Christopher Smith considers whether Christianity is in danger of being regarded simply as an obscure cult from the Middle East

I cannot claim to be a great aficionado of University Challenge, but how I wish I had seen the episode with the hymns a few weeks ago. The bright young things of Magdalen were up against the (apparently) less bright young things of Sidney Sussex. But the Oxford team did themselves no favours in a round which required them to identify a series of hymns from their tunes rendered by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. The starter for ten, which neither side got, was Cwm Rhondda (and they didn’t have to name the tune, although I suspect that would have got them the points). Both teams had a guess, and I could sort of see where they got ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ from, but surely not ‘Men of Harlech’.

Subsequently, the Oxford team managed to name only one of the ‘bonus’ tunes, which was ‘Abide with me’. Perhaps one of them had seen the Cup Final on telly. They failed to identify ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ and, would you believe, ‘The Lord’s my Shepherd’ to Crimond, which one bright Magdalen spark guessed as Jerusalem.

Now, it is probably unfair of me to have a dig at a group of young people who have had the courage to subject themselves to the raised eyebrows and censorious comments of Jeremy Paxman. But the episode seems to me indicative of two things. One is the general lack of experience of the life of the Church in modern Britain, and the other is an increasing level of ignorance about the elements of the faith, of scripture and of general church life as they have in times past permeated British culture. In other words, it is not merely that these youngsters do not go to church; it’s that the culture around them that has hitherto held the faith is no longer doing so.

We could all give dozens of examples. Not very long ago, to make a comment about something happening ‘at the eleventh hour’ would have evoked a particular scriptural image. Now, the phrase is less used and little understood. We might find the same is true of ‘Good Samaritan’, and that all those budding lawyers who learn about the lawyer’s question in Lord Atkin’s judgment in Donoghue v Stevenson think that ‘who is my neighbour?’ is a question lawyers ask, rather than a question asked by a particular lawyer of the Lord.

It is in my mind at the moment because of the remarkable contrast with an England of only a century or so ago. The founding vicar of my parish, Fr Mackonochie, whose name will be familiar to many if not most readers, came to St Alban’s Holborn 150 years ago (we have an anniversary to celebrate next year!) and almost immediately began to be dragged through the courts for his ‘ritualistic’ practices.

The court cases were reported in great detail in the press. When Fr Mackonochie died in sad circumstances in 1887, his obituary was written not only in the church press, and not only in the national press, but in local papers up and down the country. In my study, in the cuttings book so carefully compiled at the time, and charred on its edges where the fire caused by a wartime incendiary bomb might so easily have destroyed it, is Mackonochie’s obituary from, among others, the Liverpool Post, the Hull Daily News and the Bristol Mercury. Even a publication called The Animal World carried a long article about the two dogs, belonging to the Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, who guarded his body in the Scottish highlands!

Would Fr Mackonochie even get a mention in the London Evening Standard nowadays? In the modern world, reporters cheerfully write ‘Evangelists’ when they mean ‘Evangelicals’, and refer to the ‘Book of Revelations’, rather than ‘Revelation’. If you listen carefully, you might even hear a distinction being drawn between ‘Catholics’ and ‘Christians’.

Now, of course, it is not only Christianity that has slipped from our shared culture. The parading of ignorance is rife, as a few minutes listening to any of the main Radio 4 news programmes will confirm. I even heard ‘Berkshire’ pronounced ‘Birkshire’ the other day. But it is Christianity that matters to us, and as we struggle to make our case for apostolic succession and security in the sacrament of order, it is unsurprising that the media only see the issues in terms of competences to do a job.

Christianity is, after all, merely ‘An obscure cult from the Middle East.’ How often have you read or heard that phrase in the media? I heard it again the other day in a television programme about the art of ancient Rome. It all changed when the said cult became the religion of the Empire, you see. Until Constantine, it was nothing more than an obscure cult, although that hardly explains why successive emperors felt it necessary to persecute its followers. But, of course, the truth is that modern society wants to put Christianity in a little box where it can be as unchallenging as possible. Our task, laid on us at this difficult time, is to keep it challenging, by remaining steadfast in the Good News that we present to the world. ND