I’m a Roman Catholic and I go to church every Sunday. Towards the end of Mass, there’s a thing called the Sign of Peace. We all shake hands with everyone in shaking distance and say “peace be with you”. Last Sunday the priest told us to drop the handshaking element to show our solidarity with Wayne Bridge.
That’s one of the things I love about being Catholic. You can tell the highly suspicious non-Catholics — their imaginations fired by talk of kissed statues and venerated fibulas — about almost any odd behaviour in a Roman Catholic church and they’ll believe you.
To many British people, Christianity seems like a weird but unexciting theme park. Personally, I like our ever-dwindling status. I even like our ever-dwindling numbers. There was a time when social pressure made people go to church. If anything the reverse is now true. Most adults you see in church nowadays are there because they want to be there. That’s not decline, it’s progress. The wheat has been separated from the chaff. We get quality, not quantity, in the churches and the chaff can enjoy a nice lie-in. That’s just as well, because there’ll be little opportunity for slumber when they’ve got a demon’s pitchfork up their arse.
Christians have always worked best as an unpopular minority. We were surely at our most dynamic when we knelt, eyes to Heaven, hands clasped in prayer, with a Colosseum lion bounding towards us.
That’s why I think Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is wrong to get his cassock in a twist about changing attitudes to Christianity in this country. He speaks of a “strident and bullying campaign” to marginalise Christianity. But that’s great news. “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.”
We’re going to have Brownie points coming out of our ears. The evidence of such bullying, many Christians would argue, was evident in two recent incidents when a teacher was sacked and a nurse suspended — both because they offered to pray for sick people. I agree that those punishments seem wrong-headed but both women will receive huge blessings for enduring such injustice. Surely their mistake was up-fronting their intentions.
I’ve prayed for loads of friends, most of them atheists. I tend not to tell them. If I do tell them I fear my motivation for doing so is largely ego-based. I’m just trying to show how nice and caring I am. It’s much healthier to do it on the sly. “When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret, and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”
Lord Carey feels that Christians have been too soft. He said that if you behave like a doormat, you get treated like one. I’m a little wary of muscular Christianity. It’s been used to justify everything from the Crusades to the shooting of abortion doctors. It seems to be in direct contradiction to “Resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”.
This is the doormat as positive role model — a doormat who’s more concerned about the “welcome” than the muddy feet. Surely the central image of Christianity is someone who can shoot fireballs out of his fingertips allowing himself to be nailed to a wooden cross — submission as the ultimate show of strength — love as impenetrable armour. Most British Christians are badly dressed, unattractive people. We’re not pushy and aggressive members of society. We’re a bit like Goths — no one can remember us being fashionable and we talk about death a lot. I love the glorious un-coolness of that.
The oppression of Christians in some other countries is completely unacceptable. I obviously wouldn’t want to see such genuine persecution of Christians in the UK, though that blessing for the reviled and that championing of the turned cheek would, strictly speaking, still apply.
As Lord Carey admits, here it’s more about some local council not wanting to call Christmas “Christmas” in case it offends someone. I’m hoping that, with the rise of secularisation, Christians will be able to claim Christmas as exclusively their own again. I’m sure the new atheists, many of whom point out that Christianity cynically appropriated pagan festivals, would not want to be guilty of similar hypocrisy. Don’t come begging for church weddings or christenings either. Maybe a bit of strictly observed us-and-them will lead to a new Christian unity.
I went to a debate this week. The motion was “England should be a Catholic country again”. I ended up voting against. The marriage of Church, any church, and State seems alien to the teachings of Christ. Power corrupts and British Christians should be happy to continue relinquishing it. The Catholic Church lost more than it gained when it got into bed with the Emperor Constantine.
Christians tend to save their best work for the “voice in the wilderness” genre. We are most impressive when operating as a secret sect, kneeling in small, candle-lit rooms and scrawling fishes on walls. I’m enjoying this current dose of persecution. It’s definitely good for the soul.