News headlines tend to focus on the decline of religion in this country. This feeds into a hermeneutic of decline, in which the mission of the Church is to manage that process. The assumption is that mankind has evolved beyond the need for religion.
As long as the Church is happy to fund its schools, without insisting on too much in the way of specifically Catholic education, there is a consensus that it can do so. But at tertiary level, outside of theology departments, a reductionist approach to faith has prevailed. We study its epiphenomena – the art, literature and music it has inspired, the economic and social effects of its presence in history – and not the phenomenon itself.
But these old assumptions have been challenged by the relentless march of events. The attempt to deal with the Middle East solely through the lenses of political science has simply highlighted what happens when a secular mindset is blind to the importance of faith in people’s lives. A multicultural society cannot thrive unless the values of “faith communities” are recognised. The need for a ruling elite largely shaped by secularism to acquire some religious literacy is now widely recognised. Universities and the churches are playing a leading role in delivering it.
The Higher Education Council for England responded to the challenge by funding a religious literacy leadership programme, which included the innovative Faiths and Civil Society Unit led by Professor Adam Dinham of Goldsmiths, which is mapping out the problems that face us and exploring possible solutions. The unit recognises that “religion and belief have certainly changed but they didn’t go away after all”. It also funded the Westminster Faith Debates, with Charles Clarke, the former home secretary, and Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster, with a view to bringing the research findings of the programme to a wider audience, including policymakers.
If research councils are funding ambitious programmes designed to bring religious literacy to the public sphere, the Catholic Church has not been backward, recognising that education is a key part of the new evangelisation, and that this should include the tertiary sector. Possibly the most encouraging sign here is the return of St Mary’s, Twickenham, to its Catholic mission under its new vice chancellor, Francis Campbell, formerly our ambassador to the Holy See. He has brought in Ruth Kelly, the former education secretary, to direct the research agenda, and Mgr Roderick Strange, a former rector of the Pontifical Beda College, as professor of theology, further strengthening a formidable theology department which includes the Catholic Herald’s own Stephen Bullivant.
In East Anglia, Bishop Alan Hopes has been a keen supporter and sponsor of the University of East Anglia’s Newman Lectures series, which has brought large audiences to campus to hear about the history of Catholicism in these islands. This year, thanks to the bishop and Deacon Andrew Eburne, we have a programme that includes Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and Bishop Philip Egan. As a result of this successful initiative, the University of East Anglia has set up its own religious literacy network with a focus on the place of faith in our political life.
In many dioceses now there are serious and sustained efforts to create better catechetical programmes. With the encouragement of Bishop Mark O’Toole of Plymouth, a new School of the Annunciation has been set up at Buckfast Abbey, which provides a centre for adult formation at all levels, with Fr Guy de Gaynesford as rector and Deacon Nick Donnelly as director of formation. The school provides opportunities for distance learning, which adds to that already done so well by Maryvale in Birmingham.
Higher education in this country began, of course, with the Catholic Church, and it is heartening to see the Church taking a leading role in religious education at a tertiary level. After all, the first universities in this country were Catholic foundations, and the Church has remained a major force in primary and secondary education. It is a commonplace observation that it is at the post-secondary education stage that we lose so many young people, but it is one being questioned by the excellent work that is being done by Catholic chaplains in universities and colleges across Britain.
Rudi Dutschke recognised that it would take a “long march through the institutions” to secure cultural hegemony for a Marxist world view, and if we are to secure a proper place for Catholic culture in our public life, we must go on the same journey. It may be external events that have prompted the academy to undertake serious work on the place of faith in the public sphere, but it is not that spirit, but another, which pushes forward the work of the Church. Anyone who thought the mission was to manage an inevitable decline might need to think again.
Professor John Charmley is head of the Interdisciplinary Institute at the UEA