THE FUTURE historian of secularism in Britain will look back at two recent reports as having particular significance. For the first time the Church of England has published figures showing that Sunday church attendance is now below one million. The time is gone when Catholics, or at least intelligent Catholics, can find any satisfaction in this. The Catholic Church is not much more successful in attracting many of its own members to church. Moreover, the decline of Anglicanism will leave behind what Matthew Arnold foresaw over a century ago: The Sea of Faith/ Was once, too, at the full, and rvund earth's shore/ But now I only hear/ Its melancholy, long withdrawing mar, Retreating.
The decline of Christianity throughout Britain and indeed, Europe, is leaving behind a vast void swirling with hordes of unchurched people whose weekly worship is football or the lottery and whose Bible is the Argos catalogue.
THERE ARE many reasons why this has happened. Yet there is one factor that is often neglected, one that can be seen in another recent item of "religious news". This is a Church of England report on prisons launched at the House of Lords by the Bishop of Lincoln, and Lord Hurd of Westwell.
The former Home Secretary, when not involved in the City or in writing entertaining tetvels4woiries about prisoners in his capacity as chairman of the Prison Reform Trust. He and the bishop call on Christians to campaign against the jailing of most prisoners. "Quite simply," they conclude, "many, and perhaps most should not be there at all."
I happen to be coordinator of a Neighbourhood Watch scheme a few miles from Lord Hurd's Oxfordshire residence. When I warn my neighbours in this street of Victorian terraced houses that there has been yet another burglary, I do not fmd the same concern for prisoners and their discomforts. Nor have I ever heard anyone endorse the Bishop of Lincoln's claim that "our own society is punitive enough".
It might occur to the more cynical that Lord Hurd, as a well-guarded former Home Secretary and Northern Ireland Secretary, does not need to fear burglary as much as the elderly ladies in my street to whom it is a daily worry.
As Christians, of course, we must be mindful of prisoners. Yet for the last three decades, ever since the disastrous 1960s, the balance has swung too far. Good, church-going people like the Bishop of Lincoln and Lord Hurd all too often seem more concerned with the comfort of criminals than with the suffering of victims. An elderly widow who has lost precious relics of a dead husband has had her life mined far more than the young thug who has broken into her house and is eventually jailed for a short time. Hers is a life sentence of loss and fear.
It is no new thing for bien pensant figures to be in a fret about criminals and prisons. There was a whole genre of novels in the 19th century called "Newgate Novels" of which Oliver Twist is the best remembered which fed this popular preoccupation with criminals.
I am not advocating a return to flogging or to the treadmill, but I would like to see prison governors forbid their inmates from viewing The Antiques Road Show as a study course for their next burglaries. (This well-known fact was confirmed in a recent ITV interview with two professional burglars.) A Church must of course bear witness to justice and to mercy. Yet when a Church seems to be constantly at odds with the realities of life as most people perceive them, that Church will have less attraction to ordinary people. The Church of England lost tens of thousands to Nonconformity in the 18th and 19th centuries because it was seen as reflecting nothing but the views of the Bishops of Lincoln and Lord Hurds of that time.
Not only do ordinary people feel little affinity with their sociological prattle, but many of them, who cannot afford burglar alarms, may stay at home lest any of the released criminals burgle their houses while they are at church.