escaping from human frailty and the reality of our own wrongdoing. “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts”, says the Church of England’s General Confession, “and there is no health in us.” “I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof”, pray Catholics before receiving Communion. To the non-churchgoer this all perhaps sounds a little excessive and gloomy, even masochistic. But it’s not really: it’s an honest reckoning with the extent of our wrongdoing and the depth and persistence of our imperfections.
For politicians in particular — to return to my modest proposal — it is very important to be conscious of their temptations and flaws. Power does funny things to people, and it is no bad thing to have some humility thrust upon you. One of the most striking and inspiring stories from early Christianity is of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, refusing to celebrate Mass for the Emperor Theodosius until the latter repented of an atrocity which his troops had carried out. It is a fantastic example of the Church standing up to worldly might, and one might wish Ambrose’s example had been followed more consistently by other bishops in later eras.
A common jibe against Christianity is that it is a way for The Man to control the masses. Maybe getting politicians to kneel before God and admit their weakness might mean Christianity helping the masses to control The Man.