British Catholicism is in an odd position. In terms of regular practice, it is a faith in decline. Mass attendance fell 30.7 per cent between 1993 and 2010, according to the Latin Mass Society. The number of Catholics peaked in 1993 and the number of priests in 1965.
Britain is and remains a country whose environment, institutions and modes of thought are still drawn in the main from the Christian tradition. This positions the Catholic Church well to win converts, yet this is something it does very badly. A recent analysis of data from the British Social Attitudes Survey found that for every one convert made by the Church in England and Wales, 10 cradle Catholics have been lost, while only 1.3 per cent of current Catholics have been converted either from no religion or a non-Christian faith.
The Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, established in 2011 by Benedict XVI, has not seen the flood of converts from Anglicanism which many hoped for, and while the initiative responds to the decline of the Church of England, no similar initiative exists to draw home those in the Welsh Methodist churches or the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
The great question for the contemporary Catholic Church is how it interests a theologically illiterate population in Christ’s offer of salvation. In Britain, part of the answer should lie in our built environment. Fr Marcus Holden wrote in last week’s Catholic Herald about the restoration of St Augustine’s Shrine in Ramsgate, now welcoming 10,000 visitors a year, the majority of them non-Catholics. Gunter Mansion in Abergavenny houses the secret chapel where Britain’s last Catholic martyr, St David Lewis, prayed before his execution. The Welsh Georgian Trust’s campaign to save the building again holds out the possibility of restoring part of our national heritage so that it prompts visitors to explore the faith.
More than any other building, a house of worship tells you something of a place’s soul. A church is one of the few truly communal endeavours of a society, the place where all from the very rich to the very poor come into weekly contact. Churches are built and then adapted in a style that fits local tastes and therefore tells you something of local character. While both the interior and structure change over time, they do so very slowly and only the most socially profound movements leave their mark on them. In the body of the church lives the story of the nation.
Churches inspire and record the faith of the community, and they also ground that faith in the land. Not only do they record the past, but in their solidity amid a world of plate-glass shop fronts they also project the permanence of God into the future. Although more often than not it will have passed into the hands of a Protestant denomination centuries ago, the old village church which predates the Reformation is a reminder not just of the Church in Britain, but also that we continue to occupy the Britain of the Church.
These echoes of Britain’s Catholic past are important, particularly as the contemporary Catholic must remain figuratively a tourist in his own land. The national inheritance which we come into at birth is one which Catholics are partly exiled from at baptism. Britain’s Catholic heritage has given it, among other things, our legal system, literary tradition, great universities and common morality. Despite this, Britain has never had a Catholic Prime Minister, and by law may never again have a Catholic king. Britain accords Catholicism no special status under the law, and indeed Catholic charities often bear the brunt of petty officialdom enforcing equality regulations.
Moreover, there is an astonishing general ignorance about and indifference to the faith – 53 per cent of children polled in 2013 did not know what Easter was, with a quarter believing it was the birthday of the Easter bunny. Only 13 per cent of the British attend any Christian church in Holy Week and 24 per cent in the Christmas period. So is Catholic England gone for good?
The Church itself is certainly less vocal than ever before about restoring the Dowry of Mary, and while it is possible to imagine the Church of England campaigning successfully for its own disestablishment in the next 20 years, in the current political environment the Catholic Church is no more likely to be invited to replace it than Stonewall.
There are, however, also good grounds for optimism. First, as the Dominican theologian Aidan Nichols noted in his book The Realm, modern Britain is multi-racial and internationalist, both of which work to make the Universal Church more sympathetic in modern society than it was in the epoch of English world power and isolationism.
At the same time it is also, by long process of adaptation, thoroughly English. As a Church which is familiar to many new arrivals but in tune with the English national character, it is uniquely placed among contemporary religious institutions.
While race is only a partially accurate proxy for immigration, the recent Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society report on contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales appears to support this theory. The study shows that black Catholics make up a greater proportion of the Catholic population than the national one, and also demonstrates strikingly high rates of Mass attendance for black and Asian Catholics.
Secondly, Christianity is still the reflexive faith of the British. As the Catholic Church comes to the head of the Christian denominations in Britain, so it gains the powerful advantage of being the bulwark against the main two alternative moral systems competing for the nation’s soul: atheist consumerism and Islam.
