“So how are things in the Church in Britain?” A general question covering a vast sweep of things. I’m in the USA for a week, and because I talk with what is described here as a “British accent”, people ask about Britain.
Hmm. Perhaps the first thing to note – rather unexpectedly for anyone who knows the history of the Catholic Faith in Britain – is that in some respects the Church is more flourishing in London and its environs than in its old heartlands of the North. Greater London has several Catholic churches that have good numbers for weekday Mass, and large congregations for Sundays. The Tablet noted earlier this year that “Average Sunday Mass attendance in the Archdiocese of Westminster rose from 153,800 in 2011 to 154,900 in 2012, and in the Archdiocese of Southwark from 91,900 to 92,100 over the same period, according to the latest statistics compiled by Anthony Spencer of the Pastoral Research Centre Trust”. This is against a general trend of declining Mass attendance: the total figure for England and Wales is less than a million attending Mass each week, out of a total Catholic population of some four and a half million.
In general, the picture is not good. Analysis among pupils at Catholic secondary schools shows that most pupils do not attend Mass. Those who do often find themselves subjected to sneers, abuse and even bullying from other pupils. At a Catholic youth conference last summer (2013) this was a subject very much discussed and the young people spoke about how much they valued being able to spend time with others who loved the Faith and were enthusiastic in their commitment. This is also the main thing that young Catholics tend to say about World Youth Day: “It was great to feel that I was not alone, not some kind of a freak!” “It was wonderful to be with other young Catholics, and not to feel so isolated”.
The number of young men studying for the priesthood in London is rising, at Allen Hall (Westminster) and St John’s Seminary Wonersh (Southwark). But across Britain generally there is going to be a grave shortage of priests over the next years.
New Movements? Britain has two of its own, the FAITH Movement, and Youth 2000. There is some overlap as young people often attend Youth 2000 retreats as well as FAITH events. Numbers for both are good, and rising. The Neo-Catechumenate is active in a number of parishes. The Charismatic Renewal Movement has lost momentum in recent years but its annual “Celebrate” events for young families are popular.
Liturgy can often be bleak: I have attended many Masses in different parts of Britain where the music is terrible (1970s ditties, sung by a few elderly ladies, while a congregation ignores them or, in the case of the young, is simply absent). There is some – not much, but some – evidence of the “reform of the reform”, especially in London, with parishes having Latin chant and good music and where this is happening, Mass attendance increases. But, sadly, some clergy feel unable to challenge entrenched groups of older people who are welded to twanging guitars and microphones. There is a general increase in Eucharistic Adoration – a sign of hope.
The Church’s influence in public life is poor: March 29th will see the imposition of same-sex marriage and this will mean increased restriction on public debate as those who seek publicly to upheld marriage as a lifelong union between a man and a woman will be denounced as bigots. Already it is hard for people holding public office – magistrates, local borough councillors, school governors etc – to express their views on this unless they conform to the official Government line supporting same-sex unions. The abortion of handicapped babies is now commonplace, and there are horrific reports of the deliberate starvation to death of gravely ill or comatose patients. Schoolchildren are fed a great deal of propaganda about the world having too many people in it. Meanwhile Britain’s low birthrate – along with that of the neighbouring countries of Europe – means huge problems in the near future as we struggle to care for rising numbers of elderly people. We are a greying nation.
So: how are things with the Church in Britain? When Pope Benedict came in 2010, it was predicted that it would be a disaster – opponents of the Church spoke with glee about small numbers and Catholic indifference. Then when he arrived, vast enthusiastic crowds greeted him – a parade through Scotland’s capital was matched only by huge cheering crowds in London, an unforgettable vigil with him before the Blessed Sacrament in Hyde Park, and then a magnificent outdoor Mass in Cofton Park at Birmingham with the beatification of John Henry Newman. How did it happen? What does it mean for the future?
The story of the Faith in Britain is such a strange one – a tangle of its arrival under the Roman Empire, re-evangelisation following the arrival of the pagan Saxons, struggles with Vikings culminating in their (eventual) assimilation and conversion…through the events of the Middle Ages and the Reformation, the heroism of martyrs from Scotland’s John Ogilvie to England’s Edmund Campion…and on to modern times, with Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and a Papal visit from (soon to be Saint!) John Paul in 1982 and a State visit by his successor some 30 years later…
I grew up in a parish dedicated to St Elphege – an Archbishop of Canterbury martyred by the pagan Vikings along by the river Thames. As a Londoner, I frequently pass by the sites of Catholic martyrdom at Tyburn or Lincoln’s Inn Fields, or Southwark or Tower Hill. I’m not prepared to write of the Church in Britain: the light flickers and flourishes, and does not go out. The Faith has a future in Britain.