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The Last Trumpet

I recall a conversation I had a couple of years ago with another British libertarian who argued that ‘pundits are the new priests’; they deliver ‘sermons’ from their TV or radio pulpits and minister to a befuddled public about the mysterious ways of our secular lords.

Although I can see the argument, I don’t entirely agree. However, the very fact that this kind of argument can be plausibly advanced at all is because we are all aware of the decline of the ‘old’ priests; a phenomenon which gets little attention but is highlighted by leaders like this in the Telegraph:

“But the Church has many good things to offer and it needs to start marketing them more successfully. Church buildings are testament to the triumph of Christianity. Soaring roofs, intricate stonework and stained glass windows echo a pride in Christianity that the 21st-century Church seems embarrassed to admit to. There’s a feeling that to modernise means stripping out pews, replacing organs with electric pianos, divesting priests of their robes and ignoring altars for Communion. But young people need someone to respect and admire. Today’s celebrity culture demonstrates that. If the Church, in its physical, as well as spiritual nature, is not the demonstration of the ultimate aspiration, what is?”

The leader quoted above is, in fact, an open letter from a twenty-something British Christian woman to the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. It is a plea to the Church to arrest its slide into irrelevence and provide some meaningful spiritual guidance to Britain’s Christians.

Despite not being a member of the Church, I can wholly understand her desperation because I can also see that it has gone quite disastrously off of the rails. The absurd and frantic mission to ‘modernise’ has resulted in just about every senior member of the clergy tripping over each other in the headlong rush to embrace every manifestation of fashionable claptrap from global warming to grievance politics. This is not to say that the Church should not address itself to current issues. In fact, quite the opposite. All institutions must evolve and adapt if they are to survive and the Church of England cannot and should not except itself from this process. But this does not mean eschewing moral certainty without which all that remains is vacillation and pointlessness.

I suspect these are the fruits of a failure to appreciate the difference between common decency and that dreadful word ‘inclusiveness’; the former requiring, nay demanding, judgement tempered with mercy, the latter demanding the indulgence of fecklessness and wanton barbarity for its own sake.

In those circumstances it is easy to see how certitude itself has become besmirched as ‘bigotry’ and that is something which we are required to purge from our social landscape. The act of judging other people and finding them wanting is a bit too much like ‘hate’ in this age of eggshell personalities and political correctness.

By my reckoning, Christians who go to Church do so for the comforts of faith and tradition but those ‘reactionary’ articles have been ditched in favour of a steady diet of political agit-prop and infuriating relativism. People who look to their spiritual leaders to provide them with values by which they can live their lives are instead enjoined into exultations of cant and stupidity. Going on protest marches is the new version of pilgrimage.

But, as evidenced by the correspondent above, ‘Our Lady of Trendy-Leftiness’ has probably run her course. The Church has attempted to please everyone but has wound up pleasing no-one. Even homosexuals, who have been quite fanatically courted by the Church for years, are starting to tire of this superficiality. I note the number of gay men who far prefer the solemn dignity of Anglo-Catholic ritual to the humiliating childishness of clappy-happy ‘outreach’. Adopting nauseating ‘niceness’ and recycled marxism as articles of faith may well have been rewarded with lashings of gratifying column inches in the Guardian but, simultaneously, the pews are emptying. Christians have not abandoned the Church of England, it is the Church of England that has deserted Christians.

As a libertarian, I regard religion as a matter of individual conscience and, as a secular Jew, I have no business telling the Church of England how to organise its affairs. That should be that. But it isn’t that. As I contemplate the possible demise of this institution I cannot dismiss the faint but persistant bat-squeak of concern about its possible replacement. Most people in this country have long forgotten that the Church of England was established as a vehicle for humane and moderate religious practice and to protect the nation against the savage winds of religious fanaticism that blew across this country in the 17th Century, leaving a charnel house in their wake. Such was the ferocity and instensity of this ideological war that it resonates to this very day in Northern Ireland.

The letter linked to above constitutes a call for ‘new blood’ to revitalise the Church of England and rescue it from it from its own folly. If the new blood proves to be insufficient then I only hope that it is not bad blood that is left behind.

