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The church of everywhere

Setting out to chronicle the decline of faith -- both his own and that of his country -- COLE MORETON was surprised to find his planned religious obituary turning into a soulful celebration of something much bigger…

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I've found this extraordinary church. You really should see it. Yes, I know those words can make the heart sink, but this one's different. Honestly. The roof is as high as the sky, and the walls are as wide as the world. Rainbows dance behind the altar and a river runs down the aisle. The coffee is made with the finest beans (bought at the fairest prices) but you can have tea if you want, or chocolate or whisky. It's okay, you choose.

The leader won't hate you, whatever you do in bed and whoever you do it with. Guess what? She's you. Everyone is a leader in this church, which is just as much a mosque or a temple. There is no hierarchy. It has no priests, no money and no premises and holds no meetings, except by accident. Nobody wears robes. Nobody wears anything, if they don't want to.

If it all sounds crazy, ridiculous and unlikely, then I have some news. This is not a fiction, it's a fact. This church exists right now. We may as well call it The Church of Everywhere, because that's where it's at. Everywhere and nowhere, baby. All rise for the opening hymn, 'Hi Ho Silver Lining'.

BELIEF NOT BELONGING

How many people are involved? Millions. According to the most cautious surveys, two thirds of people believe in God or a higher power of some kind. If you discount all those who are members of an organised religion you're left with at least 26 million people in England alone, who believe but don't belong.

They go nowhere. Or everywhere, if you prefer. Theirs is the biggest church in the country, but they have no official voice. I started thinking about them all while I was researching my new book 'Is God Still An Englishman? How we lost our faith (but found new soul)'. In doing so, I came to see that in many senses I was one of them. Not very long ago, a close friend who was dying at a brutally young age from stomach cancer came to stay with us. One day she asked me, without warning, where she was going. Like an idiot I said: "Up the A22." That was the best way to her home from our house. When I realised what she meant, I was dumbstruck.

Once, we had both been committed believers. Teenage fundamentalists, actually. Back then, we had been sure of the answers. Ali remained a woman of faith, who faced death with great dignity and grace, and she went on ahead convinced that she was going to a better place. But I was shaken. I looked inside and saw nothing I could be certain of. I looked around and saw that what had happened to me seemed to have happened to so many others too.

So I started to investigate how it was that Britain had changed so dramatically, within a generation. Where did all our certainties of belief and self-belief go? What has taken their place? Part of the answer is the Church of Everywhere.

For High Priest, an entirely honorary and faintly ridiculous role, I propose the comedian Paul Whitehouse, of the Fast Show, simply because he once said: "I love a church, me ... but if you put a vicar in there, I run out screaming." That's how people in the Church of Everywhere feel. They want to find their own way to God, thank you very much. They've had their fill of being told what to believe, how to live, how much money to give and who to go out with, so enough of all that. Join in, if you want. Today. All you have to do is ... nothing.

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A NEW PAGANISM

When I wrote something like that on Facebook, to propose a group called The Church of Everywhere (and nowhere, baby) 70 people signed up, almost overnight. One woman asked why this stuff wasn't taught in schools. The reaction surprised me, but it shouldn't have. It was a little confirmation of a suspicion I had began to form during the writing of the book: that rather than turn from God, as all the disappointed preachers say we have done, we have actually acquired a new national faith.

It isn't Christian. Or rather it isn't just Christian. Loosely speaking, it is also pagan. To join the Pagan Federation, which includes everyone from Wiccans to worshippers of Norse gods, all you have to do is agree with three ideas: that there is a higher power at work in the universe; that the earth is sacred or special and should be protected; and that everyone has the right to follow their own path, as long as it harms no-one else. If you could stand on the white cliffs of Dover and somehow ask everyone in Britain to signal their agreement with those statements, the majority of hands would go up.

There are only about 240,000 practising pagans in the UK at most, but the influence of their ideas on mainstream culture is far wider than that, from Harry Potter to Gaia. I wrote about this for the Guardian last year and was besieged by people who said yes, they had never told anyone but they sometimes went up a hill or down to the beach at dawn, on May Day, say, to tune in to the universe, and they'd call themselves pagan although they would never dream of going to a moot.

