Digby Anderson argues that, despite their background and history, the English have collectively rejected their Christian identity

There are few European city squares as yet unmoistened by the vomit of revelling English visitors. I am sure Pope Benedict has been able to see the tattooed, stained torsos of these enterprising ‘youngsters’ lurching outside his premises. Perhaps, of a warm evening when his windows are open, hearing their Peroni-charged swearing and obscenities, he has asked who they are and been told they are English. However, I am equally sure he did not reply, ‘Bene, nam et angelicam habent faciem, et tales angelorum in aelis decet esse coheredes.’ There is little angelic about the faces, or any part, of modern Angles.

The pope who did, St Gregory, contrasted the angelic appearance of sixth-century English yoof with their pagan interiors. Later, after the conversion of many Angles in England, he praised their glorious Christian interiors as well.

Life-blood of English culture

So what are we to make of the English today? I have argued elsewhere that the last half century has seen the decline of the decent working and middle class to the extent that we are ‘all oiks now’. We certainly all look like oiks and behave in public like them. But what of the interior? What, specifically, of their relation to Christianity and the Church? It is accurate and tempting to say that the vast majority are pagans worshipping gods of consumption, celebrity, novelty and exhibitionism. But they are pagans with a difference, because many of them are baptized. Even those who are not have been brought up in a land whose institutions, laws, manners, literature, family life are saturated in Christianity. For 1,500 years Christianity has been the life-blood of English culture.

Christianity is not only the background and history of the current pagan oiks. It beckons them, it serves them still. Still there is a mass daily down the road, two on Sundays. Christian civilization is theirs for the asking, Christian family life and love, Christian truth, hope, trust, the promise of life eternal. The oiks have rejected all this. They cannot plead ignorance, like the Angles. They have been offered Christianity and rejected it. As a people, they have been Christian and rejected their identity. And there is a word for what they have done, indeed a choice of three words: perfidy, treachery and standing apart from their religion, literally apo-stasy.

Different response needed

Let’s stick with apostasy. We have seen the difference between simple paganism and apostasy. Simple paganism requires from the church mission, teaching and conversion. Apostasy requires a totally different response. Strictly understood, it belongs to that class of sins for which the Church imposed perpetual penance and excommunication without hope of pardon, leaving the forgiveness of the sin to God alone. That is what the tradition of the Church teaches. But there is a further refinement. What if the apostasy is collective? The most famous but neglected treatment of collective apostasy is John Keble’s sermon, ‘National Apostasy’, and the picture he paints of an apostate nation is uncannily applicable today.

Apostasy becomes national when a nation rejects its God. The model, Keble says, is clearly when Israel rejects God’s presence and his covenant, saying, to quote Ezekiel, ‘We will be as the heathen.’ The prime symptom of this collective apostasy is when ‘under the guise of charity and toleration’ Christians grow indifferent to their fellow countrymen’s rejection of religious sentiments. This is very sharp, is it not? It gets sharper: is ‘not the fashionable liberality of this generation ascribable to the same temper which led the Jews voluntarily to set about degrading themselves to a level with the idolatrous Gentiles’?

Anti-church politics

The first way, then, in which we might distinguish national from individual apostasy lies in the indifferent reaction of Christians to the rejectors. The second is when the sheer quantity of rejecters lifts the apostasy into collective institutions; for instance, the de-Christianization of the family. The third is when the state itself becomes non or anti-Christian, ‘Should it ever happen (which God avert, but we cannot shut our eyes to the danger) that the Apostolic Church should be forsaken, degraded, nay trampled on and despoiled by the State and people of England.’

Well, it has happened. The socialist governments of Mr Blair and Mr Brown may not have been politically very socialist, but the hatred of religion and the family long fostered by socialism have now become policy. Belatedly the bishops, especially those charged with education and the family as well as those practices which offend secular diversity, have woken up to the evil with which they themselves have waltzed and embraced. For the anti-church politics of today has been empowered by a popular vote.

So we have national apostasy on levels Keble could not have dreamed of. What should the response be? He recommended intercession, but more than that, ‘remonstrance’. The tradtion is excommunication and perpetual penance. Perhaps when the Archbishop of Canterbury finds time from delivering sermons asking us to take up allotments or condemning easy targets such as bankers, he might try the mantle of Samuel and Ezekiel, indeed of Keble, and try a spot of condemnation and remonstrance. ND