The Way We Live Now

Options and Opiates

To a clatter of accolades the last great work of Fernand Braudel, the twentieth-century’s greatest historian, was finally published in English in 2001. Les Memoires de la Mediterranée (a title curiously translated as ‘The Mediterranean in the Ancient World’) is a late sequel to Braudel’s masterpiece ‘The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II’ (1949).

Braudel’s first great work was being brought to completion as the mechanized forces of an ersatz paganism were attempting to make of the Mediterranean a Germanic lake. And, of course, the climax of its narrative was the battle of Lepanto, the event that definitively ended the thousand-year struggle to make the Mediterranean an Islamic lake.

Appropriately, this last posthumous work is published at a time when Islam is once more on the offensive. It takes us from the origins of Mediterranean (and so of human civilization) to the establishment of that first great maritime hegemony, the Roman Empire (which Braudel aptly denominates ‘The Greater Mediterranean’). The Romans ruled from Scotland to Afghanistan, extending the culture of the Roman lake to the mists and mountains of an alien terrain.

In ‘The Mediterranean in the Ancient World’ we find Braudel again and again meditating on the relationship between religion and culture. There is, of course, no archaeological way of deciding the chicken and egg question – too many of the finds of the archaeologists are of a ritual or religious nature. But Braudel cannot and does not avoid the question that is crucial to our time and to our present predicament: can there be culture without religion?

Certainly, the two great cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world, Mesopotamia and Egypt, developed, at a very early stage, elaborate religious systems which were an integral part of their social cohesion and political stability. As the Frankforts were demonstrating at about the time that Braudel was bringing his masterwork to completion (‘The Intellectual Adventure of Early Man’, H and HA Frankfort, Chicago UP, 1946) that early religious endeavour embraced cosmology, politics and sociology in one seamless construct.

It goes without saying that we no longer live in such a world. ‘The Greater Mediterranean’, which now includes North America, Australasia and parts of Africa is to a large extent post-religious. Though some scientists suppose that they are moving towards a ‘theory of everything’, the majority of intellectuals in our world have embraced that very diversity and pluriformity which the ancient civilizations most feared.

The question remains: will the new order work? Can there be culture without religion?

Western society, though at its inception largely shaped by Christianity (pace Anton Wessels ‘Europe: Was it ever really Christian?’, SCM 1994), has finally turned the tables on its originating genius. It is now generally assumed by proper people that religion should be shaped by culture, and not the reverse. Now even churchmen talk about what the Church has to learn from the modern world. The third leg of Hooker’s stool, ‘Reason’, has been hacked off and replaced by ‘Experience’; by which is meant ‘The Way we Live Now.’ The modern world, it appears, no longer thinks much of Christianity; and Christianity, it seems, is now prepared to be what the world will make of it. Those who assert the primacy and culture-forming role of religion (who yesterday were the majority) are now called ‘fundamentalists’ – which, as any Spong will tell you, is the dirtiest of all foul names.

The test case is proving to be whether the post-religious West can come to terms with Islam.

Islam is, par excellence, the self-consciously culture-forming religion. Whilst some timorous Christians argue that their Faith was fatally wounded when it was adopted by the Roman State – and even that its essential genius is always counter-cultural – there is no such possibility with the Koran. ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ (that is to say, all faithful adherents of Islam) know that their religion issues in and determines a culture. Which is why, to the despair of the race relations industry, they demand Islamic schools, and why they choose to live together in homogenous communities in our northern towns, and why Islamic boys from Oldham or San Francisco go to fight with the Taliban.

The conflict between Islam and the West is not, like all the great cultural conflicts of the past, an encounter between two religions. It is a clash between the religious and the post-religious view of the world. The crisis is acute and affects not only Muslims, but every faith community. The multi-culturalism of the post-Christian West seeks to place all religions in its ethnological museum of curiosities. No religion, least of all Christianity, is safe from the onslaught.

Hence the topicality of Braudel’s question: can a culture exist without a religion? Can the natural sustain itself without at least some belief in the supernatural?

The Holloway-Spong tendency is convinced that it can, and is intent on making a living out of saying so. But any reader of Braudel’s last offering must be in serious doubt. A ‘theory of everything’ is the highest aspiration of human intelligence; but the wisdom of all antecedent societies has been that it is given not made, revealed not discovered. Givenness and revelation involve and require obedience. That, alas is what, in the post-modern West is emphatically unavailable.

Far from supposing that faith sustains culture, we have come to believe that it undermines it. Religious schools breed intolerance, it is claimed. To teach as true what has been culture-forming in the past is to undermine the fragility of the present cultural settlement. To inculcate, as Islam and Christianity do, doctrines of sin, forgiveness and eternal life is to undermine the omni-competence of the Careocracy.

But is political correctness a substitute for morality? And can there be a morality which thrives without the mystery, transcendence and poetry of religious belief? Braudel’s reflections would suggest that there cannot. Religion is found at the very the roots of our Mediterranean world; and though it has been fought over and died for, that is only because it brings inestimable benefits of social cohesion, political stability and artistic wealth. More light is thrown on our common humanity by the images of the gods than by rooms full of the tragic emphemera of modern existence at Tate Modern or MOMA. The Pentateuch has added more to the sum of human happiness than the European Convention on Human Rights. And if we live in fear of the rule of the saints by the sword, how much more should we fear the sword in the hands of ideological zealots who have thrown off the constraints of sanctity?