Atheism currently predominates, but it is inherently unstable. Man’s created need for a spiritual life means that he will always be susceptible to religious appeal. No matter how strong atheism appears to be, it is incapable of putting down roots. Nobody can feel love and devotion towards a vacuum, and every person who has tried living a life of gross materialism comes instinctively to feel the sense of desolation which it brings. Because faith is no less a part of man than smell or sight, no atheist movement will ever be secure against concerted Christian evangelisation.
Islam has demography on its side. There are three million Muslims already in the UK and they have nearly double the birth rate of non-Muslims. London has a Muslim mayor and Muslim ‘‘community leaders’’ are a far more common sight on television than Catholic priests.
Despite this apparent strength, the position of Islam in respect of conversion in Britain is very weak. In no area of native British life other than the prisons, whose inmates are by definition the most estranged from the values of normal society, has Islam been able to win significant numbers of converts. The public will criticise the Christian churches because it feels a sense of ownership of them. Atheists denounce Christianity with a fury withheld from other faiths precisely because they feel it more plausible. That they ignore Islam is a sign of its alienation from British life, not its integration.
Benedict XVI identified the reason for this in Without Roots, a book written on Christianity, Islam and the West before his election as pope. He argued that the values of the secular West can only have a rational justification when set in the context of the Christian morality which inspired them.
The value placed on human rights in the West, for instance, is logical only to someone for whom Christianity and Judaism are “the reference points which indicate the way to life”.
This is particularly true when applied to the Western principle of rationality. Counterintuitively, a faith based on miracles is a faith based on rationality – it has as its basis an understanding of the laws of nature and the value of testimony in respect of events. It differs entirely from a faith based on direct personal revelation which can and frequently does cast rationality aside.
A rational faith will also always be an argumentative faith, whereas directly revealed faith is less tolerant of arguments because its claims rest entirely on the personal credibility of the speaker, so attacks must be by nature ad hominem and therefore personally offensive. It is this appeal to rationality that gives Christianity life in the scientific age and will stifle Islam in Britain beyond its reproductive growth.
Today we find ourselves at a critical juncture in British history. For 70 years we have broken with tradition and dispensed with the idea of the nation as a single social unit with collective interests in exchange for the chaos of rampant individualism and economic maximisation. Many do not like the country we have become; they feel lost in a world in which everything is relative and fluid and long for a unity which the Church can provide. They are a huge constituency which the Church must speak to, and yet at the moment they are being lost.
What does speaking to them involve? I think this is reasonably simple. The Church must realise that a non-believer encounters it far too rarely. Everything it does must be orientated towards reaching as many as possible, as frequently as possible, and telling the truth.
This means finding half a dozen priests of personal integrity in whom the Holy Spirit visibly moves. It means doing whatever is possible to get these half-dozen on television as frequently as possible. It means not wasting those few occasions when the agnostic encounters the Church by allowing them to find the Church mumbling to itself “you know, there’s a really meaningful debate to be had about female deacons” or some other detail of internal politics, when it should be preaching the Gospel of Christ’s love or showing it in action by talking about the works of Catholic charities in this country.
Catholics must fight the alien notion that faith should not inform the public lives of its rulers. From the abolition of the slave trade to the foundations of the welfare state under the Liberal Party, sincere Christianity in public life has delivered far more for the people of this country than the modern cult of power worship disguised as pragmatism.
Political Catholicism in the modern world has tended to concern itself with money. It will only win souls when it concerns itself with charity instead. Abortion; the tragedy of so many millions of children suffering from broken homes; epidemics of pornography and substance abuse – these are the mortal dangers faced by Christians in Britain, and next to them an incomes policy is unimportant.
Finally, Catholics must recognise that we all have a duty to give others exposure to Christ. Let us lend out Christian books, display Christian paintings, wear the cross in public, say grace before a meal, and offer our prayers and God’s blessings. We can make Christianity part of public life again just by having the courage to talk about it, despite knowing we may be mocked.
The laughter will soon die away. The failure of the Church in Britain in the past century is that it has never tried to be universal. It has spoken to itself about identity politics or to student groups about social justice, but never to Britain about God. Now is the time to do so.
What Britain needs is a re-evangelisation mission based on eternal truths, on the knowledge of God lodged in our hearts, and the Christian heritage and world view lodged in the minds of those who grew up in this country we are privileged to call home. If the Church is brave enough to become a fisher of men once more in Britain, it may find its nets very full indeed.
TA Pascoe is a writer from south-east England
This article first appeared in the June 3 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here