THE year just gone was, in one huge way, a warning against the danger of prediction. Something entirely unprecedented happened — not the pandemic itself, but the discovery and manufacture of several vaccines, in some cases using untried techniques, at a speed and on a scale that would have been incredible even ten years ago, and unimaginable 20 years before.
There had been a comparably intense burst of international scientific discovery and application during an earlier period of strained relations between Britain and the Continent — I’m thinking of the Manhattan project, the development of ballistic missiles, even the development of the first computers. But they were all designed as part of an effort to kill as many foreign civilians as possible, not to save their lives.
So, in a year that has been generally experienced as completely bloody and pointless, there has been one piece of good news so new that it was easy to miss its novelty.
TWO excellent obituaries enlivened the Christmas period. The Guardian’s old security specialist, Richard Norton-Taylor, did George Blake, the Russian double agent who may have been one of the last men converted to Communism in the West. (He became convinced of its truth while a prisoner of war in North Korea, in 1952.) He betrayed perhaps 400 Western agents to the KGB before being himself betrayed, if that’s the word, by a Polish defector, in 1961.
He escaped from Wormwood Scrubs in 1966, and spent the rest of his life in the Soviet Union, latterly the former Soviet Union.
Norton-Taylor writes: “Throughout his life, Blake was fascinated by religion. He seemed transfixed as I observed him once during a visit to a Russian Orthodox monastery on the outskirts of Moscow where mass was being sung. When he was young, he considered becoming a priest.
“In his early days in the Netherlands, he had been strongly influenced by Calvinism. He said much later that his belief in the predetermination of events was later strengthened by Marxism. ‘Free will’, he claimed, was ‘pure illusion’.
“‘As I see it,’ he said, ‘Communist society is indeed the highest form of society imaginable in this world, but to build the highest form of society, the people who build it must possess the highest moral qualities.’”
This seems to me a clinching argument in favour of Christianity.
The New York Times considered the life of Fr Reginald Foster, a plumber’s son from Milwaukee, who became the world’s foremost church Latinist. It had many glorious quotes, among them: “You cannot understand St Augustine in English. . . He thought in Latin. It is like listening to Mozart through a jukebox.”
BUT enough of the past. What will happen this coming year to English Heritage Christianity, now that Brexit has finished its first and second acts? The English Channel remains exactly as wide or narrow as it was on the day of the referendum; the Irish border just as intangible and easily crossed. We have managed to make relations worse in both cases, but not be rid of them, if that was the dream.
The kind of non-churchgoing Anglicans who were the spine of the Brexit vote are going to be further disappointed in what is happening to the Church that they so admire from a distance. First the Mail and then the Telegraph found room for stories about the impending financial crisis: “The shutdown of churches and the ban on church weddings and funerals has plunged the Church of England into a £150-million crisis. . . The losses have prompted plans for sweeping money-saving reforms.
“Among those discussed have been a cut in the number of bishops from more than 100 to as few as ten, and a redrawing of parish boundaries to reduce their number from 12,500 to 9000. As well as cutting bishops and parishes, ideas discussed include rationalising the 42 dioceses across England — some of which are said to be close to bankruptcy — into fewer and more efficient units.”
The Church of England will continue to lose influence as an institution, partly for financial reasons; but Christianity of a non-denominational sort will become more important and more salient. Again, one reason is financial. On a local level, churches are having to pick up more and more of the mess left by the retreat of the welfare state, and doing so in an entirely ecumenical way. Other faith groups have smaller financial resources and less reach up the social scale. The only decent justification for bishops in the House of Lords is that they may also sit on the boards of foodbanks or disadvantaged schools.
THERE is also, on an intellectual level, an increasing recognition of the debt that liberal humanism owes to Christianity. In their very different ways, John Gray and Tom Holland continue to argue this point to the bewildered readers of the New Statesman, although Guardian readers are largely spared the provocations of thought.
Beyond that, let me put on record the one prediction that cannot be falsified: I do not expect anything entirely unexpected to happen in 2021.