As spring and summer arrive, we can look forward to what has become a deeply depressing part of British life: crowds of young people, drunken and shouting, vomiting and shrieking in our towns and cities on Saturday nights. In some areas, local churches have organised volunteer groups to help drunken staggering girls to get home – they offer flat slip-on sandals so that the girls can remove their tottering high-heels and thus manage to walk, or at least stagger along, and sometimes they also give them bars of chocolate in the hope that this may mitigate the results of the vodka and other spirits they have been drinking all evening.
The public culture of British life increasingly shows the horrible reality of a nation confused about the core values that make up a community: family life and human relationships, courtesy and kindness, a sense of identity and of history, and above all a knowledge of the love of God.
Frank Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead, in a feature headlined “Brutish Britain” has argued, in the Spectator magazine, for a new Social Highway Code. He called a meeting, at which representatives of both the Catholic and the Anglican bishops of Liverpool gathered with representatives of other Christian denominations and of other religions to see what might be achieved. Britain was once famous for its sense of goodwill and good humour, a “peaceable, self-policing society” to use Frank Fields’ words. He notes that the Christian faith – perhaps particularly in its Evangelical form – played a major part in this from the Victorian era into the mid-20th century. Today, loutish behaviour has become normal, and the general collapse of a generally accepted code of values has also produced tragic results in families, with children having little in the way of spiritual or moral formation at home and arriving at school lacking many basic everyday social skills.
I am not sure whether a Social Highway Code is really a possibility, but raising the idea is at least a good start. As a Catholic, I have been at too many gatherings where there has been lamentation about the bleak crudity of modern Britain, but the conversation has too often degenerated into the usual discussions about why-don’t-our-bishops-do-something or slightly smug statements about the value of educating one’s own children at home to protect them from the wider culture. The Church of course calls bishops to lead and guide and inspire us all, and of course she calls parents to do their best for their own children: that is their duty. But we have duties and responsibilities beyond the obvious: Christ calls us.
What to do? The needs are at heart spiritual. A church with a beautiful liturgy, a prayerful and hard-working priest, lots of evangelistic outreach, and with courageous catechists and lay workers can achieve a great deal. The “Nightfever” initiative has young people praying before the Blessed Sacrament in a city church while teams spread out through the nearby streets inviting people to come in and silently light a candle and join the prayer. Street processions – in May with a statue of Our Lady, in June with the Blessed Sacrament to mark the feast of Corpus Christi – can reclaim the streets and can be accompanied by people distributing Miraculous Medals and/or small holy cards.
Then of course there is practical work – from religious instruction in schools and parishes to care for the homeless, from mission initiatives offering talks on the Faith to getting young people involved with projects for the lonely and elderly, from clean-up campaigns to get litter off the streets to concerts and fund-raisers for good causes to bring people together in common ventures…
And there is campaigning: pointing out to our lawmakers the cruelties produced by the endless promotion of sexual promiscuity under the guise of “safe sex”, organising meetings and conferences explaining why and how the dishonest and crude materials forced on children through bizarre ideas on “sex and gender education” are creating misery, bullying and confusion. And we must fight to defend our right to speak out freely on these things, to have specifically Christian events and schools and clubs and projects without being forced to adopt anti-Christian slogans and statements under the guise of being “anti-homophobic” or whatever.
And there is more…a lot more. We are going to have to be courageous. Frank Fields writes with warm enthusiasm about what was achieved through the Christian revival of the Victorian era. But we need to remember the realities of the 19th century: General Booth was the victim of sneers and insults for years as he launched what would eventually become the widely accepted and admired Salvation Army. Catholics of course had their own problems because of the complicated history following the Reformation – but achieved magnificent schools and parishes that transformed lives and nurtured faith. And all Christians, down through all centuries, have had to face the particular challenges and responsibilities of their own era without imagining that life should be easy and pleasant.
St John Paul the Great called us all to a New Evangelisation, and that is certainly what today’s tired Britain needs. Rather than writing about it, I need to be part of it. I’m writing this just after a meeting of a Catholic women’s group, discussing a London-wide project for children that is now under way… it may, or may not, make some contribution to the spiritual and cultural enewal that our country needs. Your prayers will help.