England riots show what happens when religion flies out window

  • August 31, 2011

Now that I have lived in the United Kingdom for more than two years,  I realize how little I knew about it before I moved here. Like many fourth-generation Canadians of British descent, my ideas about the United Kingdom were decades out of date. In my case, it may be because I never learned what happened after 1963.

To Canadians who watched the news in disbelief as young people in England (England!) ransacked their cities, smashing, looting and ultimately murdering four people, and now ask  “What happened to England?” I reply “1963.”

That is the year in which Christianity in England began to fall into a deep decline. It is the year in which the Beatles released their first album, the year in which a bishop published Honest to God and the year in which the BBC eased its ban against jokes about religion on television. According to historian Callum G. Brown, 1960’s youth culture, radical new theology and the increasing role of television shoved Christianity to the fringes of English life.    

For well over a thousand years, Christian teaching and worship had been central to English culture. Not everyone participated in weekly church worship, of course, but church-going amongst the English was at its height in the late 1950s. Traditional sexual morality was also strong: the illegitimate children rate reached an all-time low in 1958. However, it rose sharply after 1962. It is now about 41 per cent, and very few English Christians go to church.  

So what happened? First, churchgoing among the majority of English Christians was tied to a wish to appear respectable. According to Brown, Protestant Christian piety in England was, after 1800, driven by women. Women went to church, and women made sure their husbands and children went to church. However, with the 1963 Beatlemania and rise of youth culture, young Englishwomen began to reject respectability as a value. Erotic love and sexual freedom replaced it, and English girls deserted churches in droves.

(The Catholic minority continued to go to Mass in large numbers, but by the 1980s, they began to stay home from Sunday worship. Today only 25 per cent of England and Wales’ four million Catholics go to Sunday Mass.)

Panicked, English clergymen either fulminated against sexual sin or desperately tried to meet “the youth” halfway. For the first time in the history of English Christianity, some clergymen were willing to say that pre-marital sex might not always be wrong. Compounding this betrayal, Anglican Bishop Jonathan Robinson’s Honest to God cast doubts on central tenets of the Christian faith and threw thousands of Christians into confusion.

Television played a major role in transmitting and even shaping cultural changes in England. Not only did comics, beginning in 1963, mock religion and tell sex jokes on television, liberal theologians like Robinson aired their radical new views on shows like Looking for an Answer.

“Television,” writes Brown, “was showing the British people how to reject religion.”  

Television-watching replaced church-going as an activity — the popularity of The Forsyth Saga in 1968 famously killed Anglican Sunday Evensong — and it replaced clergy as authority. It also served up new gods to worship: the hysteria following the deaths of Princess Diana and Amy Winehouse suggests that celebrity worship has become a literal truth. Television, hand in hand with pop music, also tells English children how to dress and behave. A reality TV star named Katie Price, who first won fame as a topless model, is probably the most influential role model for English girls today.    

There is not much room for Christianity on English television these days. And given the state of contemporary English education, there is nowhere else that non-Catholic English children are likely to learn the tenets or even the morality of the Christian faith. The media heroes of the 2011 England Riots were the Sikhs who protected their temples and shops with swords and baseball bats and the grieving Muslim father who singlehandedly prevented a race war between black and South Asian Britons in Birmingham.     

Yes, there are many other factors at play in the destruction, once and for all, of the stereotype of England as a green and pleasant land of restrained and peaceful people. Such essayists as Theodore Dalrymple and Peter Hitchens have written volumes about the collapse of traditional Britain. They  mention the rise of the welfare state, the end of heavy industry and the impact of mass migration upon the working classes. But I do not think the importance of 1963 and British Christianity’s subsequent decline should be omitted from any discussion of the England Riots.

(Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer and author of  Seraphic Singles.)


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