What they are actually part of is the Church of Everywhere, the new majority faith that doesn't mind what you call your higher power. It's nature-loving, informed by the green movement and by Buddhism, instinctive and sentimental and influenced by the simple fact that there are now so many deities living on these islands, side by side. We just don't believe in one God, with one monarch and one Church, as we seemed to only a generation ago. The Archbishop of Canterbury says we are "haunted" by our old state religion, and he's right, it does still inform the way we think, speak, live and decide the law. But the power of the Church, the State and the Crown, working together to define and promote the notion of the Establishment God - the God of God Save The Queen - well, that is dead.

ILLUSORY CERTAINTIES

It happened surprisingly recently. The last great festival of certainty, and the starting point for my book, was the royal wedding of 1981. Everyone waved red, white and blue and seemed to know what England - and by extension Britain, in those days - was and what it stood for. It was an illusion, of course (on the eve of the wedding a young man was killed by the police in Toxteth, as part of the riots that were the voice of a different kind of Britain, one that then had no other way of being heard). Bit by bit, I examined how and why the certainty crumbled. The results surprised me. There was sex and scandal and financial chicanery in this story, in which the Church collapsed, the Crown betrayed its true self and the State acted like a wrecking ball. Margaret Thatcher got a lot of the blame, but it didn't end there. Instead of bleating about the 50 people who buggered up Britain, I have found myself celebrating what we are becoming now.

By "we" I suppose I mean the English. I'm not qualified to write about the Scots, the Irish or the Welsh, so I have concentrated on England, and how its people have affected - and been affected by - the dramatic recent shifts in the British soul. (That word, of course, is not one that many Englishmen and women are comfortable with, really. Soul is something Americans have, particularly the black ones. Aretha has soul. Obama has soul. David Cameron has the ability to appear natural on a bicycle. That's not the same thing at all.)

IS GOD STILL ENGLISH?

A century ago George Bernard Shaw said:  "The ordinary Britisher imagines that God is an Englishman." He was talking about the imperial delusion that enabled gentlemen sitting in London clubs to imagine they had a right to rule over half the world. The fantasy that had begun in Elizabethan times, when the Queen needed a myth to help her build a nation. After the wind blew the Spanish Armada away, the Bishop of London declared in 1589: "God is English."

The myth waxed and waned but didn't die, and lent strength to the Victorian empire. As late as 1905, Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, said: "the Englishman's justification in India is to bring ... a sense of manliness or moral dignity, a spring of patriotism, a dawn of intellectual enlightenment or a stirring of duty, where it did not before exist."

Such arrogance. No wonder we felt so guilty and confused for so long, after the empire collapsed. Even now, we're a mixed up bunch, the English. We're morris men and maypoles, but we're also dubstep and dancehall. We're roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and chicken balti, born in Brum. We're honey still for tea, and rice and peas for supper. That's not a disaster, whatever the BNP might say. It's lovely, something worth celebrating. We are becoming something new, and you can see it in the most unlikely places.

Jade Goody was accused of being the worst of us. She was branded thick, vulgar and gobby, and with good reason, but her funeral was an unusually public display of new English spirituality. Not the clever middle-class kind, but the folk faith of the majority. It's an improvised faith, an inventive one, sentimental and tacky but real none the less. For the first time, it was televised. Sky News cameras saw the hearse stop by the market where Jade's family had once run a stall, and a single white dove was released. Up it flew, over the heads, over the buildings, escaping, like anyone with any sense. The coffin was taken thirteen miles to the north, along the migratory route taken by so many families, including my own. Out to the suburbs.

'JADE FROM BERMONDSEY'

There were hundreds of people waiting to see her funeral on the huge screens that had been erected outside the church, mostly women and children. I was there, in the crowd, as the men in black shouldered her white and silver coffin and carried it into the church, the lilies on it trembling. 'Jade from Bermondsey', said a pink wreath on the hearse; 'East Angular', said the one on the car behind it. This was an Anglican church, but for once the institution seemed to understand that it was only playing host to a faith it could not define. If it gets that message, it may yet be reborn. There is nothing in the Thirty-Nine Articles about a dying twenty-seven-year-old giving bracelets to her very young boys, so they can rub them when they want to feel her near; nor in her telling them that she is going to be the brightest star in the sky. That's the sort of stuff we've been doing for ever, mostly with the Church's disapproval.

