A matter of faith

A few years ago a survey was conducted of Church of England (Anglican) clergy which revealed that a majority of them could not accurately list the Ten Commandments. This was seen at the time as deeply symptomatic of the terminal decline of English Anglicanism, because it showed that the keepers of its flame were ignorant of its history, traditions and theology; and if they were ignorant, there was hope for no-one. Given the disputes which have rocked Anglicanism since then, that now probably seems like minor stuff; but perhaps it is rather more revealing than all the blood-letting about gay clergy and women bishops. The latter disputes are about traditionalists setting their face against living in the present age, and to be sure these are fights that will fade away as their generation passes; the former are about the content of faith.

Not that I believe that the Ten Commandments are some sort of touchstone; they seem to me to be rules and prescriptions that were handed down by Moses in his quest for nation building amongst the released people he had brought out of Egypt. They were relevant to their time, and important for us to understand in context; but I don’t see them as a code of conduct for today, taken as a whole. So I am not much disturbed that the clergy were not up to speed with them. But if you believe in Christianity (or really, any form of organised grouping based on ideals and beliefs), then you must wonder about its sustainability  in the absence of a shared knowledge of key principles. If the clergy are so-so in their understanding of their own theology, then how can this theology still shape their congregations? And if it doesn’t, what holds everything together?

This is brought out for me by another survey that was conducted in England in 2007 by the polling organisation MORI (The Times, October 31, 2007), this time of people in general, and I found some of the results startling. This found that those who identified themselves as Christian had what I might describe as a fairly rocky understanding of their faith. Only 63 per cent believed in heaven (so 37 per cent didn’t), and 44 per cent believed in hell; curiously, 1 per cent believed in hell but not heaven. Oh well, that’s fine. But here are the curious bits: 18 per cent of Christians believed the number 13 to be unlucky; 12 per cent believed in witches and wizards; 27 per cent believed that horoscopes told something potentially significant, the same number that attached significance to the spilling of salt. 44 per cent of Christians believed in the practice of crossing fingers to bring good luck.

Of course, the borderline between Christianity and various pagan beliefs and other superstitions was always a little blurred in the ancient history of the faith. But this was a survey taken of a sophisticated population in the 21st century in a highly developed country. And it is hard not to want to ask some questions around that. You could say that it lends support to those, such as Richard Dawkins, who argue that the whole Christian enterprise is superstition and make-believe. Or you could say that it supports the statement (often wrongly attributed to G.K. Chesterton) that the evaporation of traditional faith leads people not to believe in nothing, but to believe in anything. 

This Sunday a declining (but still reasonably significant) number will go to church here in Europe, and a much larger number in other parts of the world. Some will be very unclear about what it is they are subscribing to, some will feel they have clear views that will however (in terms of the official theology) be quite wrong and misguided; some will belong to groups with emphatic certainties that owe little to the age in which they live. And in all of this mix, the sustainability of the faith will be very doubtful.

Christians, it has often been said, are a ‘people of the Book’. It seems to me that the correct approach to the book is one of scholarly insight, of knowing what is there and of understanding what it does and does not (or not necessarily) signify. Ignorance, however, is dangerous, as we load up our prejudices and personal preferences and put a divine stamp and unquestionable infallibility on them. God protect us from that.

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One Comment on “A matter of faith”

  1. Jilly Says:

    I have no religion, so I have no stake in discussions of what others believe or don’t. However, as a British citizen, I would point out that Chritianity is in a very odd position in the UK. Whilst in the 2001 census, 71.8% of the population identified themselves as Christian, this is very clearly a cultural affiliation rather than a matter of faith. A BBC survey in 2007 showed that only 10% of the UK population attends Church regularly, making it one of the least observant countries in the world.

    So those people in the MORI poll who identified themselves as Christian but then claimed to believe in horoscopes (!) are also following this pattern – if someone asks what their religion is, they say ‘Christian’, but they don’t go to Church, and don’t believe in most of the Church’s basic teachings. For me, the really interesting question is why this quite large number of people don’t respond to the initial question about their religion by saying that they have none, which is patently the truthful answer.

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