A day of judgment for liberal bishops
Last updated: October 12th, 2012
The Daily Telegraph
Damian Thompson is Editor of Telegraph Blogs and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph. He was once described by The Church Times as a "blood-crazed ferret". He is on Twitter as HolySmoke. His new book is called The Fix: How addiction is invading our lives and taking over your world.
The strangest thing happened last week, though few people noticed it. America officially ceased to be a Protestant country. According to the Pew Forum, the percentage of Protestants has dropped to 48 per cent, down from 53 per cent in 2007. That’s a huge shift.
But, before Catholics start punching the air, let me point out that the percentage of Catholics has been flatlining for years at 22 per cent. The big jump is in unaffiliated Americans, including atheists – up from 15 to 20 per cent. These “Nones”, as pollsters call them, are laying waste to the religious landscape of the United States. And Britain.
Here’s the question that intrigues me. Once the old, routine churchgoers have died off, and now that “None” is the default position for liberal-minded young people, what will the churches of the future look like?
We’re beginning to find out. More to the point, the clapped-out Anglican and Catholic bishops of the English-speaking world are finding out, too – and it’s giving them nightmares.
Those youngsters who once went to church out of obligation are now spending Sunday mornings in the supermarket or the gym (body worship is a flourishing faith). That means that the only young people in the pews are true believers who really want to be there.
If you’re a “go-ahead” bishop, vicar or diocesan bureaucrat, this is a scary development. You’ve spent your career reducing the hard truths of Christ’s teaching – such as the inevitability of the Last Judgment – to carbon-neutral platitudes. Suddenly, the 20-year-olds in your flock are saying: no thanks, we’ll take the hard truths. Eek!
In the Church of England, young evangelicals are embarrassed by the thespian agonising of Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury. If there’d been a hand-wringing event at the Olympics, he’d have shattered all records.
In the Roman Catholic Church of England and Wales, the disconnect is even more stark. Young Catholics take their cue from the traditionalist Pope Benedict XVI, rather than from dreary bishops who only occasionally wake from their slumber to mumble something about renewable energy. (Remember Jack in Father Ted? You get the picture.)
Also – and I can’t tell you how much pleasure it gives me to report this – the Vatican has pulled a fast one by appointing two new diocesan bishops, Mark Davies of Shrewsbury and Philip Egan of Portsmouth, who are in tune with conservative youngsters rather than an English Catholic bureaucracy run by crypto-Marxist megabores trained in the public sector.
Bishop Egan has only been in his post for a few weeks, but already he’s been telling orthodox young Catholics what they want to hear: that they should adore the Blessed Sacrament, advertise their faith by making the sign of the cross, and even keep a rosary handy in the car. Cue barely suppressed shrieks from the old guard in Portsmouth, whose “director of liturgy”, the composer Paul Inwood, writes cod plainchant decked out in the harmonies of a 1970s cocktail lounge.
None of this should surprise us. When religions come under attack, they attract believers who invest in their more dogmatic, countercultural teachings – and who deliberately raise the degree of tension between themselves and society. There are few things more countercultural today than Bible-based evangelicalism or strictly orthodox Catholicism. For decades, Liberal bishops have droned on about how they wanted to draw young people back to church. But I don’t think this is what they had in mind.