The announcement in London that 45-year-old Cherie Blair, wife of the British prime minister, is expecting her fourth child produced the expected acres of newspaper column inches. But one historic angle of the story was completely ignored by journalists. For the first time ever a British prime minister will watch his baby being baptized by a Catholic priest.
Tony Blair is not Catholic. He’s an Anglican, of sorts. It is rumored, though, that he sometimes slips into Westminster Cathedrala short distance from the House of Commonsto spend time in prayer. Cherie Blair, however, is a Catholic, and their three children are being educated in Catholic schools. What’s more, the prime minister regularly accompanies her to Mass.
In a land where Catholics were for so long second-class citizens, and where, following a statute of 1709, they are still barred from the monarchy, this is a remarkable turn of events. What is equally remarkable is that Ann Widdecombe, the deputy leader of the Conservative Party, is a Catholic, as is Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Liberal Democrats. It all seems a far cry from the middle-class Anglicanism of Margaret Thatcher that pervaded British politics for nearly 20 years.
According to the latest survey of church attendance in England, 1,230,100 Catholics worship on Sundays, compared with 995,700 Anglicans. But the Catholic bishops will not be uncorking the champagne. The statistics also reveal that both the Catholic Church and the Church of England are losing members rapidly. Since 1989 the Catholic and Anglican Churches have seen attendance plummet by 22 percent and 23 percent, respectively.
Church growth is only to be found among the Baptists (2 percent), so-called new churches (38 percent) and the Orthodox (105 percent). Despite the 90’s being heralded not only by Pope John Paul II, but by other church leaders also as a decade of evangelization, the number of people attending church regularly in Britain has dropped by 22 percent. Over the previous decade the drop was 13 percent.
So, as Britain enters the new millennium the Catholic Church finds itself at the frontiers of political life, yet it is just as eroded by consumerism, secularism and individualism as the other Christian churches, both here and across Europe.
Around the country, bishops are juggling with a depleted and aging clergy, few young people in the pews, half-empty seminaries and churches they cannot afford to maintain. The Diocese of Shrewsbury is planning to close 12 churches, while elsewhere some dioceses have reduced the number of Masses.
Religious life is generally said to be in a state of crisis; many congregations have forgotten when they last welcomed a novice into their community. This year the Capuchins should have been celebrating 150 years in Peckham, one of London’s most socially deprived areas. But instead they have handed the parish to the diocese, because they no longer have the priests to run it. Many apostolic religious congregations of women are dying a slow death and are fast becoming communities of the sick and elderly.
The contemplative orders, both male and female, however, are in a better state of health. The Benedictines and Cistercians continue to inspire men and women seeking an all-or-nothing Christian vocation, while England’s sole Carthusian monastery, in West Sussex, is enjoying a boom period.
Even the late Cardinal Basil Hume, who died of cancer last year, was at a loss to know how to revive the church. The decision in 1992 by the Church of England General Synod to ordain women triggered a mass exodus. With his usual ecumenical tact and diplomacy, Cardinal Hume oversaw the ordination of 400 Anglican clergy100 of whom were marriedas well as the reception of several thousand lay people, including H.R.H., the Duchess of Kent. But he knew that in most cases it was the ordination of women that was responsible for this windfall, rather than the vibrancy of English Catholicism.
Much has changed since the ghetto days when Catholicism had thriving organizations like the Legion of Mary and the Knights of St. Columba, evening Sunday Benediction, and when the prayer for the conversion of England and Wales was read out at Mass.
Fifty years ago Catholics in England fell loosely into three main groups: old English Catholics, former Anglicans and immigrants, mainly Irish, plus a smattering of Poles, Ukrainians and Italians. Today, in parishes like St. Ignatius in Stamford Hill, North London, the faces in the pews reflect a Britain in which Indian and Chinese take-out is more popular than fish and chips and in which the driver of a London bus is more likely to be from Lagos than Leytonstone.
Furthermore, there are 30 ethnic Catholic chaplaincies in Britain today, serving diverse communitiesIraqi, Croatian, Tamil, Ethiopian and South Korean. And in some Catholic schools in London over half the pupils are black or Asian. The stream of refugees and asylum seekers passing through Heathrow Airport will further change the face of Catholicism. So what of the future for the Catholic Church in England and Wales as it enters a new millennium? Are there signs of hope? The year 2000 will be a historic and important one for Catholics, as it marks the 150th anniversary of the restoration of the hierarchy. Various events are planned in the 26 dioceses as well as a major celebration at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham.
