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The Archbishop of Canterbury faces a daunting task in this Godless country

A funeral in Ireland reminds me how Christian that country still is in comparison

By on Monday, 12 November 2012

Fraser Nelson’ article about the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt. Rev Justin Welby, in the Telegraph last Friday, noted two aspects of our country that still remain in my mind. Referring to Bishop Welby’s predecessor, Rowan Williams, Nelson wrote, “Dr Williams has had to keep the Church alive in one of the least religious countries on earth.” Further on he commented, “…being Christian in Britain now means being part of a minority, and that the Church’s mission is to explain the Word of God to people who have grown up having never heard it.”

I don’t know why the phrase “one of the least religious countries on earth” struck such a chill in my heart. Of course, I know it to be true; you only have to read about the Government’s latest pronouncements on moral matters, follow the statistics of ever-falling church-going numbers, or realise that almost all the people you might bump into in the course of the day “don’t do God” as Alastair Campbell put it so elegantly when he was Tony Blair’s Director of Communications and Strategy, to be aware of its obviousness.

The UK today is simply mission territory – just as much as Africa was in the 19th century, but with the added complication that we are a sophisticated, rich, multi-cultural, post-Christian territory rather than a poor, pagan and exploited one. If it is hard for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle, it is surely just as hard to try to evangelise him. In Ireland last week for my brother’s funeral, I was struck forcibly by the contrast with this country when it comes to rituals of mourning. Admittedly we were in a small town on the Cork estuary rather than in a big city, but I had a powerful sense of a community that still retained a religious outlook on life. During the Removal at the undertakers the evening before the following day’s Requiem and burial, the coffin was uncovered in the chapel of rest. The door to the street was also open so that anyone could call by to pay their respects to the dead man and to offer their condolences to the family.

This was not a noisy “wake”; it was both very prayerful and at the same time appropriately sociable. “I’m sorry for your troubles” people said as they came in and greeted the mourners. Over a hundred people visited the undertakers to make their farewells, to share their memories of my brother and to listen to the short prayers offered by a local priest.

Most of them then joined us to walk behind the hearse through the streets to the parish church, where the coffin was placed beside the altar overnight. Passersby stood in respectful silence as our procession moved on its way. The next day, after the Requiem Mass, it was the same. Those who attended it walked slowly behind the hearse through the town towards the cemetery. Again, the general public stopped its business to mark the solemnity of a local man’s journey to God; a Christian community acknowledging the death of one of its members.

It made me think that you can tell whether a society is religious or not by the way it marks death. Over here, “the least religious country on earth”, death is hidden, not open; a private, not a community event; an affront to the bustle and business of the living. In Ireland, still a country of deep religious sensibilities despite the weakened authority of the Church, death is integrated into life: the necessary gateway to the life of the world to come. An Englishman who contacted me after hearing of my brother’s death told me he wished people would live by Christian principles as it would make life kinder all round, but that he had “a problem believing in life after death”. In Ireland people are still open to the profound mysteries of faith; death is an event to be marked by reverence, not merely respect. Here, funerals are so often neo-pagan celebrations of life, characterised by beer bottles left at the graveside. The new Archbishop of Canterbury is facing a daunting task.

  • Ghengis

    Britain suffers from the residual arrogance of not realizing the Empire crumbled over 100 years ago. The UK economy is now smaller than Brazil’s in GDP. That being said, modern Britons will not be scared into conversion as many of their pagan ancestors were. For Christianity to be resurrected it must inspire people towards positive and productive ends such as character development rather than fear of hell. Second, the wishy washy social justice type Christianity has no chance of converting anyone since the welfare state already claims to address social justice without the theological baggage. What is needed is strength and a focus on positive Christian virtues.

