LONDON — It used to be like a second national anthem, but are the last strains of the hymn based on William Blake's poem fading in Britain?
"I will not cease from mental fight, / Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand / Till I have built Jerusalem / In England's green and pleasant land.”
Father Michael Gallagher says that the evangelical sword of Britain looks like it has slipped into a coma.
"Once when we were a Christian country, Good Friday was a public holiday, nobody ever heard of Sunday shopping and even the Anglicans had a three-hour service on Good Friday,” recalled Father Gallagher, 70, former novice master of the Norbertine Canons in Britain and now pastor of Corpus Christi Basilica in Manchester. “Now commerce has swept away the public holiday, Sunday is just another shopping day and soccer games kick off at 3 p.m. on Good Friday — the very hour of the Lord's death.”
Even the usually circumspect George Carey, archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Anglican Communion, was reduced to stating bluntly last fall, “A tacit atheism prevails. Death is assumed to be the end of life, bleak though that thought is.”
He was reacting to the news that Anglican Sunday service attendance has dipped below 1 million for the first time.
Catholics are in a better position than Anglicans, but only slightly. They make up 11% of Great Britain's population. But a poll by the Catholic weekly magazine The Tablet found that they make up 26% of all those who regularly attend a religious service more than once a month, making the Catholic Church effectively the largest denominational churchgoing population.
The study also found that the level of religious belief among the young is relatively low. While 80% of those aged over 65 still believe that Jesus lived, only 54% of those aged 18-24 do so.
The findings also show that Muslims and Hindus, despite representing only 3% of the population, now make up 9% of all those attending religious ceremonies regularly. More Muslims may be attending a mosque each week than Anglicans attending church.
If only half of Britain's 2 million Muslims take part in regular worship, that already exceeds the number of worshippers in the so-called national church.
In a Gallup poll last year, only 38% of those questioned said they believed Jesus was the Son of God. When the same question was asked in 1957, 71% believed.
The newest research, carried out by Opinion Research Business, was conducted last month by telephone poll across Britain with 1,001 respondents.
In addition, a recent British Broadcasting Corp. Opinion Poll saw 65% of the population name Nelson Mandela as the world's most inspirational religious figure. Pope John Paul II came in fourth with 20%, Carey tied for fifth with Prime Minister Tony Blair at 14%, while Jesus Christ got only 1% of the vote, tying Gandhi, Winston Churchill and Bill Clinton.
Pagan or Secular?
Nontheless, “We have not turned our back on God,” said Jack Scarisbrick, emeritus professor of history at the University of Warwick and founder of the pro-life group Life.
"People have turned their back on Judeo-Christian morality,” he said. “We have de-Christianized our society and so much of our public life. … We have seen a consistent attack on Christian values by all parties — and Margaret Thatcher was no exception — which has been and accelerated by this present Labor Government.”
For theologians such as Catholic Times columnist Father Francis Marsden, it is that kind of thinking that has created the current mess.
He told the Register, “It is probably not accurate to call us a pagan society as nobody has taken up Wicca large-scale yet. But we are certainly a secular society. GK Chesterton once warned that some parts of Christianity would last longer than the faith as a whole, because of the dilution of doctrine, and that is what happened.”
The Catholic influence on the national moral psyche is weakened by two factors, he said.
"Catholics of all types are only 11% of the population,” said Father Marsden. “We are a minority and the form of ecumenism practiced by our bishops — although I must stress I am in favor of ecumenism — has undermined Catholic vitality.”
So what of the future? Scarisbrick argues that a Catholic Church is in an ideal position to assume the moral voice of the nation since the Anglican Church is in a long decline, but it has to keep its nerve and stick to the truth.
He says a spiritually strong, morally brave and vibrant Catholic Church will have a key role in the revival of land once called the Dowry of Mary.
Or as Father Marsden puts it, “As Catholics we have to live and teach the truth of the faith. We need a spiritual renewal in our nation and a revival in apologetics in our Church to enable young people not just to know their faith but to be able to defend it.”
Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England .