Sunday, 23 April 2017
Restoring the national memory
A friend of mine used to joke about a certain priest’s sermons which went something like this: “I walked into the supermarket yesterday, and it reminded me of Jesus. Amen.” Well, my sermon today may be a little longer than that (sorry), but I’m going to start in a not entirely dissimilar way.
Not, admittedly, in a supermarket, but in a shoe shop, J.D. Sports in Camden Town, in fact, where I found myself on Good Friday, all cassocked up like a faithful priest. Now before you raise your eyebrows in horror that I was out shopping on Good Friday, a day of fasting and weeping and all that, I should point out that I was trying to get a pair of trainers for a homeless man whose shoes had worn out. But I’m not here to “virtue signal.” I just want to tell you what a juxtaposition it was, leaving the tomb-like stillness of my church and going into J.D. Sports. The church was bare, the altars stripped, the people silent and contemplative; but the shoe shop was jam-packed full of people from all around the world practically pushing each other out of the way for bargains, waiting impatiently in long queues, tapping away on mobile ‘phones, and all the while trying to speak over the monstrous cacophony of something vaguely related to music which was booming out throughout the shop.
While I was waiting (also impatiently, to be fair), I had the strange sense that if Jesus had walked in there - even with a robe of purple, a crown of thorns on his head, and bleeding wounds in his hands, feet and side - people would not even have recognised him; and if they had, frankly, I don’t know whether they would have cared. Everything they wanted at that moment was there, in J.D. Sports.
Coming back to supermarkets for a moment, Tesco got into trouble for advertising that they could “Make Good Friday better.” Better than the promise of eternal life won for us on the Cross. Well, I suppose we should be grateful that anyone bothered to complain. Give it another generation, and I don’t know if non-churchgoers will have a clue what Good Friday is, anyway. There will just be a collective blank look: no recognition.
Mary Magdalene famously meets Jesus outside his tomb, and mistakes him for the gardener. It takes her a moment to recognise him. Like an amnesiac, she sees the world through a fuzzy cloud as she grieves. But like so many of the suffers of dementia or Alzheimer’s I have spent time with, Mary is suddenly woken from her stupor by some trigger, something intangible, and I picture her face coming back to life in that moment of recognition. “Mary,” says Jesus, calling her by name – and she remembers. For other disciples, when the Risen Lord appears to them, it will be other things - the breaking of bread, the opening of scriptures, the showing of wounds - but for Mary, it is simply her name that sparks that recognition.
It has been said that our society is suffering from a collective amnesia, generation by generation losing any recognition of what came before. There is no doubt that modern technology decreases individuals’ attention spans, but I am talking about a societal phenomenon that goes back much further than the advent of the iPhone. You could trace it as far back as the Reformation, that first and decisive stripping of the altars, when the King and clergy erased the wall paintings, burnt the statues, took away the raucous plays and festivals which had had kept the faith alive in the Englishman’s imagination - and replaced them all with books, the Bible and Prayer Book, which only the educated few could even read. An old man in James I’s reign was asked about Jesus Christ, and said that he had heard of him, yes, because he had seen him in the village Corpus Christi play at Kendal when he was a child. But that was the extent of his knowledge, because those plays had since been banned by the Reformers, and the result is clear as mud: the English people who had known Jesus for over a thousand years barely even recognised him any more. And that was four hundred years ago.
Things did get better in the Victorian age, under the steam of the Evangelicals and the Anglo-Catholics, who built three of our churches in the Parish of Old St Pancras. People like Fr Basil Jellicoe restored the images and ceremonial, started guilds, built schools for the education of the poor and their instruction in the faith. The heyday was in the 1930s, when tens of thousands gathered in London for mass at the Anglo-Catholic congresses. But that has all gone now. Particularly since the State purloined schools paid for by Victorian Christians, the teaching of the faith has been mostly reduced to a matter of show-and-tell, comparing the funny things one religious group, say Christians, does, with the practices of another religion, of course all from a “neutral” standpoint which suggests that it’s all just a matter of choice anyway: you can choose your religion in much the same way as you choose your trainers, or choose whether to shop in Tesco or Morrison’s. Twenty minutes on Wikipedia, read a few reviews, and you should be able to make your mind up. The result: Christianity becomes a take-it-or-leave-it lifestyle choice.
The problem is, you can’t choose what you don’t even recognise. We used to be able to take it for granted that people at least knew what the Christian religion was before they rejected it. Nowadays, even young Cambridge undergraduates have never even learnt the Lord’s Prayer. Words that used to evoke a great wealth meaning, words like “wood” and “nails,” are being stripped of their significance; let alone words like “Crown” or “nation” or “family.” Our language is losing meaning, our ability even to communicate with each other at anything more than the most prosaic and dull level is rapidly diminishing because we can no longer assume we have anything in common with one another. People are making their “decision” based on atrophied, misinformed perceptions, groping about for meaning in our collective amnesiac fog. We don’t recognise each other, let alone Christ.
Christians could respond to this by saying, well, so what? The early Christians lived as a little minority, a rebel sect, so let’s keep the fire burning discretely and keep to our own, let the world go its own way. We could. But that would be giving in to the modern worldview of religion as a supermarket commodity, and it would be letting our nation down. I would go further and say that we would be complicit in the gradual erosion of identity and even meaning that is happening throughout Europe at the moment. We are heading into a world without society, a world of complete individualism, isolation and self-orientation, where every man and woman is an island. You can see the effects of this isolation on the streets of Camden Town, people staggering about in isolation without family, friends or home. And yet our Lord tells us that the people around us are our brothers and sisters: we have no right as Christians to let our family, our country, our world go this way.
Yet this is Easter, the time of the Resurrection. There is hope. Not for a return to the Christendom of the Middle Ages or Queen Victoria, nor even to the 1950s, none of which were perfect. But there are signs, like them or not, that people are seeking meaning and identity: the tribes marked by people’s clothing, tattoos, band or football t-shirts, the causes they sign up to on Twitter, the rise of the SNP and even the urge for “Brexit.” Tomorrow is St George’s day, and the English flag will no doubt fly from many vans and be daubed on many faces.
The Church would be foolish indeed to sneer at these signs. Our job is to fill in the gaps, to preserve and to restore the memory of our nation: to bring out the Cross at the heart of our flag, to revive the memory of the English people of our historical, intellectual and spiritual roots, and to spark the recognition in every human heart of the Lord above every prince or prelate who commanded us to love one another, and to do what we are about to do in Remembrance of Him.
Posted by Tom Plant