  • frater sejunctus

    Alas, Rowan Williams has driven more than a few nails into the coffin of English Christianity. Moreover, “keeping Christianity going” in a given land is the divine work of the Holy Spirit, not the achievement of any cleric. …Yet the Holy Spirit works through means administered by clergymen. …So it’s a bad omen that the new archbishop is “prayerfully rethinking” the matter of sodomitic pseudogamy. What’s wrong with the unanimous testimony of Sacred Scripture, and, say, the simple witness of the Didache? …Furthermore, if the new archbishop is a believing Christian, he must put a stop to the ordination of women within his decreasingly Christian communion.

  • teigitur

    Nail on head article. Ireland still retains many elements of Christianity, though church attendance is lower than in the past. This country has very little to offer on that score.
     Please accept my condolences on your brother’s death Ms Phillips.

  • shieldsheafson

    In the West the struggle lies between Humanitarianism and Catholicism (Protestantism is dead; I’m not sure what will become of Islam or other eastern religions).  The Catholic Church is the only church which claims supernatural authority (with all its merciless logic) and perhaps ought to orientate itself to claim allegiance of all Christians who have any supernatural belief left.  The secular State has long recognised that a supernatural Religion must necessarily involve absolute authority and so, to cut to the chase, must restrict ‘freedom of religion’.

     In the last century materialism and socialism, without religion, was too crude and rapidly descended into barbarism; the echoes of which remain.  The new humanitarianism is become an actual religion, although anti-supernatural.  It is pantheism and its creed is; God is man, etc.  It has a real food of a sort to offer to man’s religious craving; it idealises, but makes no demand upon the
    spiritual faculties.  You could call the new religion, Sentimentalism.  At the rate we’re going, I think that the state will establish their ‘religion’ legally in the next ten years, encompassing further horrors.

     “The God problem is God.  He dared to tell us that His idea of our “flesh and blood” was better than the one we are concocting for ourselves.  We dare not admit that He was right.  Therefore, He is a problem, a reality to be denied existence.  Such is what is beneath the surface of the increasingly bitter activities of our polity.” (ref. needed)

  • Cestius

    Certainly right about modern funerals - often a “celebration of life” with a couple of pop songs, but without acknowledgment of death or any hope for the future.  I’ve been to one of two and they are much more depressing than traditional Christian funerals.

  • Alan

    The main “religion” of Britain today is a kind of selfish complacent paganism, fuelled by material well-being (despite the financial so-called “crisis”) and by hedonism.  People will only be converted to Christianity (or indeed any faith) if they come to feel a “need” for it.  They can even be intellectually convinced of its truth, but without that personal “need” it will mean nothing.  It will take some real crisis, such as war or (more likely) something like prolonged power cuts, for people to begin to feel that need, though that doesn’t mean we should wish for such events.
    It would certainly help if the churches came together a bit more, and ecumenism should be strongly encouraged.  Unfortunately there are many “traditionalist” Catholics, and their Protestant counterparts, who resist this.  Ecumenical experience has shown that many of the supposed differences are simply misunderstandings, or differences in language to describe the same things.

  • rjt1

    Though British society might not be scared into repentance, facing up to the recent tide of filth revealed by the Savile and Welsh children’s home scandals might bring home the need for a change of heart, for some remedy that is beyond mere human strength.

  • frater sejunctus

    But, as Scripture testifies in many places, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Granted, this fear is chiefly an overwhelming honour of adoration that desires to please God, but it also encompasses an unbudgeable element of terror before the prospect of His judgement. “After death, cometh judgement,” and “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” A certain emphasis on the Four Last Things would not come amiss as the end of the church year approaches.

  • Mark

     You are right that the gospels promote fear of God in terms of punishment and damnation; but how does that square with the theological concept of God as love? although love is just, how can it be wrathful or overly harsh? it seems that the gospels are open to interpretation to sort out this apparent inconsistency. If God is just then no one should fear Him because they will get exactly what they deserve.

  • nytor

    Yes, they are – terribly depressing.

  • VeroniqueD

    It is stating the obvious to say that organised religion in the UK (and hopefully the whole world but that is unlikely) is in its death throes.

