Post-Christian nation looks back in mourning

02 June 2017

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Remembrance: people attend a candlelit vigil to mourn the victims of Manchester terror attack at Albert Square last week

Remembrance: people attend a candlelit vigil to mourn the victims of Manchester terror attack at Albert Square last week

“LOOKING at something with fresh eyes” is another way of saying that you take it out of context. Whether this is morally or profes­sionally defensible depends entirely on the cir­cumstances, and on the fresh context into which the story is placed.

But often it is the things that people take completely for granted, and no longer even see, which are most revealing to strangers. In that context, the grief and horror over the Manchester bombing is notable because of how little explicit Christianity there was in it.

Those murdered were, in the eyes of their murderers, Christians. It’s quite clear from the Islamic State account that the victims were, to their killer, “Crusaders”.

But the great major­ity of the murdered seem not to have thought of themselves that way at all. The city’s great act of public mourning was a minute’s silence, followed by scattered singing of an Oasis song, “Don’t Look Back in Anger”, not, as it would once have been, a hymn. The difference, in this context, between a hymn and a “worship song” is that hymns were enjoyed by people who did not feel obliged to believe their implications.

The sentiment of the song itself is post-Christian, by which I mean that it could only have emerged from a particular sort of Chris­tian culture: there have been other cultures in which looking back in anger after an attack like this was the absolute touchstone of virtue, and to revenge an insult was almost the primary moral duty — and there still are. Some of these would also have called themselves Christian: it’s not just “Onward, Christian soldiers”, but “God Save the Queen”, which takes that kind of bel­ligerence for granted. In fact, much the same could be said of Islam. It contains both ag­­gressive and forgiving strains, and it seems to me unwise to claim that either is the “real” Islam.

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But the style of public grief in Manchester shows how much of the country understands itself as a particular sort of post-Christian nation.

 

I DOUBT that many Premier Christian Radio listeners would agree. There was a wholly de­­lightful survey published by the Evangelical radio station, from which it appeared that “Christians” believe that the party leader who most resembles Jesus is Theresa May.

I put “Christians” in scare quotes because I can’t work out from the press release how they identified the category. That hardly matters, if the purpose of the survey was to stimulate outrage and publicity.

In any case, it does stimulate a little thought as well: from my point of view, it is simply incredible that anyone would suppose that a minister responsible for her policies on asy­lum seekers, or on the treatment of the poor, could be mistaken for Jesus.

None the less, I am interested in how anyone could reach that conclusion. What I would like to believe is that this shows the primacy of identity over ideology.

The majority of self-identified Anglicans are conservative and vote Conservative. They may not go to church much, but they know that they are Christians, and Mrs May seems to be the politician who most resembles their Christian selves; so she must be the one who most closely follows Jesus.

Neither Tim Farron’s fervent public faith nor even Jeremy Corbyn’s beard can alter this conclusion. But I could be wrong about this as well. So far as polls can tell, the majority of Conservative voters really believe that people go to foodbanks as a result of ignorance, weakness, and their own deliberate fault.

What is absolutely certain, and almost too obvious to notice, is that the fact that she is a woman played no part in deciding how closely she resembled Jesus. In that sense, the fight over women priests is completely finished.

 

SECULARISATION is not a uniform process. What is happening in Ireland is a great illus­tration.

The Irish Times had a story about the spread of Pentecostal churches in the Irish Republic by the executive director of the Evan­gelical Alliance Ireland, Nick Park, which opens in a Romanian congregation in Dublin: “On one side of the ornate pulpit a 50-voice choir — images being projected onto a huge screen at the front — is singing in beautiful harmonies.

“Over 700 worshippers, all of them adults, are listening in rapt attention. Downstairs over 200 children are engrossed in Sunday school classes.”

Elsewhere in the capital, Mr Park had found 14 congregations meeting in one industrial park, some in shifts, so that one had the morning session and another the after­noon.

There are apparently 100 congregations of one Nigerian group, the Redeemed Christian Church of God. I imagine de Valera spinning in his grave. Mr Park points out that these churches, “having never been part of the political or cultural power structures in the State, are generally unaffected by the scandals that have disillusioned so many”, which is a polite way of referring to the troubles of the Roman Catholic church.

He pitches this — naturally — as the wave of the future. It is certainly an unexpected consequence of secularism, and the erosion of ancient religious identities, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant.

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