The Way We Live Now

E Pluribus Unum

I have just returned from the United States. And, in the words of the great Dr Austin Farrer, ‘what a frightening experience that is’.

America is a bewildering confusion of the past and the future. There is the old-world charm of young men who quite unaffectedly call their fathers ‘Sir’, and the relentless modernity of fast food and coke-with-everything. Americans are ruthlessly business-like and mawkishly sentimental at the same time. Theirs is an aggressively assimilative culture, as witness the cannibalization of the Italian language by the ubiquitous Starbucks (where the ‘frappuccino’ is a best seller in the long dog days of summer). But, at the same time, it is curiously insular. From one side of the continent to another it is virtually impossible to find a daily newspaper with adequate international coverage.

American food is a subject all to itself. How is it that a nation of so many millions has hardly a single edible cheese? Why do menus in restaurants so seldom include fruit? Why (Starbucks not withstanding) is a dull brown liquid of uncertain origin so frequently allowed to substitute for coffee? Why is a steak always half a cow? Why is American pepper so tasteless? And what is the purpose of iced tea?

I was staying, for some of the time at least, in the Shrine Motel of Our Lady of the Snows, Belleville, Illinois. The ville is not so belle, but the shrine is remarkable. The facilities of this vast ecclesiastical plant put Walsingham to shame, with all the amenities of a four star hotel and bedroom space to swing as many cats as you might fancy. A concrete replica of the Lourdes Grotto, an arena for open air services seating several thousands, and a vast modern church (paying American homage to Le Corbusier and Ronchamps) complete the site. The shrine supermarket’s bewildering array of holy jew-jaws was particularly enticing. I could hardly resist a plastic statuette of the Nino de Arucha, a Mexican manifestation who puts the Infant of Prague to sartorial shame.

America is a ‘religious’ country. Far more Americans, proportionately, regularly attend Church than in any European country. And yet questions need to be asked about the tenor and nature of American religion. My hero Harold Bloom, the cumudgeonly old Jewish maestro of Lit Crit, famously speaks of the ‘American Religion’, which has found its way into every fane from the synagogue to the cathedral. Probably he is right – and the current spat with Islam is a reflection of the simple fact that the same religion is still banned from the mosque.

The celebration of the Assumption at the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Name, Chicago is a case in point. The liturgy was studiedly casual. No one had taken the trouble to arrange an organist, or even a pianist – so that the six hundred or so communicants were led by a tone deaf priest in the singing of hymns of indifferent quality, which they clearly did not know. Somehow someone had failed to arrange an offertory procession. There was a good deal of fumbling. And the celebrant realized, at the end of the Mass on this major Marian feast, that he had forgotten the Ave Maria, which was appended to the rite, and after the dismissal.

But more American than all this was the sermon.

Our Lady’s Assumption, we were told, is an occasion to rejoice in our bodies, and to ‘get in touch with our physicality’. The Church has for too long been world- and body-denying. But, with Our Lady, we can now see that all that was wrong. She had lived in an oppressive patriarchal culture over which, by God’s grace; she had triumphed, and we should learn to do the same. The preacher had recently had a cataract operation. What a joy it was that he could now see and value God’s world afresh! The same could be true for us if only we would liberate ourselves.

Liberate our selves from what? – you will ask.

The preacher did not say. But in this sparse liturgy, during which he effected extempore alterations to the Roman Missal which excised opinions and attitudes of which he disapproved, we could be in no doubt. It was the Catholic Faith from which we needed to be liberated; and the Cathedral of the Holy Name, Chicago was the willing agent by which this was to be brought about.

Orthodox Anglicans look with something between amazement and loathing at the antics of ECUSA. But Jack Spong and the Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York are not alone. In the American Catholic Church they have many friends.

I used to have on the back of my downstairs lavatory door (until some marauding visitor snaffled it) a newspaper cutting from Northern California: ‘I was a Catholic nun until I discovered I didn’t believe in God: so I became an Episcopalian’. Matthew Fox, the guru of ‘Creation Spirituality’, took the same course. But it would not be necessary now.

It is hard tell how far this New American Religion of doctrinal indifferentism, sentimentality and sexual liberation has penetrated other religious groups in the US; but the evidence seems to suggest that all the main-line Protestant Churches are infected. In the name of ‘multiculturalism’, God is being removed from the oath of allegiance to the American flag. We can confidently expect that ‘In God we Trust’ will soon disappear from the Greenback. A God-fearing nation is becoming, in its official symbols at least, God-less. And its churches are rushing to follow suit.

Norway and Sweden, our recent partners in Porvoo, are generally agreed to be the most secularized societies in former Christendom. It may be so. In terms of church-going it certainly is so. But I suspect that America is rapidly catching up. The difference there is that when you stop believing in God you don’t stop going to church. You just change the Church.


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

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