    I feel pangs of sorrow for Welby. He is in the wrong job anyway and now he has to spend years trying to justify the issuance of that job description. It seems to me that this is no longer valid.

    I have no brook with religion anyway (as is obvious). But that is not the point – there are many people who prefer the comfort of religious delusion, the colourful trimmings of religious paraphernalia and a feeling that everything will be okay in the pews.

    The death issue is a change – there are more people who approve of individual determination (of unwanted birth as well as death), living medical directives to do with death wishes.

    Voluntary euthanasia as an issue has been talked about for a long time but, of course, the religious can’t countenance such self determination and so it has not foothold in this country.

    The birth issue has problems as well since from the earliest days all religions had to encourage the boosting of numbers indoctrinated into the specific religious dogma.

    That wilful breeding has reached a point that can no longer be sustained on this finite planet but no government (except China’s failed autocratic and punitive regime) seems able to address this problem that will issue in our demise as a species and sadly all other species as well. Except maybe the viruses and some bacteria. And that, I suspect, is all we would find as life on any other suitably situated planet.

    Enough from me. Good luck Welby. It won’t help you but it may get you some brownie points :-)

  • frater sejunctus

    God is first and foremost holy, and, since He is and remains a “jealous God,” His holiness takes the form of love or wrath, depending on the spiritual state of the one who comes before Him for judgement. …Oddly, much/most recent theology doesn’t have a whole lot to say about the holiness of God or the fear of God.

  • Kevin

    The new Archbishop of Canterbury is facing a daunting task.

    Is it any more daunting than telling the Archbishop that Anglican orders are invalid?

  • Guest


  • mary

    I agree we that in Ireland we give great respect and reverence to our dead. The prayerful services and requem Mass are so reassuring  of where our loved ones are gone and a great consolation to us.which helps in the grieving process

  • wikks

    I have been living in London for about two years and have found people to be generally nice and decent in spite of the low adherence to religion. The lack of religion has not necessarily turned people into demons. Coming from a country in west Africa where virtually everyone is ‘God fearing’, it was a mild culture shock (but also refreshing in a way) to see that most people here, particularly the whites, are not religious. Religious participation here is largely an immigrant thing- Africans, Caribbeans and Asians make up the majority of the congregation in the church I attend mass every now and then to meet new people in the friendly and decent atmosphere found in church. I’m obviously not devoutly religious. I find the supernatural aspects of the faith hard to believe. But I whole-heartedly subscribe to the values the church unwaveringly stands for i.e the social and ‘real world’ stuff.

  • scary goat

     I expect he probably knows already……and it doesn’t seem to bother him.

  • JFJ

    As always, thank you for this piece.  I would not add or comment on anything in it, rather allow someone far greater than myself to comment and thus, I simply offer Chesterton:

    “But all these cases are remote in date and could only be proved in
    detail. We can see the fact much more clearly in the case when the paganism of
    the Renaissance ended Christianity and Christianity unaccountably began all
    over again. But we can see it most clearly of all in the case which is close to
    us and full of manifest and minute evidence; the case of the great decline of
    religion that began about the time of Voltaire. For indeed it is our own case;
    and we ourselves have seen the decline of that decline. The two hundred years
    since Voltaire do not flash past us at a glance like the fourth and fifth
    centuries or the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In our own case we can see
    this oftrepeated process close at hand; we know how completely a society can
    lose its fundamental religion without abolishing its official religon; we know
    how men can all become agnostics long before they abolish bishops. And we know
    that also in this last ending, which really did look to us like the final
    ending, the incredible thing has happened again; the Faith has a better
    following among the young men than among the old. When Ibsen spoke of the new
    generation knocking at the door, he certainly never expected that it would be
    the church-door.

    At least five times, therefore, with the Arian and the Albigensian, with
    the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Faith has to all
    appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that
    died. How complete was the collapse and how strange the reversal, we cars only
    see in detail in the case nearest to our own time.”

