I have not written anything here since Holy Week, partly through discouragement, partly through laziness, partly through being taken up by other things. I have been trying to discern what made Christianity “work” in the past. Simply, it was the parish, a small unassuming life in a little place like a village.
Nowadays, the village has become a dormitory for people working in town and commuting by car, or a place for retired people to spend some peaceful years in the twilight of their lives. The local church is sometimes open, but more for the purpose of drying the place out so that is doesn’t deteriorate through excessive damp. A French diocese has only a few priests assigned to pastoral administrations of tens of parishes each, and it is all run in a bureaucratic manner. The daily round of Mass, Office and popular devotions is a thing of the past. My local church, a beautiful and very ancient Saxon style edifice seems only to serve for funerals (generally conducted by a lay person and without Mass) and the occasional visitor. Without this parochial incarnation, the Church is little more than an abstraction.
Someone wrote to me on Facebook and mentioned an article based on the magical story Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame – Mole, Anglicanism, and Rogationtide. He felt inspired to do so when I showed a photo of my sailing and coming up with the hackneyed quote: “Believe me my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats“. Spending a peaceful weekend on the Erdre with some other sailing enthusiasts in late May does seem quite bucolic.
To the writer of this article, Laudian parish Anglicanism seems the ideal and representative of a “bucolic” religious life of an era without electronics and few labour-saving machines. Quotes from Wind in the Willows are interspersed with quotes from the Prayer Book. There is something about Prayer Book English that suggests the plain language of Yorkshire folk, that odd sentence construction that jars with modern usage. Meekly kneeling on your knees – What else would we kneel on? There is a certain childish naivety, coming from the pen of an Archbishop of Canterbury and a theological scholar. Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort. Comfort is now the experience of sitting in a soft armchair, though the older meaning was about peace in our souls and an end to our anxiety. Hooker spoke about the peace, quietness, order and stability of religion. It is indeed an appealing notion. How many of us live all our lives in one place from the cradle to the grave. Last weekend, I was speaking to men in their 70’s telling me as a matter of pride that they had stayed in the same place as fathers of families and grandfathers for more than fifty years. Stability, like for Benedictine monks, is a virtue and something we seek against the transience of modern precarity. Stability comes from solid family roots, right choices made in life and a certain psychological health, being unconcerned with what is “above our pay grade”, but it can also lead to narrowness, intolerance, lack of imagination or sense of beauty – parochialism.
I have lived through a sequence of events in my life that have given me a more cosmopolitan attitude. Stability is a good thing, but so is the restlessness of a searching soul. I have my own memories. I can look at photos of the place where I spent my childhood, walked with my family, played. Would I want to go back to that life? Such a desire would be an illusion. It just isn’t the same word. I often daydream about times before my lifetime. What would it have been like to live in Georgian England or in the Romantic era? I will never know. I can only imagine the beautiful houses of the rich and the hovels of the poor. Our standards of health and hygiene were unknown to those long-dead people.
One great instinct of Romanticism is not to remain stuck in an immobile word, but to live eternal ideas is a succession of new worlds of imagination and beauty. I live in a beautiful place, but it is not the world of my childhood. It is how we can live with change. I have spent time in presbyteries of priests who had been in their parishes for as long as the fathers and grandfathers I mentioned. They became increasingly rare as they died or the diocesan bureaucracies pensioned them off as a relic of pre-modernity. The gap of irrelevance was increasing.
Much of modern institutional Christianity is just kitsch and ugliness. Some is based on American Evangelicalism, but the more widespread reference is corporate management, the collective over the individual and personal. It is all geared to mass urban humanity, run by and for machines. Very few people relate to such a form of institutional Christianity. We are not called to conform to it, but find our true selves where God resides. We speak of English gentleness. All we can do is to be such ourselves and not expect it from others, in particular from the “cancel culture” iconoclasts. Let us dream and imagine, for this is the essence of Christ’s Kingdom. Never mind what the others are doing!!!
I am not deluded enough to think that parish life can be restored. The whole sociology of villages has changed. I am very struck by the example of the Anglican Catholic Church’s pro-cathedral in rural England, in the form of a former Methodist chapel that became available for purchase. Bishop Mead hoped to obtain planning permission to put a very small church tower on the roof with a clock and a very small single bell. There were complaints from local people fearing for their quiet lives. The project has had to be abandoned. Unfortunately, this church is not the parish church of the village but a “foreign” community from elsewhere. Stubborn conservatism can be irrational and sometimes bloody-minded. English gentleness can be no more than an illusion. It would have been better to buy a building in a city – but with a much higher budget.
Parish life in cities is totally different, depending as it does on personal commitment rather than being a part of village sociology. City parishes are generally dynamic and well managed. Country parishes are dead, dead from the very stability that kept them alive. It is a tragic paradox.
What of the future? The tendency is towards collectivism and the abolition of the human person. We see this in populist politics of the left and right. As a social phenomenon, the future of Christianity is bleak. It no longer has the “medium” of the stable village community. It may prosper in contemporary incarnations of Romanticism, of their nature marginal, in the arts and philosophy. There are expressions of Christianity that are in themselves dynamic and vibrant, but to which I cannot personally relate. Do I have a moral right to look elsewhere? Am I being selfish when I look elsewhere?
Christ compared God’s Kingdom to leaven in bread, a principle of spiritual life in anything we do in life. St Charles de Foucault lived as a leaven in the desert, irrelevant in the midst of a Muslim society, like Bishop Mead’s church in a dormitory of middle-class English houses and non-religious people. Some would like to reconstruct Christendom, a Christian society through the ideology of integralism – the principle of the State being subject to the Church, itself political in its structure and purpose. Christ did not intend his teaching to become an ideology of force and constraint.
However, where an old-style parish is found to exist and survive, we should learn from it. It may be a seed of Christian humanity, a leaven in the bread and a mustard seed.