British Christianity is trying too hard to be liked
Another football tournament, another messaging own goal for the leadership of the Church of England. On Friday, The Times reported the Bishop of Derby, Libby Lane, had given permission to churchgoers to miss Sunday service in favour of watching the women’s World Cup final. This was not quite accurate, but the paper did find several churches who were either cancelling services or re-organising them around the big match. A near-identical story played out last November, with regard to the men’s tournament.
It’s easy to roll one’s eyes at these stories, but there is perhaps a serious point to be made about how British Christianity — not just the Church of England — so often appears to be apologising for making any demands at all on its adherents. The desire to be liked, for example by taking a public interest in The Footie, is frequently palpable.
One possibility is that this is due to the preponderance of a particular kind of middle-class sensibility, a reluctance in some quarters to take any of the faith too seriously or to identify themselves with the weird, unpopular parts. This reluctance also helps to explain why less-educated and less well-off groups are disproportionately absent from British congregations — certainly within the Church of England, the Catholic Church and the traditional non-conformist churches.
Consider Christian leaders’ public political stances: anti-Brexit, pro-action on climate change, “anti-racist”, sceptical of border control, liberal on crime and punishment, and so on. Regardless of where you stand on these matters, it is hard to deny that, to the outsider, the churches’ political views look a lot like standard soft-Left politics laundered through the language and aesthetics of Christianity.
The faith often seems to have embraced a new mode of bourgeois respectability — not the old-fashioned kind, which was focused on keeping up appearances around dress and sexual propriety and social standing, but a new iteration, where correct political positions are the key to appearing Good. No wonder then if this all appears unattractive to those mystified or bored by the current preoccupations of the bourgeoisie.
It’s true also that many clergy have responded to the intellectual and scientific challenges of modernity by falling back on a sort of tactical ambiguity and vagueness about the Christian claims, to the point where it’s often not clear what, if anything, they stand for. This causes class division, as the more educated and intellectually inclined churchgoers are likely to find such obfuscation more tolerable and satisfactory than those who want clear, simple teaching. St Paul anticipated this problem, and staked out his belief in simple clarity, when he noted that “if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”