Fraser Nelson’ article about the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt. Rev Justin Welby, in the Telegraph last Friday, noted two aspects of our country that still remain in my mind. Referring to Bishop Welby’s predecessor, Rowan Williams, Nelson wrote, “Dr Williams has had to keep the Church alive in one of the least religious countries on earth.” Further on he commented, “…being Christian in Britain now means being part of a minority, and that the Church’s mission is to explain the Word of God to people who have grown up having never heard it.”
I don’t know why the phrase “one of the least religious countries on earth” struck such a chill in my heart. Of course, I know it to be true; you only have to read about the Government’s latest pronouncements on moral matters, follow the statistics of ever-falling church-going numbers, or realise that almost all the people you might bump into in the course of the day “don’t do God” as Alastair Campbell put it so elegantly when he was Tony Blair’s Director of Communications and Strategy, to be aware of its obviousness.
The UK today is simply mission territory – just as much as Africa was in the 19th century, but with the added complication that we are a sophisticated, rich, multi-cultural, post-Christian territory rather than a poor, pagan and exploited one. If it is hard for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle, it is surely just as hard to try to evangelise him. In Ireland last week for my brother’s funeral, I was struck forcibly by the contrast with this country when it comes to rituals of mourning. Admittedly we were in a small town on the Cork estuary rather than in a big city, but I had a powerful sense of a community that still retained a religious outlook on life. During the Removal at the undertakers the evening before the following day’s Requiem and burial, the coffin was uncovered in the chapel of rest. The door to the street was also open so that anyone could call by to pay their respects to the dead man and to offer their condolences to the family.
This was not a noisy “wake”; it was both very prayerful and at the same time appropriately sociable. “I’m sorry for your troubles” people said as they came in and greeted the mourners. Over a hundred people visited the undertakers to make their farewells, to share their memories of my brother and to listen to the short prayers offered by a local priest.
Most of them then joined us to walk behind the hearse through the streets to the parish church, where the coffin was placed beside the altar overnight. Passersby stood in respectful silence as our procession moved on its way. The next day, after the Requiem Mass, it was the same. Those who attended it walked slowly behind the hearse through the town towards the cemetery. Again, the general public stopped its business to mark the solemnity of a local man’s journey to God; a Christian community acknowledging the death of one of its members.
It made me think that you can tell whether a society is religious or not by the way it marks death. Over here, “the least religious country on earth”, death is hidden, not open; a private, not a community event; an affront to the bustle and business of the living. In Ireland, still a country of deep religious sensibilities despite the weakened authority of the Church, death is integrated into life: the necessary gateway to the life of the world to come. An Englishman who contacted me after hearing of my brother’s death told me he wished people would live by Christian principles as it would make life kinder all round, but that he had “a problem believing in life after death”. In Ireland people are still open to the profound mysteries of faith; death is an event to be marked by reverence, not merely respect. Here, funerals are so often neo-pagan celebrations of life, characterised by beer bottles left at the graveside. The new Archbishop of Canterbury is facing a daunting task.