24 comments to The Last Trumpet

  • Bob Briant

    >Church buildings are testament to the triumph of Christianity.

    Sure, but Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, evidently built c. 2,200 BC, was deeply impressive technology for its time. Archeologists are still trying to figure how the bluestones were transported from the Preseli Mountains, in south-western Wales, and the altar stone from near Milford Haven, with Neolithic and Bronze age equipment but what can we deduce from that? A helping hand from Providence?

  • nick mallory

    Is the fundamental problem with the church that no-one, in a modern, educated and above all scientific age, can take its beliefs seriously?

    There is no god. You know it, I know it, we all know it. Christian creation myths are no more truthful, and a lot less entertaining, than any others. The second coming isn’t on the horizon anymore than the first ever happened.

    Muslim fundamentalists choose to fight the future by flying planes into tower blocks, Christians by waffling on about being nice to each other to the three old ladies left in their pews. The fact is that religion is bunk. However charming the churches, however comforting the ceremonies at major points in our lives, however nice the vicar may be religion’s doomed because it’s nothing more than meaningless hot air.

  • S. Weasel

    “Is the fundamental problem with the church that no-one, in a modern, educated and above all scientific age, can take its beliefs seriously?”

    If only that were true! You apparently don’t know many new-age shamanistic faith-healing mediumistic chi-divining ley-line-following alien-abducted Druidical crystal-sucking twats. A modern Westerner is stuffed with more weird junk information than a whole village full of medieval Catholics.

  • Richard Cook

    I wish Mr. Mallory would not attempt to speak for me. You are not qualified to speak for me, only I am. Must be nice to know you are going to sub for God when he goes on sabbatical. You seem to have figured it all out.

    Rich Cook

  • Patrick

    Not being a Christian myself I basically agree with Nick that the whole religion thing is preposterous. But it ain’t going to go away – and actually religion offers comfort and certitude to some peoples’ lives. The Church can be a tremendous power for good in the country even if it is bollocks. I would encourage it.

    The horrible thing about the CofE is that it has forgotten that it is a religious organisation. It has become a beardy, lefty, sandal wearing, SWP caricature of itself. 20 years ago Spitting Image were lampooning Carey or Runcie singing Kumbayah – how right they were. I don’t want a politician lecturing me on religion. I don’t want a prelate lecturing me on politics. The Cof E should just shut the fuck up about politics and diplomacy and get back to religion. Williams is dead right that disestablishment is the sine qua non for any revival of the Church in the UK.

  • Matt

    I think Nick is exactly right and exactly wrong.

    The problem is that too many in the established church do not really believe, and leary of “judgmentalism” have chosen irrelevance instead.

    But as surely as Nick knows “there is no god” I know there is. Science has not cornered the market on knowledge.

  • Andrew Duffin

    Is “vasillation” a cross between vacillation and vaseline? Wonderful.

    But I’m with Nick on this one.

  • Er..no. A spelling error. Now corrected.

  • Eamon Brennan

    Hi David

    Nice post. However, I don’t (as a former catholic, now jealous agnostic) think the church is in a position to do anything about its plight. All of the attempts to modernise, pathetic or amusing, are just the weak wriggling of a fish dying on a hook.
    Western culture has found twin religions. Science and government. When poeple think of science these days many of them associate it with hope for the furture and omnipotence. A cure for cancer. Scientists are “working on it. Cheap renewable energy, ditto.
    Governments to encourage people to see them as omnipotent and providing hope for the future. Jam tomorrow, as it were.
    Omnipotence and hope for the future. Isn’t that what christianity has always offered. Its USP. I personally believe the church is dying a long slow death. As to what replaces it. I think that has already happened.

    As to the existence of God, even though I am agnostic, Thomas Aquinas’ first empirical proof of God, the unmoved mover, always leaves me uneasy.


  • I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind or behavior by saying the following, but I feel it ought to be said.

    I am a religious Catholic. I’m also the holder of a doctorate in physics, in case anyone would like to speculate about my intellect. And for a considerable time, I was active in libertarian politics, at one point as Chairman of the LP in New York State.

