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Press: Clouds of witness at an unnatural death

29 March 2018


I HAVE been binge-reading the Peter Wimsey stories for the past three weeks. One of the most eye-catching things about them from today’s perspective is the way they take for granted that Christianity is actually true.

Dorothy Sayers was not a pious writer, even if she was a pious woman: the books are full of an exuberant, feline deconstruction of character and self-deception. Wimsey himself, although the perfect English gentleman (he only ever has French mistresses before marriage), is neither an observant nor a believing Christian.

But his brother in law, Chief Inspector Charles Parker, reads Evangelical theology for relaxation, and this is meant to be an illustration of his realistic and unsentimental outlook on life. Who would nowadays equip a policeman with an interest in theology as a way of showing that he is down to earth?

These books were written as mass-market entertainments: nothing in them will have been entirely implausible to a readership with no special interest in Christianity or religion as a whole.

The contrast came alive to me with the publication of Stephen Bullivant’s research into the attitudes of young people across Europe (News, 23 March), published in The Guardian under the bald headline “Christianity as default is gone”. Harriet Sherwood’s report had much the juiciest quotes: “Religion was ‘moribund’, he said. ‘With some notable exceptions, young adults increasingly are not identifying with or practising religion.’

“The trajectory was likely to become more marked. ‘Christianity as a default, as a norm, is gone, and probably gone for good — or at least for the next 100 years,’ Bullivant said.”

There was surprisingly little reaction to the most eye-catching statistic: that within the next ten years there will be more young Muslims in England than young Anglicans. I think this is because an idea which is agreeable to entertain as a satirically dread­ful possibility becomes much harder to consider when you realise that it might be true. Tales of the bogeyman are only enjoyable when you can’t smell rotting bones.

But Will Heaven, in The Sunday Telegraph, made a brave attempt at whistling past the graveyard. There were always cathedrals, he said, and Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB). But neither of these are reliable causes for optimism on the scale required. Cathedral congregations appear to be mostly the Radio 3 audience. These are excellent people. They should be going to church. But they are hardly young, and they don’t bring their children.

HTB grows much more slowly than the buzz suggests. I suppose that the greatest grounds for optimism lie in the vacuity of the alternatives to Christianity at the moment. Perhaps Richard Dawkins could be offered a burial place in Westminster Abbey for disservices to atheism.


WHETHER the Roman Catholic Church will be around to benefit from all this is another question. The fifth anniversary of Pope Francis provoked a long-form backlash from the conservative Ross Douthat, in The New York Times. His attack is much subtler than most of those on his side: “When people say, ‘He makes me want to believe again,’ as a lapsed-Catholic journalist said to me during one of these awkward ‘What do you have against Pope Francis?’ conversations, they aren’t usually paying close attention to the battles between cardinals and theologians over whether his agenda is farsighted or potentially heretical.

“Nor are they focused on his governance of the Vatican, where Francis is a reformer without major reforms, and the promised clean-up may never actually materialise.”

Douthat’s objection is that, under the cover of the grand inclusive gestures, Francis is decentralising the Church towards a more Anglican model (than which nothing could be worse to Anglophone Catholic conservative ears); also, that he is preparing to compromise with the Chinese dictatorship.

Neither of these objections, I think, will have much resonance outside their intended audience. Whether they, in fact, represent a threat to the future of the Church is much harder to tell. The great unspoken question is whether a reversal of those policies would do better, and this is one that Francis’s opponents tend lightly to skip past.


LAST of all, a really impressive feat of strawless brick-building: the Mail on Sunday’s attempt to reconstruct the conversations between Meghan Markle and Justin Welby, headed: “How do you feel about your ex? What the Archbishop may have said to Meghan Markle in a probing personal interview under Church of England ceremonies”.

Then again, he may not have done.

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