Can St. George's Land Rise Again?
Recently, my husband was knocked down by thugs who wanted to steal his wallet. They picked the wrong chap — Jamie is a big man, agile and fit, an officer in the Territorial (Reserve) Army. He escaped with his wallet, mobile phone and heavy briefcase full of papers. (He's a lawyer).
He's also quick-thinking and quick-tempered.
Within minutes, he was shouting at the police on his mobile phone, and not very long after that, we heard a helicopter overhead and an ambulance bristling with rather grim-looking, female paramedics was on its way. The helicopter had a powerful searchlight that beams down on the streets below and illuminates anything it seeks — awesome to watch, but fairly ineffectual against the slippery youths who were already safely away.
This is Britain, 2004.
Vandalism, street attacks, burglary and theft are common — so much so, in fact, that most people do not report them to the police, but shrug and cope as best they can.
When my bag was stolen, I contacted my bank to have a stop put on my credit cards, realizing as I did so that this must be the sixth or seventh time that I had gone through this procedure. One such theft occurred in Westminster Cathedral, where large warnings are now displayed urging worshippers to keep an eye on their belongings at all times, as thieves operate there regularly. At the public library, when I reported the loss of my ticket, they just sighed, “Stolen? Of course. Here's a new one.”
Meanwhile, the House of Lords has been debating a proposed amendment to the law. A lobby group has been calling for parents to be arrested if they spank their children. The campaign — well-funded and with considerable media support — is aiming to bring Britain in line with various other European countries, which ban any form of physical punishment of children, even a light smack.
After much debate, a compromise was reached, and the law will not actually prevent all physical punishment — but the campaigners scent long-term victory and will continue their efforts over the next few years.
The chief response to crime in modern Britain is something called “Victim Support,” which means that the police send you little booklets offering counseling and someone calls you, offering to listen “if you'd like to talk about your experience.”
I happened to answer the phone when they called for my husband. I said, No, he didn't need to cry or have therapy. He just wanted the thugs to be caught.
It is not that the police don't mind about crime — often they do send helicopters and rush around in a very energetic way. But they have other things to do, too.
This summer, our media have been highlighting the problems caused in our major country towns by crowds of drunken louts who rampage until the small hours, leaving trails of vomit, litter and vandalized cars in their wake. It is difficult to find adequate numbers of police to control them, so one bright plan was to give them chocolate.
Chocolate? Yes. Someone in authority decided that the chief problem lay in the fact that the young people booze without eating first, and the solution is to give them chocolate bars as they emerge from pubs and clubs, to soak up the alcohol.
It is difficult to describe how swiftly Britain has moved from the law-abiding society depicted in those 1950s movies, with slow-speaking policemen and gently structured communities. It is curious how that image of the country has lingered, especially among Americans.
They arrive with cameras and bulging suitcases, eager to discover Olde Englande. They look at the glories of Britain's past, now enlivened by better food and more comfortable accommodations than have been enjoyed for generations.
Among the places they visit will be ancient churches and cathedrals of unsurpassed beauty, still carrying echoes of a Christian past when they were the centers of worship in a Christian nation.
They will also see countryside of quite extraordinary loveliness, especially in sunshine after gentle summer rain, or in the dewy mist of an early autumn morning. They may enjoy some pageantry that speaks of a past when this small island nation exported its language and rule of law to half the globe via courageous exploration, business acumen and military prowess.
But, if they have eyes to see, they will know that they are looking at a nation which is leaving all its certainties behind and lunging into a graying and vicious future, where Christian faith and confidence born of self-respect is giving way to personal autonomy, greed and crime.
Recently, an elderly friend was being escorted, after a family party, back to her car. It was, of course, unsafe for her to walk down a London suburban road alone after dark. “I used to live in the safest and most law-abiding country on Earth,” she remarked wistfully. “Oh, really?” asked one of the younger people, politely, genuinely unconscious of irony. “What country was that?”
Like the rest of Europe, Britain is dying. Our birth rate is below replacement level, though higher than that of some countries because of the large number of immigrants (mostly Islamic) who tend to have larger families. Almost half of all births are out of wedlock. Our divorce rate is high, and increasing numbers simply do not marry at all. We have a very high abortion rate. Britain was the first country outside the Communist bloc to legalize abortion, and it is now provided on demand through the National Health Service, as are contraceptives, which are distributed to teen-agers through school-based clinics and teams working through youth clubs.
What can be done?
The Church is small — approximately 4 million nominal Catholics out of a population of about 55 million people in England and Wales. Of the 4 million, about 1 million practice their faith. Vocations to the priesthood are small in number; diocesan planners talk about arranging for “priestless parishes.” The new movements — NeoCatechumenate Way, Opus Dei, and a couple of British-born groups, Youth 2000 and the Faith Movement — are a sign of hope, but are young.
The Catholic community has a tradition of praying “for the conversion of England.” This is linked to devotion to the English martyrs — heroes of the days of persecution under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I — who are still honored among us. Schools and churches are named after them. St. John South-worth, a martyred priest, lies in Westminster Cathedral. St. Edmund Campion and others who died at Tyburn Gallows are honored at the convent, which now stands near where once the crowds surged to watch the priests being tortured and executed.
There is no “Bible Belt” in Britain. Although there is a reasonably thriving evangelical Christian presence, it has tended to get caught up in the battles within the Anglican Church, where it has courageously witnessed to traditional teachings on topics such as homosexual activity. But it lacks the confidence and strong numerical base of its counterpart in the United States.
Catholics are, and should be, people with a long collective memory — and nowhere more so than in Britain, where the Church has been established for more than a thousand years. The Gospel first arrived while we were still ruled by the Romans, and the Church established here among the Celts was revived again when the Saxons settled and Pope Gregory sent Augustine and his missionary team to evangelize them.
It will take more than some decades of high crime, brutal behaviour and pornographic culture to destroy the Christian roots of this island.
Every summer for the past few years, young people have been gathering in the hundreds at our ancient Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham. It's in Norfolk, in East Anglia — that wide bit of England which sticks out into the North Sea, and even today, has something remote and timeless about it.
The great Catholic youth gathering began in the run-up to the millennium under the theme “Youth 2000,” and every year since then has grown and grown.
The Blessed Sacrament is the center of prayer, adoration, all-night vigils, confession and teaching sessions, and plans are laid for missions and action in the months ahead.
These are the John Paul II generation, who take as their theme his words to the young, “Do not be afraid.”
The faith that was thriving here when William the Conqueror arrived, and which survived Henry VIII, has a new challenge as a new generation comes of age in the 21st century.
What's needed is the spirit of William Blake's Jerusalem: “I will not cease from mental fight, / Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand / Till we have built Jerusalem / In England's green and pleasant land.”
And that's precisely the spirit some of our Catholic youth now have.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.
- September 5-11, 2004