    Part of what convinced me to disassociate myself from activist libertarians was their pervasive tendency to slather contempt on religious belief. Mind you, I never made any attempt to convert anyone to my views. I regard religion as a private matter. But to enter a man’s home, wherein he has graciously offered you hospitality and gone to some trouble and expense to make you comfortable, and to reply by making fun of his religious symbols and practices in front of his family and his other guests, speaks so poorly of you that only vandalism or violence would be worse.

    Libertarianism is a hyper-rational ideology. I have no quarrel with it — when it makes sense, which it does usually but not always. (I’ll return to this.) And I still think of myself as a libertarian, though I don’t label myself as such when asked by a new acquaintance to describe my overall politics.


    Libertarians will make no headway advancing their convictions among ordinary people if you persist in deriding the beliefs that religious people hold. We don’t really care what you think about our faith, or faith in general, but we dislike your displays of contempt, which are gratuitous, self-indulgent, and call into question what inner uncertainties you suffer that drive you to say such things.

    You’re on the wrong side of the “halo effect” when , having labeled yourself as a representative of an ideology that purports to be superior to the “mainstream” political currents, you offer insult to others that’s in no way related to your political agenda.

    For my assessment of when libertarian thought ceases to make sense, please see The Conservative-Libertarian Schism.

  • Byron

    The Catholic Church was never truly about morality. It was about power obtained through carrot and stick emotional manipulation. People have certain emotional needs, and the church fullfilled those needs in return for obeisance. People are easily emotionally manipulated. I myself have been so manipulated, in high school by a Protestant retreat/revival, in college ROTC through an intense summer military training course, and during pledging semester at my fraternity. The details were different, but the general methods were exactly the same.

    However, separating God from religion, lack of proof of the existence of God doesn’t mean that God does not exist. All the arguments for or against God are based on the conceit that we have all the information necessary to form valid deductions. Considering we know next to nothing about the Universe, and have never even left this planet, much less the Milky Way galaxy, I’d say that’s a mighty conceit indeed. New knowledge constantly overturns past beliefs, and there is no reason to believe it would be impossible for that phenomena to work for the belief in God, instead of solely against it.

    For example, assuming the Big Bang theory of the Universe is true, what caused it to happen? What existed before it? Was everything nothingness, and then purely randomly the Universe sprang into being? If that’s the case, what are the odds that something would eventually occur from nothing? Or was there some greater force that made that something occur? Essentially, either the Universe is a random occurence, or something created it. But to believe any of us can know the answer to that question is an arrogant presumption, at best.

    Personally, I’m not wholly enamored with religion, nor am I dismissive or contemptuous toward people who choose to believe. I simply hope it’s an informed choice, rather than one born of emotional manipulation or fear, and one that recognizes the possibility of being wrong. As I must as well.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Francis, you have obviously had some unpleasant experiences with atheist libertarians who have been rude about your religious faith. That is pretty sad to hear and as far as I am aware, I haven’t come across a libertarian in this country – Britain – who would presume to attack someone about their beliefs in that person’s home.

    It is fair to say that the Catholic doctrine of Free Will has played an important part in the tradition of individualism in the West. Many great classical liberals, such as Lord Acton, were Catholics.

    It is entirely possible for folk of certain faiths to be libertarians, but I think it is perfectly fair to point out, that in the main, belief in individual liberty is best fostered in a climate where one uses reason and the evidence of the senses, not faith in revealed truths, as the primary guide to thought and action. Belief that the individual is ultimately sub-bordinate to a higher power is not, I’d have thought, conducive to a climate of liberty.

    That’s said, the plight of the Church of England is sad. It has been responsible, in its classically muddled English way, for dampening religious fervor in this nation for centuries. It shows what happens when you nationalise something. Maybe the CoE needs to be privatized to regain some zest.

  • Dale Amon

    I’ve seen some of what you say but perhaps far less. I’m not a believer… but I believe organized religion is an important part of a free society with limited government. Perhaps it was growing up in a small town (between the river valley industry and the farms over the hill) where we had a local school, locally controlled, everyone hunted, everyone went to their church – believer or not. The church was the community forum, the community glue. Without it you do not have a community, just a bunch of lonely homesteaders.

