THE NUMBER OF DRIVING test applications in England and Wales has dropped 54 percent by comparison with the first quarter of 1996; and pass rates have fallen to 65 percent. These are startling figures which call for an explanation.

Has the nation at large finally seen the suicidal stupidity of its infatuation with the motor car? Are we to see a return, by young people, in rural areas to the horse and to the bicycle in urban conglomerations? Will pollution levels be radically reduced and accident rates decimated? And will enraged motorists on the M 25 no longer suffer the unwarranted scepticism of incredulous wives when they flex the mobile to proclaim that, once again, they will be late home from the office?

It is hard to say. But what can be revealed is the reason for this seismic demographic shift.

Its cause was the introduction of a written theory examination to the standard driving test. Even though the written paper makes every concession to the barely literate – it is a multiple choice performance which does not require the candidate to write anything, and specimen papers can be bought from any branch of W.H. Smith – the young, in sufficient numbers, are being intimidated by it. They are taking the line of least resistance and, presumably, the bus.

All this has serious implications, not only for educationalists – an index of whose failure it is – but also for churchmen. If a sizeable minority of the population is deterred from achieving a qualification, which is increasingly a requirement for any sort of gainful employment, by the inability to read and comprehend a fairly basic written test, then how significantly deterred from worship are they by the mere existence of prayerbooks, hymnbooks and service sheets?

The popularity of the seemingly endless array of ‘Praise’ songbooks, whose monosyllabic repetitiveness has largely replaced eighteenth and nineteenth century hymnody in many parishes, becomes suddenly comprehensible. People like those things because their education has not equipped them for stronger fare. They have neither the patience nor the vocabulary to wrestle with Charles Wesley and John Mason Neale. Even the New English Hymnal has thought it best to go into the business of expurgation. Gone are ‘consubstantial’ and ‘co-eternal’ from the last verse of ‘Light’s abode celestial Salem’ ; though Isaac Watts is still allowed creatures who bring ‘peculiar honours’ to their King.

CAMRHY, the Campaign for Real Hymns, of which I am the founder and to date the only member, exists to outlaw salvation choruses and other theology-free ditties from worship services and school assemblies, to revive (since Methodists have wholly abandoned them) the Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley and to erase ‘Shine Jesus Shine’ from the folk memory of a people which deserves far better of its poets and musicians.

But these laudable aims will be wholly unachievable until David Blunkett pulls his finger out. Just as the ocean-tide of nineteenth century hymnody swept up Dover Beach with the full force of rising popular literacy, so all that is left stranded after literacy’s melancholy, long withdrawing roar, is ‘Mission Praise’ and ‘The Celebration Hymnal’.

The task of nurturing a mature and thinking faith (which was the task that the best of the nineteenth century hymnographers set themselves) becomes almost impossible when every thought, feeling, perception and aspiration has to be expressed in a vocabulary more limited than that of the Daily Mirror. Declining standards of public literacy (there is scarcely a restaurant in London whose menu can spell ‘mackerel’ and scarcely a signwriter living who knows when to use an apostrophe) is a serious threat to evangelism. Christianity is (and pray God it will remain) the religion of a Book and of books. Its deity is the Word made Flesh and its dearest hope is to merit inscription in the Lamb’s Book of Life. It spread though the then-known world on the back of that most flexible information retrieval system, the Codex; and renewed itself in the West at the very time of the invention and introduction of printing.

If we are to be shy of our rich heritage of words now, we will assuredly rue it later. The tragedy of Anglicanism in the twentieth century has been its precipitate withdrawal from higher, secondary and increasingly primary education (how many teachers in our Church Schools, I wonder, are committed and practising Anglicans?) and a concomitant willingness to assume that the abandonment of its own cultural and intellectual heritage is the price that must be paid for survival in the modern world.

The spurious arguments which were used in the sixties and seventies to savage the Book of Common Prayer (reciting the final two collects in the ASB evening office, a friend confided in me recently, is like encountering a much loved relative after a long disfiguring disease) have been part of a ‘panacea culture’. Declining numbers and diminishing Sunday Schools have made every novelty seem like a solution. Everything from new liturgies to women priests has been sold on the fallacious supposition that it would fill pews and attract the young. The pews continue to empty and the young stay at home.

The time has come to try an old remedy – education. Parents are understandably dissatisfied with current standards of numeracy and literacy. There is a growing cottage industry in these parts of ‘Saturday Schools’ and crammers seeking to supply the perceived deficiencies of State education. Let the Church of England once again take the lead in providing necessary teaching to those who are deprived of it. Let every parish which can afford it set up a Saturday School, and let the Church Urban Fund assist those parishes which cannot afford it. At Saturday Clubs across the nation let children learn the rudiments of language and at the same time, to love poetry and to love the Christian Faith – ably assisted, of course, by ‘Abbot’s Leigh’, ‘Blaenwern’, ‘Cwn Rhonnda’, ‘Diademata’, ‘Eventide’, ‘Farley Castle’, ‘Gonfalon Royal’, ‘Helmsley’, ‘Innsbruck’ and the rest of the alphabet: old friends, all of them, which make new friends easily.

Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St. Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.