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Our Underlying Beliefs: An Enquiry into the Sacred and the Spiritual at the Root of English Society

 by the Revd John Lovejoy

White Dragon flag of the English
White Dragon flag of the English

I usually write for STEADFAST, which is concerned with English culture and concerns in particular, but I have no wish to snub the Scots or the Welsh; rather, I do not presume to speak on their behalf. Moreover, I am perfectly happy with ‘British’ in its normal, original sense, as from 1701, merely avoiding current misuse and distortions of the sense which we get from Westminster and The Media.

My chosen topic, as a guest writer, is a very unpopular, sensitive topic – one which might even be called the great unmentionable of the present time! It is prompted in part by the lead article in The Voice of Freedom’ – Dec.2004 (newspaper of the British National Party), headed ‘DEFEND OUR CHRISTIAN CULTURE!’, and also the letter from Edward Hales in the same edition.

Now, the most important things to settle for human beings living in society are : A sense of who they are – their shared culture and beliefs generally, and origins; An awareness of what they believe in common – a shared perception of What is Holy. While we are individuals, and thus free to think and to experience autonomously, nevertheless we are social beings, and the answers to these fundamental questions have normally been shared in particular traditional societies. Indeed, if you have a group of people who do not know who they are, and have no shared beliefs, then it is questionable whether they are truly a human society or could possibly become one.

Where, then, does this leave modern English people?

In regard to who we are, the English (Angles, Saxons, Jutes) were groupings of Germanic tribes whose culture was very clear before they ever arrived in Britain. When they did arrive from the North West coastlands of Europe, it was a mass migration, for the Germanic tribes as a whole were wont to move to other territories as and when need arose. The Early English were, in this respect, just like the Goths, Vandals, Langobards, Alans and Burgunds, to name a few. And they brought their indigenous religion with them. The Early English were Heathen, with a not ignoble religion not so very different from that of the earlier Celts, but closer still to that of their Scandinavian cousins. The story of the conversion to the Christian Faith in the Seventh Century is also well known, though not nearly so widely known as it should be. Be that as it may, English culture was underpinned, as it were, by the Christian Faith in its First Millenium form from the Seventh Century onwards, and the map of England is studded with sites and tales of Early English saints and martyrs. St. Withburga, for example, at the modern Holkham in the North of Norfolk.

The Early English received the Faith enthusiastically and themselves sent missionaries to the North of Europe.

So, what went wrong?

Christianity in England, at the present time, appears to many an outsider as being divided, distorted, defective, and diluted. All too often the leaders appear to promote a watered-down teaching in conformity with current liberal trends. The vast majority of English people do not not practice the Christian Faith. Instead, what do we find? A small and diminishing minority are actively Church of England, but the Anglican Church is itself divided into sharply contrasting tendencies.The older non-conformist groups struggle, their chapels turned to other uses, though the Baptists remain stronger than most. The Roman Catholic Church seems to be prone to self-harm, beset by scandals and a chronic shortage of priests. Cardinal Basil Hume is still affectionately remembered. American-style evangelical groups claim some young people, but their theology is shallow, and they rely on electronically-enhanced music and a generally ‘flashy’ presentation.

Still others have turned to Buddhism and other oriental religions and The Tao. Others again have tried to revive paganism in its Northern forms. The influence of American cults and fringe sects remains fairly constant. Meanwhile, a very large proportion of our population reject ‘organised religion’ out of hand, and go in for spiritual D.I.Y., indulging in various New Age practices in all sorts of ways that are hard to classify. An even larger proportion of the population seem to reject religion altogether, and possess a thoroughgoing materialism – atheistic or agnostic – while regarding the whole subject of Christianity as variously meaningless, pointless, or in bad taste. (This is expressed harshly, but it is what I have encountered.)

And then there is Islam. Too many reports have reached me of young English people turning to Islam for me to discount this. For some time I have foreseen the likelihood of the conversion to Islam of disaffected English youths, largely cut off from the culture of their own people and also sick of ‘western’ materialism. They may have had no more experience of a Christian church than of the interior of a flying saucer. Indeed, through immigration, Islam has by now a firm demographic base in England, and here we have a religion whose adherents are clear about what they believe, are firm in their commitment to live by their faith, and whose community is shaped and formed by it. In addition, Islam retains ancient cultural traditions and art forms, such as the Arabic orthography.

The Quran
The Quran

Meanwhile, the English confront Islam with a form of Christianity which we have allowed to become degraded over many centuries and which most of us have rejected altogether. I repeat the question, what went wrong? What happened to the Faith of the Seventh Century saints? I think the rot set in when the Western Church started to drift away from the Eastern Church, in the years leading to the definitive break of 1054 A.D. Theology came to be expressed in Latin instead of the Greek, which had been the language of the Bible and of most of the Early Church Fathers. The later Roman popes allied the Western Church to powerful rulers such as Charlemagne and the Normans. Later, as the rise of Islam cut the West off from any easy contact with the Christian East, Western theology came to be pressed into the philosophical mould of neo-Aristotelianism, thus distorting belief about God. Later on the Renaissance further warped the presentation of the Faith, not least in art and architecture. The Reformation and Counter Reformation shattered the unity of Western Christendom, made theology subject to politics, and the Church subject to human rather than to divine authority. All this resulted in an even stricter schematisation of Catholic theology and codification of canonical discipline, while spirituality was stifled by being intellectualised and schematised to extremes.