At some point during the year, the Vatican will announce the name of a new archbishop of Westminster, who will, as tradition dictates, receive the cardinal’s hat and assume the role of spiritual leader. With the Church of England racked by divisions and anything-goes theology, the successor to Cardinal Hume will have to put to one side any misgivings he might have about stepping on the toes of the Anglican bishops and summon the courage to provide the clear and outspoken spiritual leadership and inspiration the church and the country so desperately need.
As with St. Thomas à Becket and St. Thomas More before him, he will have to be unpopular, even with the prime minister, who clearly believes that Shakespeare was wrong when he said that you can’t please all the people all of the time. And, like Cardinal Thomas Winning in Scotland who offered to give single mothers money in return for going through with their pregnancies, he will be ridiculed. It is unlikely, however, that he will be slain at the altar at Canterbury Cathedral or imprisoned in the Tower of London and then hung. Persecution is subtler in modern Britain.
The new cardinal needs to grasp that despite the apathy and indifference most of the population display toward churchgoing, there is a spiritual hunger in the land. The death of Princess Diana in 1997 brought thousands of people to the gates of Kensington Place to mourn, and millions more watched her funeral at Westminster Abbey on television.
Whatever you might think of Princess Dianaone day moving among AIDS patients, offering words of comfort, the next day sunbathing on a yacht in the south of France with a millionaireshe struck a chord with ordinary people in Britain. She was part saint, part sinner; a woman who mixed with both fortune tellers and Mother Teresa, and who, with her occasional visits to the Carmelite church in Kensington, skirted around the edge of Catholicism.
Princess Diana touched parts of men and women the church has been unable to reach. If you browse along the shelves of W. H. Smith, one of the largest chains of booksellers in the United Kingdom, you will be hard pressed to find a Bible, let alone any classic or contemporary Christian literature. But you will have no trouble finding books on shamanism, tarot cards, astrology and all manner of hocus pocus.
This is not a nation that has turned its back on spirituality but rather one that is lost, like an orphan, and is searching frantically for spiritual signposts and security. The publishing fads only prove that, as the great English Catholic apologist G. K. Chesterton once said, when people stop believing in God, they will believe in anything.
Interestingly, the pop veteran Cliff Richard, perhaps Britain’s most famous Christian, has pulled off the extraordinary feat of rising to number one on the charts with a version of the Our Father set to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. And this after several national radio stations refused to play the record.
Some might say that Sir Cliff would sell a million even if he recorded himself singing in the bath, such is the loyal following he has built up. But could there be something more profound going on? Could it be that the Our Father, like the death of a complex princess, speaks of something beyond the latest hi-fi system?
The fingerprints of Catholicism remain on much in British life. King Henry VIII may have destroyed the hundreds of monasteries that stood like spiritual lighthouses across the country, and parish churches may have been gutted of statues and crucifixes, but the ghost of Catholicism still haunts great cathedrals like Durham, York and Lincoln, cities like Oxford and Cambridge, and country towns and villages. And if you travel on the London Underground you can glimpse the faith of a land known as Mary’s Dowry behind some of the station names: Whitechapel, Covent Garden, Blackfriars, Marylebone, Angel. The minds of rush-hour commuters, I suspect, would be more preoccupied with the adverts in the carriage for facial surgery, health insurance and cheap flights to Spain.
Whether or not Tony Blair is received into the Catholic Church, as some suggest may happen, will matter little in the battle for the soul of the nation. What will matter is how Catholic communities rediscover the faith that inspired architects, monks, martyrs, social reformers and men and women from all walks of life to be a light in the darkness.
True, there is much spiritual darkness in Britain today, but there are dynamic parishes, organizations and lay communitiesespecially those involved in the charismatic renewalscattered around the country. And the Youth 2000 movement is evangelizing quietly but effectively in Catholic schools. During the summer several thousand young people attended an international retreat at the ancient Marian shrine of Walsingham.
The new cardinal archbishop of Westminster will need to be a prophet in the deserts of secularism. While Mass attendance will, no doubt, continue to decline in the new millennium, at least many people will know the Our Father. And, as they say, every journey begins with one small step.
Greg Watts is a London-based commentator specializing in religious affairs.