I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
(William Blake, 1804)
The year is 2013 and it’s Eastertime again, the season when most of us heed the call to purchase gaudily packaged chocolate eggs and only dimly recollect that great heroic act of self-sacrifice at Golgotha upon which the entire Christian faith is founded.
So with the recent appointment of Justin Welby as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, there is predictably much talk of the challenges that will face him as leader of the Church of England in an increasingly secular society.
According to the 2001 Census, 71% of people described themselves as Christian, thus allowing the Church to claim that Britain was still a “Christian country”. However, this figure had diminished to 59% by 2011. When combined with the 2007 survey by the Christian charity Tearfund which suggested that only 10% of the UK population attend church on a weekly basis, one might be forgiven for concluding that Christianity is in terminal decline.
This downward trend in Christian observance also seems to be an integral feature within our schools. A 2011 survey conducted on behalf of BBC local radio discovered that 64% of the 500 parents surveyed reported that their children did not attend daily acts of collective worship as is required by law in all maintained schools in England.
But ironically, even if the statistics seem to suggest that we are losing our sense of godliness and are resigned to viewing ourselves merely as consumers and producers rather than spiritual beings, Christian ideals are more deeply enshrined within our political and social structures than ever before. Owing to a system of taxation which redistributes wealth by enforcing that those with a sufficient income contribute to the well-being of those who have little or none, our society can proudly boast the following unprecedented moral achievements:
• A free state education system
• The NHS
• The Health and Safety Executive
• Social services
• Social security
• Old Age Pensions
• An impartial judiciary guaranteeing civil liberties
• An impartial police force
• Universal suffrage and free and fair elections
• Freedom of speech
• A whole raft of legislation designed to outlaw any type of prejudice or discrimination based on such factors as race, religion, age, gender or disability
And, of course, the list could go on!
Admittedly, none of the above accomplishments has reached perfection, and unfairness and inequality are still rife within our society. But just take a moment to consider what life was like for ordinary families, say, 150 years ago when the percentage of the population who regularly attended church was considerably higher.
Actually, it’s not difficult to find such a window into the past. The misery and hardships of the millions of Victorian poor are amply mirrored by the miseries and hardships of the many hundreds of millions of men, women and children who tragically struggle for survival on or below the poverty line in the developing countries of today.
It has taken a long time for humanity to reach the moral pinnacle of the modern welfare state and, although too often derided, the social progress that we have attained is more impressive than any of the obviously flashier displays of human triumph such as the Internet, satellites or the ‘man on the Moon’.
Sadly, our ultra-civilised civilisation, our New Jerusalem, is built on the edge of a precipice. The prosperity which funds all of our great humanitarian endeavours has been created through technological innovations which have enabled us to harvest ever more of the Earth’s resources. Unfortunately, this same exploitation of our once “green and pleasant” planet stands on the verge of destroying it, global warming being just one such imminent threat. Technology may yet come to our salvation, but it all hangs in an uncomfortably delicate balance.
Nevertheless, it does seem a peculiar paradox that as our society becomes ever more compassionate, God seems to have become increasingly more remote.
So what is the spiritual state of the nation that faces our new Archbishop? Secular? Perhaps. Unchristian? Certainly not!
In the words of William Cowper, another of our highly celebrated English poets, ‘God moves in mysterious ways…’
Activities for Secondary R.E., P.S.H.E. and English
Read the above article with your students and then use the following list of questions as stimulus for a class discussion and/or individual/paired research.
If conducting research, each individual or group might focus on just one or two of the issues below in order to provide for a more informed class debate.
1. Does religion have any place in a modern society? Does it matter if we don’t see ourselves as spiritual beings anymore?
2. Is the United Kingdom a ‘Christian country’? Explain your reasons.
3. Do you think of Easter as primarily a religious or secular holiday?
4. Should schools encourage acts of collective Christian worships – e.g. religious assemblies? Explain your reasons.
5. Is there such a thing as the meaning of life? If so, what do you think it is?
6. Which of Christ’s teachings are enshrined within our social structures?