The 18th Century saw a rapid decay of English Christianity, with a Government that was hostile to the Faith as a whole, allowing the Established Church to languish in worldliness but not permitted to govern its affairs. Methodism arose in reaction, while agricultural and industrial revolutions loosened the bonds of English society. The 19th Century saw an immense Christian revival, but it was a Christianity torn from its roots, so that the divisions were only exacerbated and widened. Meanwhile, Christianity and Natural Science needlessly became antagonistic. The Twentieth Century, especially after two world wars, saw a continuing decay in the strength of the Christian denominations, but this has gone hand in hand with the disintegration and degradation of English society and culture as a whole.

What, then, is to be done?

The English People, as I and others have argued elsewhere, are in a condition of cultural collapse and disintegration. Further, the English now lack a firm, clear, cohesive spiritual base for their culture and society, while Islam now threatens – demographically, and perhaps in other ways. Perhaps both Islam and Buddhism may try to fill the void which the retreat of Christianity seems to have left.

Can all this be put right?

I am convinced that it can, as long as we succeed in making our people aware of the first situation, of cultural collapse, and also in getting our people to look for a solution to the second one, that of the loss of a coherent spiritual base.

We must first wake up to reality.

It is regarding the second situation – that of the damage done to English Christianity and the need of a credible Faith to underpin English culture and society – where I venture to make some definite suggestions.

First, let us recall the conversion of the Early English to the Faith of Christ in the Seventh Century. This happened relatively early; much earlier than the conversion of Russia and of the Northern European tribes. The English were evangelised from Ireland and from Rome, but it is of utmost importance to know that Rome at that time was very different indeed from the Rome of popular perception in the Second Millenium. For one thing, it then had a number of Greek monasteries. Pope Gregory the Great, who instigated the mission to the English, had served in Constantinople, and Rome itself, at that time, was heavily under Byzantine influence. For it was in the Eastern Mediterranean, in the First Millenium, in the area where Greek and Syriac were the predominant languages, that the Christian Faith came to be expressed and worked out ever more clearly, through the monastic movement, the Great Councils of the Church, and the writings of the ‘Fathers’ – St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. John Chrysostom, and many more. The fundamentals of the Faith, the meaning of Holy Scripture, were explored and expressed in increasing fullness and clarity, while the Divine Liturgy was given a richness of expression, in music, architecture, iconography, such as was to stun the envoys sent later by Prince Vladimir of Russia, sent to Constantinople to enquire into the Christian Religion. Unlike the modern West, spirituality was not torn apart from religion, and the way of prayer was explored by countless monks as well as by ordinary people in their homes, often with amazing results. Tragically, as we know, Constantinople fell to the the Muslim Turks in 1453, but the centre of gravity of the Eastern Church had by then passed to Russia in the North, and also to that unique holy place, Mt. Athos in North East Greece, which remains a power house of prayer for the whole Christian world, to this very day.

Mount Athos in Greece
Mount Athos in Greece

We seem to have strayed from England, but not really. In 670 or thereabout, Theodore of Tarsus, a Greek monk from the city of St. Paul, was sent to England as Archbishop of Canterbury, whereupon he worked to organise the infant English Church. Riding around England, on horseback, he introduced canonical order and explained the findings of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, held in Constantinople in 680. The English Church was then to be an integral part of the one worldwide Church. St. Theodore even founded a school of Greek learning in Canterbury.

Why do I stress all this?

It is at this point that I propose a radical solution. In the light of all that has been pointed out above, and given the situation of the English and of English Christianity at the present time, I am convinced that the English need to put aside the mess that has resulted from all the events of the Second Millenium, and return, in essentials, to what we had received in the First Millenium. Implied here would be a return to a Christian Faith which retained its integrity – undistorted, undiminished, undivided, and undiluted – true to its Eastern Mediterranean historical roots, and true to the intentions of its Founder. To this end, we need the help of the Eastern Christians as a whole, but of the Greeks and Russians in particular. They have clung tenaciously to the Christian Faith in a manner true to its early origins, and they have often suffered for it. It is they who have had to bear the brunt of centuries of Islamic rule, on one hand, and of militant atheistic Marxist-Leninism on the other. With help from the right quarter, therefore, I would call on my fellow English men and women to return to what we once had, and start afresh from there. It is here that I anticipate that there will be many objections, and that many of those who might agree with me in the statement of the problem, might yet look for a very different solution! I understand this. We English, in any case, must engage in dialogue among ourselves.

