It was all too easy to imagine an officious constable of the modern type, immoveable in his application of The Rules, and perhaps in possession of a vague notion that Christians are faintly dubious characters, because of their perceived or actual resistance to modern ideas of “equality” and “inclusion”. This idea, or something like it, is not at all uncommon in people who have grown up in Britain over the last two or three decades.
We can no longer take for granted basic knowledge of the faith in wider society.
The incident was yet another reminder that we can no longer take for granted basic knowledge of the faith in wider society. I have noticed when visiting art galleries that the captions which accompany pictures of New Testament scenes are increasingly detailed and basic – e.g. “This picture portrays the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, whom Christians believe to be the Son of God”. This strongly suggests to me that even well-educated and cultured people now have only a very vague knowledge of incidents that were once near-universally recognised. I have heard academics in subjects such as English Literature complain that they have to explain some of the most simple Christian references and allusions found in poetry, drama and novels. My brother, who studied English Literature at university a decade ago, told me that all his year group were asked to be familiar with the Bible before they arrived. The faculty had found that they could not take for granted that new students would have any previous Biblical exposure at all.
Even those outside the church recognise the importance of the vast Christian artistic and literary heritage to our culture. In 2011, not long before he died, Christopher Hitchens lavished praise on the King James Bible, to mark its 400th anniversary: “For generations, it provided a common stock of references and allusions, rivalled only by Shakespeare in this respect. It resounded in the minds and memories of literate people.” The following year, Richard Dawkins of all people wrote an article for The Guardian in which he stated that “a native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian”. In 1971, a letter was sent to Pope Paul VI asking that the Latin Mass continue to be authorised in England and Wales, because of its huge cultural importance. It was signed by many non-Christians, including the Jewish musicians Vladimir Ashkenazy and Yehudi Menuhin, and the poet Cecil Day-Lewis.
For the person without knowledge of the Bible, the faith and the liturgy, much of European culture and history before the twentieth century is incomprehensible: the Hagia Sophia, Notre Dame de Paris, Dante, Michaelangelo, Thomas Tallis, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Faure’s Requiem. This forgetting seems to me a terrible thing for our societies.
The end of Christendom will bring many trials and difficulties for Catholics
But I don’t want to simply repeat the common lament about the effects on society of the shrinking of Christian observance and belief. It is bad for Christians when those around us have almost no idea what we believe and why, and what happens inside a church. It is true, as then-Cardinal Ratzinger suggested in a radio broadcast in 1969, that there might be spiritual and doctrinal advantages to the smaller, poorer, leaner church of the European future.
The end of Christendom will bring many trials and difficulties for Catholics. Greater ignorance of the faith will inevitably lead to greater hostility and repression – this was visible quite clearly in some of the social media comments about the murder of Sir David, when many people mocked Catholics for their concern about access to the sacraments in extremis. Additionally, it will be harder to carve out conscientious objection for Catholic doctors and nurses, and harder to educate children in the faith.
This, I think, is why the denial of Last Rites to David Amess affected me so deeply; it is not simply the personal trauma involved, but the strong intimation of the kinds of difficulties which Christians will have to endure as a matter of routine in the near-future.
Niall Gooch is a Chapter House columnist
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