    If it has decreased it is because government set out on a course to destroy local community. They forced schools into megaschools. Where once teachers were your neighbor for 30 years and went to the same church and knew all 300 kids, now you had “Educational Professionals” overseeing an anthill of 3000 whose parents and history and relatives they did not know. So, we go from low to high crime in no time at all…

    Doctors were neighbors as well. They made a nice living but not much more than most of the folk around them. The knew everyone, knew their parents, their grandparents, came at any time of day or night in any weather. Because these weren’t just their patients, these were their friends and neighbors. And they went to the same churches. Then came Medicare and the next generation of doctors were Professionals who made lots of money and whose patients were numbers.

    But the loss of community did not stop with the schools and the doctors. Churches were the center of the community around which all else spun. If someone was hungry, out of work, had problems, the community helped them via the church. Then came “The Great Society” and much of this became redundant.

    The State took on itself the centralization and control of all the things which made communities what they were. But the one thing it did not even attempt to supply was moral and ethical guidance. So one had to be invented.

    Okay, the UK got there many years ahead of America, but… that is where we are.

    I think some things are changing over there now. There are enough people who realize what a bad deal this has been that they wish to dump a lot of it.

    I am not among the faithful. But if the church did not exist we would have to invent it. It is a critical, needed institution for gluing a community together within a framework of accepted knowledge of Right and Wrong.

  • Johnathan, Byron: You’ve sort of made my point for me. Religion is a subject properly kept private, and entirely separate from political concerns. There is no need for one’s political associates to comment on one’s religion at all. But activist libertarians seem to feel compelled to do so, at least on this side of the puddle. (I’m pleased to hear that British libertarians are more courteous. How ironic, in a country with an established church!)

    Say what you will about the history of any religion or religious institution. Unless a creed attempts to sanctify its adherents’ practice of violence, intimidation, or fraud against others, as Islam does, it can and should be left out of political discussion. This is vital to the future of both religion and politics, for, as Johnathan has stated, one must rely upon reason and evidence when discussing the ordering of our political affairs.

    One of the most important lost truths of our day is the proper meaning of the term “agnostic.” For a brief treatment of this critical subject, see Private Knowledge.

  • The letter, to me, sounds like a plea to return to the kind of ‘high church’ values. Is that what people want?

    Religion, like so many other things in life, is subject to trends. I see the various branches of Christianity as somewhat analgous to different fashions: we have tribes of people, all supporting a particular way of doing things.

    I don’t think pride in buildings, or the wish to build magnificent tributes to your god, is anything new, desirable or even particularly attractive.

    In an age of secularism, surely religion must look to answer things that other thought systems cannot answer, and therefore find its place in the modern world. Otherwise, if it relies on pomp and the ability to impress, it is simply regressing to a point where it awed people into belief.

  • Majesty, mystery, awe, wisdom; all conjoined to give mankind a place to think well, learn to love well, find comfort and construct of life…that should define what worship should do. When you lose most of that, replaced by nouveau “thoughts”, it’s no wonder things slide rapidly downhill.

  • “Majesty, mystery, awe, wisdom”

    Surely these are borne through deep religious thinking, not simply through a tradition of big buildings and men in funny dresses?

  • Byron

    I’m not sure I agree with that, actually. Majesty, mystery, and awe did not give man a place to think well. Rather, it did the exact opposite by forcing man to accept what could not be proven, and what were in many cases lies designed to do nothing more than keep powerful people in power over their fellow man. Man eventually overcame that by learning to think well, but majesty, mystery, and awe certainly did not “give” that ability to him.

  • Daniel Schmidt

    Although religion has the capacity to be a powerful force for good, this is much more difficult and less likely than the alternative. At the basis of all religions are unproven (and unprovable) propositions presented as facts. They remove the burden of proof from the fantastic and place it upon the rational. This can be a good thing when the church’s fiats are in fact good principles. However, since there is no mechanism for review of these principles, they can just as easily be bad. In addition, the ability to tell people how to live without needing justification is a very powerful one, and attractive to the worst human natures as well as (hopefully) the best. Analogous to Hayek’s economic argument, a system with equal propensity to produce good or bad, with human nature as the deciding factor, will tend to produce bad. I am in no way a historian, but it seems to me that historical review of religion’s effects shows the negatives to far outweigh the positives. It is clear that the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, homophobia, and Islamic terrorism are not direct results of the religions they hide behind, but they are greatly facilitated by an environment and a mindset that discourages rational dissent. True, a church can be the center of a social web that binds the community together, but it can bind with irrational restriction just as well as not.