  • Lazarus

    So to sum up:

    Religion’s finished so now we can get on with killing the old (‘the death issue’) and the young (‘the birth issue’).

  • Parasum

    These scandals may bring despair – but (it is much to be feared) nothing else. it is not the fact of evil, but the mercy of God, that brings a change of heart. (Dante illustrates this insight in Canto 9 of the Inferno.)  Without God’s grace, it will not occur to anyone that he needs the grace of God. Of ourselves, we are utterly and totally without power to perceive that we need God’s grace.

    There is also “hardness of heart” to reckon with – maybe God is allowing an apostate & disobedient people to do their own will, and to experience the fruits of that. If we cast off Christ, we cannot expect there to be no consequences. If we do not serve Him, there is ultimately  only one other whom we can serve. If the rightful King is not acknowledged by those whom He has made His own, they must serve the prince of this world whom He has cast out.  There is no third choice. That “much/most recent theology doesn’t have a whole lot to say about the holiness of God or the fear of God” is no gain, but a cause of weakness. 

    In case someone points out that the Council of Trent teaches that the unjustified sinner is able to prepare himself for justification: so it does; and for the UJ so much as to want to dispose himself for justification, & to do so, the grace of God is needed.

  • Parasum

    Here you are :)

    See the opening sentence of the last paragraph of the article 

  • scary goat

     Lovely and hopeful and encouraging.  Jesus promised to be with us for all time….so I am guessing He will.  And yes, I tend to agree that society can only go so far to the dogs and still delude itself that “this is progress”.  I think there will soon come generations who will look for something more than the current state of affairs.  This is why we need to have something worth believing in and be visible. 

  • AdamThomson

    “If God is just then no one should fear Him because they will get exactly what they deserve.” – But that is precisely why we should fear Him!

  • cullen

    With respect to Mrs. Philips, she is mixing up the traditional respect that Irish people have towards funerals with an idea that it is still about religious belief. Last year I witnessed similar respect at a funeral. The man was a respected publican, (and father to my best friend), a devoted catholic, family man and active in his community.  

    He lived in one of those areas of Dublin with 5% mass attendance. At the Homily Mass I was forced to be a babysitter. By circumstance, I had to show the group of young people who attended how to act at a funeral mass. They were there to show their respect, but didn’t understand, or even know, the protocols of a funeral mass.

    Despite their unbelief or lack of respect towards catholicism , each one showed a pious and unquestionong respect to the rites. They did so from respect for the man, and empathy to his family. 

  • cullen

    But you must admit there is a huge rural urban divide on that. Culchies still cling to their christianity, whilst jackeens have been casting it off.

    BTW. I changed my post name, I do so fairly regularly. I’m still the only person who mentions xbox on a catholic site. 

  • Lewispbuckingham

     I always like to think of “fear of the Lord ” as being absolutely in awe of him.
     At the same time asking him for the gift of Wisdom.

  • teigitur

    Good God Damo, why so many changes??lol
     Yes there is a divide, but no-one ever thinks on “Dublin” as “Ireland” anyway. But even in jackeen territory the strands remain. Funerals are conducted very well,in a dignified fashion, yet without too much mourning as the vast majority of people still believe the dead have simply moved to another state of being. Stopping going to Church is different to ” casting off Christianity” Damo!

  • teigitur

    A little upside down there Damo. Though I am impressed that you knew how to conduct yourself at a Requiem Mass, and passed this on!
     Presumably most of these youngsters had been to a” Catholic “school and must have been to Mass on several occasions in their lives, if they still did not know how to act in a Church, it speaks volumes about the schools, although its hardly a surprise.

  • VeroniqueD

    In that case, I guess you won’t resurrect together with the mandatory bed. :-)

  • Fr B

    The love of God is exactly what demands that there be damnation: God’s love cannot permit His children to be eternally distressed by terrorists, torturers and perverts. Yes, God does not cease to love those who have given themselves to evil, and because of His love He gives each one many chances to repent, but their filth and horror cannot remain in His kingdom forever.