'Be strong, Jackiey,' someone shouted to her mother, 'she's looking down on you.' Flowers had been thrown into the path of the hearse, of course. People think that started with Diana but it goes back beyond Hillsborough to the Romans and the Celts. The London Community Gospel Choir added soul to the ceremony. Gospel has woven its way into English life through the American culture we seem so desperate to copy, so that every wannabe who auditions for X-Factor imitates the vocal stylings that only Whitney Houston knew how to do not so long ago. No white church choir could have produced as much emotion as gracefully as the LCGC did, singing 'Amazing Grace' while the coffin was carried in.

Jack-the-husband read a poem which was full of bad rhymes and borrowed its faith from The Lion King - 'When we look into the sky for the brightest star above/Bobby, me and Freddie will send you all our love' - but it was applauded warmly. Then came the pictures, videos and songs that have become so important to modern funerals. One of Jade's former teachers read the poem 'Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep' by Mary Frye, suggesting Jade was now at one with the divine, in the natural world: 'I am the starshine of the night/I am in the flowers that bloom.'

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VICARIOUS RELIGION

As all this happened, the large crowd outside the church was silent. You could hear the news helicopter clattering overhead, but the spectators were absolutely caught up in what was happening, hardly saying a word. Until the churchy bits. Then they didn't close their eyes in prayer; they stood watching, as if this was a show being put on for their behalf. This was 'vicarious religion', as Grace Davie calls it, when we are happy to let other people pray on our behalf. They didn't sing 'The Old Rugged Cross', because they didn't know the words. People just don't know that stuff any more. Whenever the service became even just a little religious, in the language of the readings or the liturgy, the people switched off. Or rather, they switched on their mobile phones and rang their friends. The low murmur of conversation became louder. Some people even walked away, because this religious stuff was not part of their lives. They didn't get it and they didn't want it.

They shut up for the sermon. Why? First, because the priest looked vaguely like the Vicar of Dibley. Second, she had not assumed that she had the right to be heard, but rather focused on the Jade she had come to know personally. 'We don't expect, do we, to be celebrating a wedding and then to be saying farewell to the bride just six weeks later?' This was the Church as servant, willing to offer a place for ritual and reflection to those in need, whatever they believed. And what they believed, judging from the content and the cards and flowers and balloons outside, and the things people in the crowd said afterwards, was what Max Clifford said: 'Jade has moved to a better place.' She had been given an upgrade, to a VIP suite without pain.

It was folksy, it was humorous, it was irreverent at times and highly emotional at others. It was pagan in the way people enlisted the beauty of the natural world in defence of Jade and talked of her being up with the stars, burning bright, and throughout most of it anyone of any kind of faith could have agreed with its sentiments and prayers. Family first. Friendship as strength. Love beyond death. It was personal, yet inclusive. It was deeply sentimental but also inspiring, whatever might be said about the way in which Jade had become famous. Her fame revealed the worst of us and her death was appalling; but her funeral, for all the sentiment and showbiz, showed glimpses of our best.

A BUSTED FLUSH

For five centuries, give or take a few wobbles, the faith of England was a given. Always, it defined our lives. Now we have lost the downward pressure of the old stifling, conservative, complacent Christianity, and thank goodness for that. Ever since Billy Graham started coming, Evangelicals have been trying to persuade us that faith has to be a matter of choice, not just something you do out of tradition, habit or family loyalty. So they can hardly complain if people are now exercising that freedom of choice, choosing not to belong and to find their own way to God.

The Church of England is a busted flush. There are good people in it, doing good things, but lack of money and people and confidence means it just can't fulfill its historic mission of having a priest in every parish. That's over. Some vicars are betraying the mission already by defining their local understanding of Christianity (seen from a tiny corner of the western world, late in history, in a crisis-ridden capitalist system) as the one true way, and their congregation as an exclusive Bible club. They commit blasphemy by making sexual sin the worst of all, and condemning people for things Jesus never even talked about. Meanwhile, the bishops still behave as if they're important, when actually nobody cares what they say and their historic privileges will soon vanish.