    I should probably clarify myself and say that I have no problem with religion per se; it becomes deleterious only with organization. As mentioned above, if religion and politics are mutually exclusive, pretty much everyone’s happy. This is the default when beliefs are developed individually, but when organized, it is natural to attempt to use the power of the association to effect political changes that align with the shared beliefs. This is the same for any special-interest group. However, for religious groups, the cornerstone of their convictions is irrational, indefensible prepositions of faith, and these have no place in politics.

  • Julian Morrison

    Francis Poretto: the real libertarians I know of in the USA leave religion alone too – if it isn’t covered by the principle of non initiation of force, it’s simply out-of-scope for politics. Still, in the USA, religion often tries to violate that by campaigning for morality-enforcement. Hence the libertarians who consider organized religion an enemy.

  • Peter Woods

    As an active priest of 43 years standing and a professional engineer, there is no doubt in my mind of the validity of the Christian religion, however, it is perfectly obvious that not only the C of E, but the Church of Rome and many others are currently screwed up by NON THEOLOGICAL matters. It is true that the church is for sinners but it’s a pity so many of them are now in charge, however, I draw great comfort from the fact that the MYSTICAL BODY OF CHRIST ON EARTH is a creation of God and is totally administered by God and wonder if all this is one of HIS ALMIGHTY JOKES.

  • Ben

    As a young libertarian continually floating between being an atheist, agnostic, and a deist, religion becomes a very odd subject for my spectrum of beliefs. However, could not the churches of the world, instead of being a demonstration as the ultimate triumph of Christianity, be considered the ultimate triumph of Man (or Humankind for the rare liberal reading this)?

    When I was in eigth grade I had the honor of being treated to a two week tour of Europe with my step-father (also a libertarian). One of the most memorable stops we made was in Rome at St. Peter’s Basilica. The place was amazing in every sense of the word; a triumph of the spirit and the soul of Man. The entire building was designed and built by our ancestors, and that is an incredible feet given the equipment and knowledge of the day.

    The physical building stands as a testament to the triumph of men, men who put in long days and sacrificed themselves for something better than themselves. A willing sacrifice. A very libertarian-esque sacrifice. That church is something I would be more than happy to take pride in. Not because of the religion, because of its sheer magnificence. Just my two cents.

    On a side note, thank you so much samizdata for providing the highlight of my day after several hours spent learning the Adams-Onus treaty and dissecting errors in spaghetti code for linked lists! This site is the best!

  • Ben: Thank you for a well-phrased and deeply felt statement, which can be easily grasped by anyone, believer or not.

    Julian: Once upon a time, rudimentary training in courtesy served to curb the sort of behavior we both deplore. These days, a strong political position seems to license altogether too many people to say whatever they feel like to whomever they please, regardless of its appropriateness. That’s my beef. I don’t really care what anyone, of any political alignment, thinks of my religion. I just dislike having my face slapped with it — and other ordinary Americans, 74% of whom self-identify as practicing Christians, probably dislike it just as much. For libertarian ideas to have a future, activists must learn not to indulge themselves in displays of contempt or dismissiveness on matters of faith.

    Father Peter Woods: God bless you, Reverend. You’ve said something here that urgently needs to be said to all the prelates of the world: loudly, repeatedly, and in public.

    Churchly authority is delimited authority, which deals with the proper relation of the individual to God, and how that relationship is maintained. It does not extend beyond the conservation and proper application of the Word of God. For priests and bishops to pontificate (pun intended) on political matters is the exact converse sin of political activists slagging off religious faith, and just as deadly. Incidentally, that’s why Islam does not qualify as a true religion.

  • Bob Briant

    Curious that the Telegraph should invoke the splendours of ecclesiastic architecture as testimony to the triumph of Christianity, rather than the persistence of Christian values in the ideology of liberal democracy.

    Do we take that as a definitive admission that ostentatious materialism has finally superceded spirituality in the hierarchy of our values?