I have recently discovered the treasure trove that is the BBC archives on iPlayer. Of particular interest recently was A Passion for Churches, produced, written and presented by Sir John Betjeman in 1974. It is a personal and poetic tribute by the former Poet Laureate as he shared his lifetime love of East Anglian churches.
Acclaimed at the time, the programme gives a fascinating glimpse into a past age of teas on the rectory lawn, elderly ladies cycling to church, bells ringing across the meadow, choirboys singing in ruffs and clergy confidently wearing brown corduroy or cassock, while speaking in painfully outdated voices.
The whole thing is beautifully interspersed with Betjeman’s singular prose, portraying a world in which religion had an assured (if understated) place in the order of the mainly rural communities he visited. The production concludes with Betjeman’s words, “and though for church we may not seem to care, / It’s deeply part of us. Thank God it’s there.”
This wonderful slice of nostalgia not only explores Anglican churches, but it also gives an insight into how life, and the place of Christianity, was so different a relatively short time ago. I am sure that if Catholic parishes had been featured, the gulf between 1974 and now would have been equally evident.
The programme made me think of my own small rural parish and how its history has been described to me by some of the older parishioners. It is easy to lament what has been lost and become nostalgic for an age that we never knew (I wasn’t even alive in 1974). It is much more constructive to acknowledge the shift that has taken place, accept the reality that for many people faith no longer impinges on their lives, and reflect on what it means to go forward in the pursuit of the Gospel.
In a much more secular society it would be easy for churches to retreat, reinforcing the narrative of irrelevance and decline that the world seems to wish to project. But we could do far more to assert the place of Christ and the Church in our nation.
One area where we have a great deal of leverage is in our Catholic schools. While some of them are not as Catholic as many would wish them to be, they do provide a means for the Church to continue to have a place that is valued. The Catholic Church educates more than 820,000 children a year through our network of schools and colleges, which are largely well regarded by parents and communities.
We need to ask serious questions about the sustainability of some of our schools, but the presence of oversubscribed and outstanding schools in some of the most deprived areas certainly can assist our ongoing engagement with the world.
Some Christian traditions have sought to assimilate to the broad culture of the world around them. Others have been defiant in the rejection of cultural incursions to the point where they have withdrawn and become inward-looking. It is important that Catholics seek a middle way between these two unsatisfactory extremes.
In a book which I have been reading over the summer, Cathleen Kaveney, professor of theology at Boston College, proposes a new “culture of engagement”. Her title plays on a phrase frequently used by Pope Francis, “culture of encounter”. Kaveney recognises that, more than ever, the Church needs to interact with the prevailing culture, as well as the social, political, legal and economic components of society. Only when this occurs will we begin to regain wider credibility.
We saw this, to some extent, during the sad situation regarding Charlie Gard. The Church’s pro-life stance brought a much needed and unique perspective to all the discussions, and helped to inform public opinion. We saw this especially after Pope Francis’s intervention. Here was a moment when the Church engaged and where the contribution was widely welcomed.
The Holy Spirit gives us the gifts and charisms we require in each generation. More than ever we need a prayerful Church which seeks to use these gifts in our presentation of the Gospel within national life.
Pastor Iuventus is away. Fr Pittam is the author of Building the Kingdom in the Class, published by St Pauls in September
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