    The Catholic vision is so sensitive that it sees even one mortal sin as a terrible outrage against God. Those who are clinging to such a sin and refuse to repent cannot be let into Heaven or their sin would be in Heaven as well.

  • Benedict Carter

    It’s not the Archlayman of Canterbury’s job to worry about the Salvation of souls on Britain: it’s his job to preside over part of the political establishment, and to do it in drag. 

    It’s the job of the Catholic Bishops to sort out the country spiritually: but what do we get? Homo “Masses” and a catholic Archbishop inducted onto the wholly pagan false religion of Zoroastrianism.

    A Church gone mad. 

  • Peter

    “That wilful breeding has reached a point that can no longer be sustained on this finite planet….”
    The earth currently produces enough food to feed 12 billion people, but much of it gets thrown away. 

    Half the population of Britain lives happily on 10 percent of its land area.

    Perhaps it’s you who are from another planet.


  • cephas2

    How heartwarming to hear that Ireland, despite all one reads nowadays, is still overwhelmingly a Catholic country. Deo Gratias!

  • Alan

    1. Glad you know what his job is, you’d better inform him.
    2. Your “Archlayman” jibe puts you in the same league as those Ulster Protestants who call Catholic priests “mister” instead of “father”.
    3. I must have missed the thing about an Archbishop inducted into Zoroastrianism. What’s all that about?

  • Benedict Carter

    You’ve missed a great many things I reckon Alan.

  • JByrne24

    “The love of God is exactly what demands that there be damnation”

    So the love of God would seem a very poor and weak love when placed alongside UNCONDITIONAL human love.

    And then again (1 Corinthians 13): [love]  keeps no record of evil - seeks not her own – NEVER fails…..etc. .

  • Jmasterson010

    how does one write about death when it is so personal my wife passed away a few months ago after a short illness due to cancer,her death was a happy death in so far as one can use the wife is a convert and got great solace from her faith.i have often thought about many things since my wife passed thought which has stayed with me is the fact of god as a loving father and a just god.i do believe because of this god is bound to reveal himself to every human being  during their life on earth jesus did say no one can come to the father except through me.jesus is the human face of god so the question is how does jesus reach people today the answer is through each one of us who claim to bear his name.and the very first thing i need to do is to spend time with jesus  and then go from his presence  not to preach but to live an love in his name and not be afraid,the very first words of john paul 2 was do not be afraid.we should not worry about people not believing in god but rather believing in his followers and as i said in the beginning everybody is given the oppertunity of accepting or rejecting gods love because god meets each one on there terms in their circumstances in life.he is obliged to because he is a just god  and also a god who is is the patroness of the missions ,she never left her convent,perhaps the best one can do is pray for a person to accept  jesus for who he is not just talk about him and certainly not preach .sorry for being so long winded.

  • Robin L

    Yes something deep and lovely has gone from our lives in Britain. It isn’t just the sad losses
    of self-restraint, reserve, politeness and modesty that wrench the sensibilities but a sense
    of  the presence of others for whom we made way by opening doors, bidding good day, enquiring
    after them strangers or not. These small gestures were suffused by a generosity of spirit and forbearance that slipped away with the insurgence of  selfish Capitalism after 1980.
    I know there were also some pretty brutal punitive practices around as well as fear but on balance it will be the kindness of ordinary people that will be remembered through those four decades between 
    1945 and 1980. 
    Movements and groups that call themselves ‘progressive’ today are a sad and sorry caricature
    of  real progress!

  • Robin L

    I should just add that the Church lost the British working class after Vatican 2 (see 
    Archer (Antony) OP: The Two Catholic Churches; A Study in Oppression) and with this loss
    Catholics who found their devotion in the Cross and in the non-verbal silences of  the Mass.
    The verbosity of the Missa Normativa was more characteristically bourgeois, being performative
    and assessed as many Catholics then sought out the parish and priests that best suited their tastes.
    Undoubtedly Vatican 2 opened up the Church to much good and livened things up but a real treasure was lost with the disappearance of  devout working class Catholics.

