ARE the British still religious? This is a question that I am often asked when travelling as a journalist in Eastern Europe. My answer is “Yes, but we express our religiousness discreetly.” And yet this never quite seems to work. Being religious, it is generally assumed over there, means turning up at services and doing the Church’s bidding. By that measure, the British have long since turned their backs on God.
Presenting richer Western societies as godless and immoral has suited the Churches of Eastern Europe. Indeed, it has become something of an article of faith, especially in Russia and Poland, where the predominant Orthodox and Roman Catholic hierarchies see themselves as defending Europe’s Christian heritage and holding the line against secularisation.
Such views sit well with myths of national righteousness and purity — establishing boundaries against decadent neighbours — and help to keep adherents loyal by showing what happens when rampant materialism takes over. They also justify a conservative stance against any talk of liberal reform: if the Church’s authority is questioned, it is argued, the Christian ethical order will quickly break down.
ALL this helps to explain why Churches in Britain are routinely presented by the pro-Orthodox Interfax news agency in Russia and the Church-owned Catholic Information Agency in Poland as a source of amusing stories, involving feuds over homosexuality, agnostic clergy, and attempts to rewrite the Gospels.
Anyone familiar with Christian life in Britain will realise what a gross distortion this is. It was partly to challenge such stereotypes that one of my colleagues from Polskie Radio (the state-owned broadcaster) and I recently wrote a book of questions and answers about religion.
”Aren’t your Churches all struggling to survive,” my colleague asked, “pilloried by the press and marginalised by society?”
My answer was an attempt to explain that Britain was home to more full-time clerics than Poland (37,500, UK Church Statistics 2005-2015 reports, compared with Poland’s 31,500). I also referred to my country’s global Christian outreach in aid, education, and mission, as well as to achievements in liturgy, music, theology, and preaching, which had sustained a worldwide Anglican Communion.
Unlike Roman Catholic Poland, Britain was also host to dozens of Christian denominations — including Orthodox, Lutheran, and Reformed — some represented on a substantial scale, I explained. And, while church attendance was lower here, there were areas of growth, as in our historic cathedrals, which were older and grander than anything Poland could offer, and in smaller Churches, such as Baptists and Pentecostalists.
MY COLLEAGUE probed further: “But aren’t you all submerged in relativism and individualism, steadily succumbing to the ‘culture of death’ deplored by the great St John Paul II?”
I replied that the late Polish Pope was not describing a concrete state of affairs, but pointing to certain risks inherent in free societies. Devout Polish Christians might be shocked by the widespread acceptance of abortion in Britain, when it is effectively banned in their own country; but they should set this against the huge reserves of generosity and goodwill found here, as well as the “wellsprings of initiative and creativity” that were praised by John Paul II when referring to Western capitalist countries in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus.
I was also asked why Christians did not take a firmer stand in defence of religious values, to which I explained that we lived in a grown-up society, which is no longer prepared to be preached at, or told what to think and believe. Most British Christians expressed their values calmly and unobtrusively through practical everyday efforts to improve the world — not through pompous, self-important declarations.
A Church such as that in Poland might be forthright in what it teaches, with the Pope and the Magisterium to back it up; but it can also be tainted with wealth and power, arrogance, intolerance, and narcissism. A Church such as the C of E might appear uncertain and divided; but it provides fellowship and solidarity that are rarely encountered in the Polish Church.
THE notion that there can be only one model of Christian affiliation is deeply rooted in Poland, Russia, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. So is the ideological tendency, inherited from Communism, to assume that those who dissent are disloyal and unpatriotic, motivated by self-interest and ill-will.
And yet the secularising challenges that have faced Churches in Britain are now being faced in Eastern Europe, too — and might even bring a realisation that patient, modest work behind the scenes counts as much for the future of Christianity as vast, applauding crowds.
While claiming most citizens as adherents, the Russian Orthodox Church can count only a small fraction of the population as active members, and it is now tainted by its association with President Putin’s authoritarian government.
And while the Roman Catholic Church in Poland has been the envy of others for its high attendance rates, these have never been the only measure of religious commitment. Congregations and priestly vocations are now falling, in some cases sharply, and Poland has much lower levels of charitable giving, social engagement, and personal trust than “secular Britain”.
In a recent conversation, the Primate of Poland, the Archbishop of Gniezno, the Most Revd Wojciech Polak, told me that his priests often had little understanding of conditions when they came to work in countries such as Britain. In the Netherlands, visiting Polish clergy are now required to spend a whole year retraining in a Dutch seminary.
Mutual understanding will be crucial if Christians are to work together in the future — and it will come through mutual respect and acceptance, not by spreading caricatures about each other.
Jonathan Luxmoore’s book Szepty Boga (”God’s Whispers”), with Malgorzata Glabisz-Pniewska, is published by Homo Dei in Krakow.