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Rowan Williams’ Haunted England, or Why Europeans Aren’t Found In Church

Air travellers know that an “open jaw” itinerary is one where the destination from which you return is different than the one you departed to.  My idea of an “open jaw” itinerary is one where you arrive at the airport to suddenly find your flight has been cancelled, so you stand with an open jaw…hopefully the incidence of these will decrease with all of the ways we have to keep up with things (but these devices do lie on occasion!)

Following Rowan Williams is rather like an open jaw itinerary of the latter kind: he says something and you just kind of sit or stand there, as the French would say, bouche bée (with your mouth hanging open.)  He did it again earlier this week:

“Britain is not a secular country but is “uncomfortably haunted by the memory of religion”, the Archbishop of Canterbury said.

He said church attendance may not be as high as it once was but although Britain may have become secularised it is not yet secular.

Rowan Williams made the comments during a speech at Leicester Cathedral, entitled Faith in the Public Square.

Once my mouth closed again, this remark led me to thinking about why people on the other side of the pond don’t believe in God or go to church the way Americans do.  And that led to something else that was, for me, close to home.

A few years after her divorce, in the mid-1980’s, my mother seriously dated an English insurance executive.  We (my brother and I) were pretty much expecting wedding bells to ring, probably in England, where she loved to go and travel with him.  But they never took place, and the relationship pretty much broke down, like the old British cars.

I never got a complete explanation of this, but I have my ideas.  For one thing, he found out what the whole of the U.S. was to find out in the following decade: never underestimate an Arkie.

However, before she died, my mother gave me another explanation: her boyfriend was not a Christian, and she, for all of the disagreements she had with me about God (some of which you probably have too,) wasn’t going to marry an atheist.  She explained that he had lost his religion during World War II, as was the case with many people on both sides of the English Channel.

It’s never occured to me blame God for World Wars I and II.  None of the movements that pushed Europe into the dual bloodbaths of those conflagrations–modernity in Germany before World War I, National Socialism, Communism, Facism, and the like–were particularly Christian in inspiration, although facists like Mussolini and Franco would use the church for their own ends.  As an American (well, sort of) the idea of abandoning God on account of this was mystifying, and frankly the reaction we actually experienced here after World War II was precisely the opposite.

But Brits and Europeans can be childlike when the occasion calls for it.  Surrounded by official churches (either state sanctioned or state controlled,) evidently they thought that, if the state fails to avoid disasters like these world wars, God and the church must be failures too.  That perception has been buttressed in part by the sappy response of some of these churches.  In Bert’s (her boyfriend’s) case, that sappiness was accentuated by the Church of England.  Although Anglican churches have their strong points, when they’re sappy they have no peer.

That attitude may also be behind another of Rowan Williams’ jaw droppers: his comment that God will not intervene to save us from the effects of global warming.  Although we can debate ad nauseam this subject, as an engineer it never occured to me that he would.  I don’t know of any prosperity teacher who does either.  This is one of those things that we were put here to fix, so we should get on with it.  The reason why we haven’t are political rather than technological in any case, as I discussed here four years ago.  We may need a miracle or two to get us through, but if we get one, we don’t deserve it.

I really dislike the whole business of “blaming God.”  But there one lesson for us: it’s dangerous to so tightly tie one’s Christianity to one’s country.  That’s something that American Evangelicals need to remember.  The good news in the bad news these days is that untying the two is a lot easier than it was just a short time ago.


4 Replies to “Rowan Williams’ Haunted England, or Why Europeans Aren’t Found In Church”

  1. Speaking as a childlike brit: I dunno if i’d put it so much as “blaming” God for the war, as coming to question whether the christian god could really exist given the terrible evils going on.

    Nowadays we’re largely not found in church because… we’re just not particularly interested in religion or convinced it has much to offer.


    1. Stoo, my response to “coming to question whether the christian god could really exist given the terrible evils going on” is simply “Why did we allow these evils?”

      God has given us intelligence and free will. The latter enables us to reject him. In a sense, those who turn away from him validate the concept that he permits such things to happen. And some people seem to be awfully satisfied in their rejection.

      As far as the intelligence part is concerned, it used to be that some people who turned away from God referred to themselves as humanists, armed with a manifesto and what not. We don’t see that term as much any more; secularists and new atheists are now the order of the day. Anti-theistic people seem to have quietly ditched the concept of the human race as its own saviour. Now we have “science” to bail us out, but a) science as a religion is no longer science and b) many questions that are represented to have a scientific answer in fact do not when the consequences of pure materialism are applied with rigour.

      Part of my own reason for relying on God is that he is the ultimate recourse against human folly. And there’s no short supply of that these days.


  2. We allow these evils cos… we’re rubbish, really. We’ve built huge societies, reproduced by the billion and constructed terrible weapons but sometimes we can’t get past being selfish apes.

    I’m not satisfied with my own rejection of your god, i’m just *less* satisfied with the christian option.

    re science: what questions are falsely represented to have a scientific answer?


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