The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 10th September 2017 at 3.00 PM
A recent survey of British Social Attitudes has included, as it has year after year for three decades, a single question amongst many others on whether the 2,500 or so people canvassed have a religion. The question is, ‘Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?’ If the answer is Yes, the respondent is then invited to say which religion, with no check-list of possible answers.
In 2016, the survey reported a ‘halt in the decline of religion in Britain, largely due to the proportion of people describing themselves as a Christian of some kind being relatively stable since 2009.’ It went on that ‘this perhaps masks a slight decrease in the number of Anglicans and a slight increase in those following non-Christian religions, since 2009.’ A researcher said, ‘The proportion of people saying they have no religion peaked at 51% in 2009 and has plateaued since then. It appears that the steady decline of religion in Britain has come to a halt, at least for now.’ That was last year.
This year’s report has created something of a sensation, with the media implying further decline in religious affiliation, despite the fact that this year’s survey said that the number saying they had no religion was more or less where it had been in 2009.
What should we make of this? A weekly political paper, the Spectator, in a leading article said, ‘While fewer of us call ourselves Christian, we remain a country steeped in Christian values.’ It went on, ‘Sometimes, still, the Church of England is better able to capture the national mood than any other institution or authority. In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, it was the local church, St Clements, Notting Dale, which was first to welcome the newly homeless, opening its doors at 3 a.m. and over the next few days leading the relief operation. We still turn to the church, too, in the event of sudden and violent death. Quasi-religious behaviour in the event of tragedy has grown and grown. That is modern Britain’s relationship with religion. While shy to admit belief, we continue to exhibit the behaviours of religious people.’
What more can we say? To place too much reliance on an oddly framed question addressed to a particular sample of people would be unwise. There are many other ways of asking people about their attitudes to the spiritual life, to faith in God, to religious belief. I have never forgotten many years ago speaking to a husband and wife about their religious life or belief. I had never met them before but there we were waiting for a wedding to begin that I was not conducting. The couple, it turned out, had been married for fifteen years. The wife told me she prayed every day. Her husband expressed astonishment. He had never known that she prayed at all, let alone every day. His wife had never mentioned it. There is greater complexity to religious belief and practice than we recognise.
This afternoon’s first reading from the prophet Ezekiel presented us with an image of concern about false prophets and erroneous visions. Ezekiel quotes the Lord God as saying, ‘My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations; because they have misled my people, saying, “Peace”, when there is no peace.’
And, in the second reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we heard how some people, who were not members of the Church, invoked the name of Jesus and his power, but knew nothing more about him. The word had spread around about Jesus but people had only a faint understanding of who and what Jesus was and about the revelation of God in Christ. St Luke describes how some itinerant exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, ‘I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.’ But the evil spirit said to them in reply, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?’
There is no lack of dodgy religion in our own day. G K Chesterton, the Catholic writer and novelist, the creator of the Father Brown detective series, said, ‘When people choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing; they then become capable of believing in anything.’ And indeed there are many who put their trust in horoscopes or tarot cards or crystals or whatever. Bookshops in this country with ‘Mind Body Spirit’ sections have the most amazing collection of occult and esoteric books and very little of classic religion.
And yet, it is true that our British, European and Western character, our culture, our literature, our art, our music are steeped in the Christian faith, Christian belief, Christian practice, not simply Christian values. And this is not just a matter of history but has contemporary relevance and influence.
Preaching at the Musicians’ Church, St Sepulchre in Holborn in May this year, I quoted the composer James MacMillan speaking in a lecture in 2008 of the divine spark of music. He said, ‘Far from being a spent force, reli¬gion has proved to be a vibrant, anim¬ating principle in modern music, and continues to promise much for the future. It could even be said that any discussion of modern¬ity's mainstream in music would be incomplete without a serious reflec¬tion on the spiritual values, belief, and practice at work in composers' minds. This truth’ he said, ‘is a great encourage¬ment to a composer like me who has drawn inspiration from the deep reservoirs of Christian liturgy and theology.’
He went on to criticise the ignorance and arrogance of secularism. ‘It is imperative to the secular project that our Christian heritage must be seen through an objective separation, in which the object can be appraised without ever having to consider the historic, philo¬sophical, or religious ingredi¬ents that shaped it. This allows the cultural élites to bury our religious heritage in the earth of history, while robbing its grave of all its beautiful artefacts.’
But he was also clear that the religious instinct and purpose in composing and performing great music is alive and well. He concluded, ‘We must penetrate the mists of contemporary banality to restore the idea of the sacred, in which our true and fullest freedom resides. I believe it is God's divine spark which kindles the musical imagination now, as it has always done, and reminds us, in an increasingly dehumanised world, of what it means to be human.’
This afternoon, we celebrate the true, the pure religion which has animated the worship offered in this Abbey church for over a thousand years and which animates it still. And near the heart of our religious life, our worshipping life is the Abbey choir, the direct descendant of a choir founded in the 14th century to sing the offices and daily mass in the Abbey’s Lady Chapel.
A few minutes ago I presented surplices to new boys in the Abbey choir and admitted senior choristers and installed two lay vicars as members of the Abbey’s greater collegiate body. I said that it is the duty of the choir to lead the people of God in worship and to strive to lift the hearts of all people to God. It is our daily prayer that the thousands of people each week who join in acts of worship here will find their hearts lifted to God and come to know the true God who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and to have their lives transformed by the Holy Spirit of God.