  • EditorCT

    Priceless. I’ve read the most disgraceful nastiness about the Society of Saint Piux X and its bishops on this blog, penned by this writer, yet she speaks about the “Archbishop of Canterbury” facing a “daunting task” without pointing out that he isn’t actually an “archbishop” at all, and since he disowns much of Christian doctrine himself, “daunting” doesn’t come into it. He’s been feted by the media on all fronts, secular and so-called Catholic papers alike.

    Are these people really as (literally) non-Catholic as they appear to be?  Denouncing a truly Catholic bishop(s) for the crime of refusing to accept novelties (bearing in mind that Pope SAINT Pius X warned “far, far from our priests be the love of novelity”) and insisting on adhering to the totality of Catholic doctrine and morals?

    Gerragrip. If you’re that crazy about the “Archbishop of Canterbury” why not go off and join his “Church” – I honestly do not believe for a second, that you would notice any real difference between  Anglicanism  and what you think of as Catholicism.

  • Lewispbuckingham

    I agree JB. The love of God is exactly what demands he will never let us go.
    That does not mean we are not able to let him go, that’s the consequence of free will.
     The right to say yes, the right to say no.
    The old adage is
    God always forgives,
    Man sometimes forgives,
    Nature never forgives.

  • teigitur

    I totally agree.

  • teigitur

    A bit of a naughty post. Though, unfortunately your last few words are true I fear.

  • Peter

    “the wishy washy social justice type Christianity has no chance of converting anyone since the welfare state already claims to address social justice without the theological baggage”

    Unfortunately the welfare state is limited to Britain and not the rest of the world where millions of children are dying annually because of poverty.

    The role of the Christian does not end at Britain’s shores.

    A major role of the Church in Britain is to be a self-sacrificing Church, passionate about the plight of the poor and oppressed in the developing world, instead of being inward-looking and overly concerned with maintaining its own structures at home.

    Perhaps then people will see the Church for what it really ought to be and find it once more attractive to be a Christian.

  • Alan

    If you have evidence that he “disowns much of Christian doctrine”, whether in Christ’s teachings or the ancient Creeds, I think you should let us know. 

  • Alan

    Those “working-class” Catholics were overwhelmingly the Irish immigrants and their descendents.  They have now been replaced, in very large numbers, by immigrants from countries like Poland, the Philipines, Nigeria, etc.  The question of silence is a separate one; personally I prefer not to have hymns filling every available gap in the liturgy.

  • EditorCT

    er, what about the key Christian doctrine, from the lips of Christ Himself:  “Thou art Peter and on this rock I will build My Church…”   Ask the new “archbishop” if he accepts papal authority, papal infallibility, papal supremacy. Clearly not,  which is why this (adored by the liberals, especially “Catholic” liberals) “archbishop” feels he can ordain women and “rethink” “his views” on same-sex “marriage”.

    Fancy not knowing that and you a Catholic Herald blogger an’ all…

  • EditorCT

    Can’t see my post, to which you refer, but ALL of it is true – absolutely.  Francis Phillips savages the SSPX (or certainly has done in the past – maybe as things worsen, as they just did with the appointment of the (material at least) heretic Archbishop Muller to the CDF – unbelievable –  she’ll come to her senses)  while, as above, praising, to the skies, a real live schismatic. “Diabolical disorientation” Our Lady warned?  You better believe it!

  • Alan

    I’m sure he accepts that verse from Matthew, but it is of course open to more than one interpretation.  For example, some claim it did not apply to Peter’s successors (at a time, remember, when people expected an early Second Coming). And I don’t think Papal Infallibility automatically follows from that verse, else the Church would not have waited over 1800 years before proclaiming it. 

  • Alan

    And I doubt if anyone “adores” him (except his wife and children).