First, many would prefer a quiet, low-key sort of religion that does not go to extremes and does not make too many demands, but is just there, in the background. Is it too cynical to call this approach ‘Village Green Anglicanism’? But would such a faith provide a firm cultural base? And would such a thing withstand Islam? More importantly, does such a religion represent the Founder’s intention? Early Christianity, as worked out mainly in the East, did consist of extremes, but not in the way one might fear. Rather, the Faith was expressed repeatedly as a balance of two antithetical extremes, at first sight mutually contradictory, but only because of the limitations of the human mind and language. This balance of extremes runs all through the Christian Faith, giving depth, but precluding both fanaticism and mediocrity.

Again, how can the Christian Faith be reconciled with modern scientific knowledge? Such difficulties have arisen largely through the Western reduction of The Faith to a particular philosophical expression and with the over-use of human logic. Eastern theology, despite its immense depth, does not lead to incompatibility with the results of Natural Science, for it approaches these questions in a very different way. For one thing, spirituality and theology are not torn apart in the Eastern tradition. It would help, too, if those active in the scientific disciplines were to remember that their field of enquiry is self-limited to the physical order such as is amenable to the physical senses, either directly or through instruments. It would also help if Western scientists were to perceive that American evangelicals are not mainstream Christians, but are very far from the early Holy Tradition.

And what about those who feel they simply cannot accept the Christian Faith at all, whether Early, Western or Eastern?

Of course we must have this freedom, and from a Christian point of view it is God-given, in any case. Only, remember the English direly need a firmly-based set of beliefs such as might underpin their culture and way of life. Dissenters and minorities are not incompatible with that position. Oppression or persecution of the latter would be. In short, to point out a return to a Faith that we once had, but seem to have lost, is at least a way that deserves to be considered, respected, and explored. We might also recall that it was precisely when Islam was first powerfully in the ascendant that we English elected to embrace the Christian Faith, and that in its Orthodox form, and not in the defective Arian form as with our cousins, the Goths and Vandals.

Here at last, I realise I must say something about the political relevance of all this. This is not easy. A letter in this vein to my Labour M.P. was not even acknowledged. We are living in a secularist liberal democracy, where religion is supposed to be a purely individual private matter, but possibly helpful in providing comfort to some senior citizens. It is generally regarded as something right off the political scale. Discussion of the subject is considered ‘bad form’. Until 7th July 2005, that is. After that, I noted that front rank politicians were bending over backwards to listen to Muslim leaders, while these same Muslim leaders were prominent on out T.V. screens for weeks. Christian leaders, hardly at all. We are a long way from ancient Byzantium, where the Emperor and Government had to listen to the monks, and to display Holy Icons when the foe was at the walls! I will be blunt about this. Politicians must realise that the only way to withstand Islam is to help the English (and the other indigenous peoples of Britain) to reverse their cultural disintegration, and that this entails a rediscovery of a rock-firm spiritual base for this to happen. The alternative for the politicians will eventually be for them to say, ‘If you cannot beat them, join them,’ and then to encourage Islam to displace what remains of the Christian Church in this land.

Our politicians seem unwilling even to think about cultural disintegration. Those that do, are still usually shy of thinking of religious beliefs. It is the new unmentionable!. But politicians, in the end, have to face realities. Some, I now read, see Christianity as increasingly effete and marginal, so that it is Islam that they now have to deal with.

Others, though – and those who read IDENTITY may well take this line – will stand firm in the conviction that Christianity in some sort is the natural ‘back-drop’, if not foundation, of English culture, as well as that of Scotland and Wales, and thus may be more open to what I have just written. It is, of course, a further step to take on board what I have been urging about the need of help from Eastern Christianity.

‘And what is wrong with Islam anyway?’, I can imagine a certain sort of politician asking. I have in mind ‘Respect’ and those who produce ‘The Socialist Worker’. To them, I would reply that my objection to Islam is entirely theological. Unlike Buddhism, for example, Islam begins with an explicit rejection of the fundamentals of the Christian Faith, and is thus wholly incompatible with the latter. Buddhism, it is true, comes up with very different answers to those of Christianity, but that is only because it begins with different questions. I hope that nothing that I have written here gives offence to Christians of the various English traditions. I admire them, in any case, for clinging on to the Faith at a time and place where this is more than usually difficult and discouraging. English Christians, then, must stand firm, and meanwhile they need to ask themselves where they are at, how far they have wandered from where they first began, and then be ready to seek help from the relevant administrations of the Eastern Church. The Archpatriarchate of Constantinople – mainly Greek speaking – is already well represented in Britain, and secondly, the Patriarchate of Moscow. English is widely: used in the Liturgy, and some other languages are heard, such as Arabic, Romanian and Serbian – depending on who is present!

I might remark, finally, that nothing tends to work well unless it is true to its origins and roots, and that applies to the Christian Faith too. I might also add a caveat. What I have urged above may or may not be considered culturally or politically desirable in the contemporary English situation. But in the last resort, there is only one good reason for becoming a Christian, Orthodox or otherwise, and that is, that one is convinced, in his or her inmost heart that it is true, and that one is called to do so. That said, a mass return to the Faith in a form true to the original is, I believe, possible. Such a development would have an immeasurably powerful effect.

It is such words as these that I would wish to address to the English People.