Last Christmas Day our own local bishop was invited to appear on the bandstand by the beach, where a couple of thousand people always gather to sing carols with the silver band and take surreptitious nips of mulled wine. Everyone was having a high old time. The smart thing to do would have been to say hello, remind everybody why they were there in one sentence, maybe say a quick prayer and get off. Two minutes, tops. When the sermon the bishop chose to preach reached its twentieth minute, more than half the people who had been laughing and singing Christian songs had turned their backs and walked away. What in the name of Saint Nicholas did he think he was doing? I can only believe that he felt he had the right to be there, and to bore us, as he was the bishop. Well, not any more, your grace. Those days are gone.

Meanwhile, in the marketplace of faith, those with the biggest and brightest stalls, who shout the loudest and are the least apologetic, attract the most attention. That's why the Roman Catholics will do well out of the visit of the Pope this year, and the Archbishop of Westminster can justly claim now to be the country's leading churchman; but even he represents fewer than a million people at Mass on a Sunday.

FEAST OF FOOLS

The rest of us are returning, some people say, to what we were. 'The Lord of Misrule will be proclaimed and all the blessed sons and daughters of men will gather to the Feast of Fools,' wrote the pastoralist Harold Massingham in 1932. He is quoted in The Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton, who says Massingham 'foresaw a time when his compatriots would recover their appetite for natural beauty and natural living' and 'the divine spirit of the land would awake'. Massingham was possessed by nostalgia for a lost rural landscape: he could not have imagined a webbed world in which the old boundaries of taste, decency, morality and nationality evaporate in a permanent, chaotic and glorious feast of fools that is online but also internal; it's happening inside the mind of the bloke browsing his iPhone on the bus, the neighbour up all night staring at pixels, the teenager in her bedroom.

Massingham would have loved to see the English God throw off His cricket gear and run naked into the forest to frolic for a while. I think it's closer to the truth to say that over the last few decades we've seen the return of what you might call (with no apologies at all to Tony Blair) the People's England. This is a bawdy, riotous, iconoclastic way of being, which loves farts and saucy jokes and doesn't like people who are too big for their boots. It has always been there - from the Diggers to the Methodists and on to the Miners in 1984 - but has only recently gained the upper hand.

The English God appeared to be dead, but He was just regenerating. He looks both male and female now. He quotes from the Qu'ran as well as the Bible, and many other books besides. She doesn't care whether you are straight or gay, married or cohabiting, because there are much bigger things to worry about, like the sins or mistakes that are causing the seas to warm and earthquakes to claim the lives of the poor. The new English God wants us to work with nature, not seek to dominate it. He still believes in fair play and good versus evil, but also in free choice, mutual respect, equality, open emotion, sexual fulfilment, loving your neighbour who lives on the other side of the world and having a darn good party while you can. If you listen carefully, you can hear her humming 'All You Need Is Love'. This God's a bit of a sentimentalist, but has at least rediscovered a sense of humour.

OPENING UP

That's the God who informs English culture now, whether we're conscious of Him or not, and whatever we call Him. Or Her. Or Them. Not everyone believes, but that's okay. We're not all following the same fierce creed, conquering in the name of Christ. We're no longer striding across the planet like cocky thugs, thrashing the natives into accepting our 'civilisation' (except when we send our soldiers to follow American orders). We are a gentler, friendlier, more compassionate, more emotional, more feminine, more mystical, more diverse, more interesting, more open, more questioning lot. We're less sure of ourselves. We think we have lost our way, but we may actually just be finding it. We're more fun. We are free now, you and me. We do not have to listen to a master or a teacher, a lord of the manor or a squire, a priest or a bishop if we don't want to. We can make our own choices, and while that's scary for some, it can also be liberating.

England is so full of troubles just now, so full of sound and fury, and yet it is also full of possibilities. I know it is naive to say this, but after spending so much time investigating the way we have changed, I really do believe we can either complain or we can choose to accept change and be positive. We can choose to lament our open borders, or we can open our arms. There is something to celebrate, surely, in all that we might now become as Englishness opens up. We may have lost our faith in the old-fashioned God, but we have also found new soul.

Is God Still An Englishman? How we lost our faith (but found new soul) by Cole Moreton is published by Little, Brown on April 1. For more info, see: www.isgodstillanenglishman.com