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark.

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Number Crunching

Over the last hundred years, the Churches have been in decline in Western Europe. In Ireland the numbers of Catholics attending Mass has been in freefall for many years. In England, the number of church worshippers has declined steadily throughout the last century.

Try as we may to keep our spirits up by telling ourselves that people come to church on Thursdays, we know that the Church packs far less of a punch in our communities today than it did in our grandparents’ day.

We can massage the figures and say that modern worshippers come once a month, rather than once a week, so ‘the number of people with whom the Church is in contact is much higher than the bare statistics would suggest.’ However you put it, though, no amount of spin-doctoring can portray the commitment of monthly worshippers as on a par with weekly worshippers.

Manufactured decline?

It has to be admitted that some clergy have worked their socks off to accelerate the decline. We erect hoops for people to jump through before their children can be baptized, ensuring that only the most determined are allowed to interrupt the smooth pattern of ecclesiastical activity in our parishes. We make it difficult to get married in church, and seem to take a particularly perverse delight in finding reasons why a prospective bride may not be married in the church of her choice.

Large tracts of England, in some cases whole rural deaneries, offer nothing but communion services on a Sunday morning. I know that Parish and People used to make a big thing about ‘The Lord’s service for The Lord’s people on The Lord’s Day’, but that is exactly what it has become. Outsiders wouldn’t dream of coming near one of our churches for a communion service, probably because they fear embarrassment at not knowing what to do, and they fear feeling awkward if they do not take communion, or rejection if they try and it is discovered that they have not been confirmed. We recoil in horror at the thought that the Church might become a sect, but are curiously blind to the fact that it has already become one. Some Churches are growing, but it is easy to sneer at successful Churches because their very existence shows up our own inadequacies.

Top Heavy

In the midst of all this contraction and decline, there is of course one bright spot. The number of dignitaries has grown steadily throughout the last century – as has the number of diocesan staff. The Church behaves like one of the ineffective, failing and bloated bureaucracies that Margaret Thatcher abolished. It is an organization like the Gas Board, the GPO and British Railways of old – run for the benefit of its staff rather than its customers (and prospective customers).

There is a classic principle that ‘work expands to fill the time available for its completion’. You might be forgiven for thinking that as the number of institutions decreases, the number of confirmations decreases and the number of clergy decreases, that the workload of the supporting bureaucracy might decrease too. Not so, the reverse is the case.

Diocesan Shrinkage

As the number of worshippers, clergy and parishes decreases, more and more staff appear in diocesan offices. Their costs are added to the diocesan quota which is levied, like a Council tax charge, on the declining number of parishes and their declining number of worshippers. The questions have to be asked, ‘Do we really need all these functions to be performed? Can we afford them?’

Very soon, two dioceses (Bradford and Truro) will drop below the significant figure of 100 clergy. That makes each of them about the size of an Archdeaconry in, say, the Diocese of Chelmsford.

Parishes in the Diocese of Bradford already enjoy the highest quota charges in the Northern Province and it is not hard to see why. Each diocese has one diocesan secretary, for instance. In other dioceses the costs of a diocesan secretary can be spread over three or four times as many parishes or worshippers than is the case in Bradford.

Concern about costs is not just idle speculation on my part. About half the English dioceses are running unsustainable deficits. The case for cutting our coat according to our cloth is no longer theoretical – it is now a practical necessity.

Time, motion and money

There must be scope for dioceses sharing costs. Some are already doing so, but real savings may require more radical surgery. The Church of Ireland has been uniting dioceses for a very long time. Some of the united dioceses combine a number of former dioceses (though most of the cathedrals seem to survive as cathedrals). This sometimes results in virtually every clergyman being a canon just to make the numbers up, but it does cut down on diocesan administration. More unions are in prospect but the idea has barely got on to the agenda this side of the water.

It really would be worthwhile for the Archbishops’ Council to call in some management consultants to consider whether it makes sense to devolve so many functions to forty three separate offices, all headed up by people on large salaries (they may not be large in secular terms but they compare very favourably indeed to clergy stipends).

One gets the distinct impression that there are far too many empire builders in the Church of England, both clerical and lay. Far too much of our dwindling energy seems to go into maintenance rather than mission.

Axes and Trees

Basically we need a fresh mindset. Tinkering will not deliver the kind of progress the Church needs. Recent cuts at Church House have been achieved by a combination of cutting posts at the bottom of the hierarchy (which doesn’t save that much) and offering early retirement to a few. Quality is easily degraded across the board, but nobody seems to have asked the penetrating questions about whether whole departments are really necessary.

What, for instance, has the Council for Christian Unity achieved in the last ten years? How much has it cost? What has the Board for Social Responsibility achieved in the last ten years? It has certainly incensed whole swathes of the Church and one of its members recently called for its abolition. As they say, there is no smoke without a fire, but who will address these issues? Who will take a view on what we actually need (not what it is nice to have, but what we need)?

What the Church needs is for someone to formulate a strategy to have a lean administration and concentrate on getting as much manpower as possible at the sharp end – in the parishes? Will the Archbishops’ Council grasp the nettle and help us put our house in order, or do we have to drift on for a few more years until the bailiffs come and do it for us?

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen's, Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark

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