George Austin draws on personal experience to reflect on eighty years of secular and religious history
On 16 July I celebrated my eightieth birthday. It was only on the following day, as I looked at the dresser adorned with cards with large figures 8 and 0, that the full horror came home to me: I had now entered my ninth decade and had moved firmly into God’s waiting room.
It was compounded when the closing voluntary at church on the Sunday was (so we thought at first) the theme music from the Antiques Roadshow, though in fact it proved happily to be that from Songs of Praise.
One card reminded me of things that had happened in those eighty years: mobile phones, rock and roll, jet aeroplanes, satellites and so on – most of which seemed new to me anyway.
Second World War
But it did make me think of all the history I had lived through, both in the secular and the religious world. Perhaps my earliest memory (I was four at the time) was being taken to watch the Silver Jubilee visit of King George V and Queen Mary to my home town, Bury. It was around that time that Hitler had come to power in Nazi Germany, heralding the beginning of the first great evil I have lived through.
I had listened with my tearful mother as PM Neville Chamberlain announced that we were at war with Germany, and soon the Blitz came. We were only some eight miles from the centre of Manchester and though there was little bomb damage where we lived, we did spend night after night sheltering from the possibility of danger, first with my mother under the dining room table (my father was out on duty as an air-raid warden) and then in an Anderson shelter in the garden next door.
The throbbing noise of the German bombers and the explosion of bombs and anti-aircraft shells became familiar and – to a small boy – exciting, even more so when on the way to school one day I saw through a break in the clouds a German bomber, a Dornier (nicknamed ‘the flying pencil’), directly overhead.
At last the war ended, but with one evil replaced by another – militant Soviet communism, at the other far end of the political spectrum but no less dangerous, especially as the price of peace seemed to include the oppression of many nations in eastern Europe. That darkness ended quite suddenly – in fact on a week when I
happened to be covering Tuesday to Thursday on the BBC’s Thought for the Day, so that I had constant updates on the developing situation, first with Gorbachev’s house arrest by militant communists against his attempts to bring wider freedoms in the Soviet Union and then with the astonishingly speedy failure of the coup against him.
It was only recently that Margaret Thatcher had been replaced by John Major, and I recall presenter Brian Redhead coming into the green room and wickedly warning Major that his first question would be ‘What did the Russians do wrong in their coup that you got right in yours?’ ‘You had better not!’ Major replied. But he did.
It can be the case that another evil will follow the death of one, so that now we have the constant danger of repeats of terror events like those in New York and London from militant extremists totally unrepresentative of the religion they claim to serve.
A recent television series, The Life of Muhammad presented by Rageh
Omaar, described the early days of the prophet’s teaching in the city of Medina, when he sought that same comprehensiveness between the different believers – Islamic, Judaic and Christian – in the city. It was a desire gradually thwarted by conflicts between those faiths, perhaps with the same blindness in those who seek to destroy Anglican comprehensiveness.
Differences and conflicts
Which brings religion into the picture. In my early days, I would go to my mother’s local Baptist church on ‘Sermon Sunday’ but it was not until girls entered the scene that I began to take much of an interest, attending where they attended but with little success in my love life. But I did begin unwittingly to discover differences and conflicts.
Catholics did not mix with Protestants and even years later in the early Seventies when I was vicar of Bushey Heath, an attempt to hold an ecumenical meeting caused the local Catholic priest to ask me – nervously – if his people would have to recite the Lord’s Prayer with mine.
A broad church
I had discovered too that the CofE was a ‘broad church’ and that the Anglo-Catholic Holy Trinity, only a short walk from my home, was very different from St Paul’s where my father attended. I suspect my parents would have been less worried if I had got half the girls in my class pregnant than if I had started to worship at Holy Trinity.
Indeed it was not until I went to St David’s College, Lampeter, to read for my degree that I found my daily attendance at Mass made me a Catholic in the eyes of fellow students. The conversion was clinched when I discovered that some members of the Evangelical Society were praying for my soul to be released from such a bondage.
But I valued the comprehensiveness of the Church, with those who were facetiously described as ‘high and crazy, low and lazy, broad and hazy’ able to walk together as friends in the house of God – and have done so ever since. And now I watch horrified at its slow but steady destruction in the triumph of liberal fundamentalists.
Changes for the better
The ecumenical world has seen many changes for the better in my lifetime. When the Anglican Methodist discussions were held in the Seventies, the proposals were couched in language that could be interpreted by either side in a way acceptable to them but not to those of the other tradition, and fortunately it disappeared without trace. Today, the conversations between churches recognize that there are real fundamental differences to be worked through if they are to draw closer to each other.
Gone are the days when ecumenism was dominated in this country by the British Council of Churches, and internationally by the World Council of Churches. Both had an emphasis which was political and of the far left rather than religious, with the WCC granting tens of thousands of dollars to left-wing terrorist bodies like that of Mugabe in what was then Southern Rhodesia. Church leaders here to their shame generally closed their eyes to this for fear of being declared to be racist. Both bodies have now disappeared almost without trace.
Adherence to truth
But then – as the history of the past eighty years has shown – evil never conquers good. A recent survey suggested that since church attendance in the Church of England has declined by 50% over the past few decades, it will cease to exist by 2030. That may or may not be the case – and anyway it matters little.
For the Church of God cannot ‘cease to exist’. We cannot possibly know what the future holds, for this is in God’s hands. But those who hold on to the firmness of their faith and adhere to the truths of holy Scripture, perhaps in the face of persecution within the Church, perhaps from the dominance of secular liberalism both outside and inside, cannot in the end lose. We never have and never will.
In the unlikely event of my reaching my 100th birthday, it will probably matter little to me what has happened to the Church I have loved and served. But I know that, rather than despair, we must all – young and old – hold firmly to the motto: Nolite illegitimos conterere nos. ND