by DAVID FORESTER FOE OVER a decade now, the people of this country have been the subjects of a massive, albeit wellmeaning, hoax. Like their late Victorian forebears, they have been the unfortunate victims of a variety of intellectual pundits endeavouring to persuade them that Christianity is on the decline and the institutional Church is irrelevant to their needs.
In this respect the major difference between what our grandparents and greatgrandparents experienced and we have encountered (apart from an alteration in the philosophical "isms" currently considered fashionable), is the fact that they at least were spared the siren voices being transmitted in the mass media.
Certainly the arguments of the secular prophets have not improved in content, style or cogency over the years; they are merely more pervasive.
Another difference, however, is that our ancestors quickly gathered that the religious seep ticism being propagated by such eminent figures as Thomas Carlyle, J. S. Mill, George Eliot, J. A. Froude, Francis Newman, Matthew Arnold, Huxley and Spencer and so on, was the product of unbelievers or of persons openly professing a faith removed from Christian orthodoxy.
On the other hand, we had to survive in the 1960s the effervescent outpourings of a motley group of so-called "death of God" theologians or "Christian atheists" from within the Christian community.
The Anglican Bishop John Robinson, however, who, after exploring the work of Bullmann, Tillich and Bonhoeffer, perhaps precipitated this heady period with his "Honest to God" (1963), might agree that the eminent Victorians at least will be remembered long after Thomas Altizer, Paul van Buren, William Hamilton, and Gabriel Vahanian — the main proponents of this school. Nevertheless, even though their slogan that "God is dead" may have proved premature, their basic assumption con
tinues to be bandied about and may even have reached the proportions of a national cliche; too frequently the complete secularisation of society and culture is regarded as a fact.
What is so often overlooked by present-day religious forecasters is that this so-called fact. is pure hypothesis, just as much as was Peter Berger's suggestion in "Rumour of Angels" (1969) that the supernatural as a meaningful reality is absent or remote from the everyday life of most people.
Even if' this latter were true, however, it would again only put us on a par with our forebears; the idea that all Victorians were paid-up, churchgoing, creed-professing Christians is not true,
In a national census taken in 1851, it was shown that a very large proportion of the people of this country (possibly as much as 38 per cent) attended no church whatsoever. Perhaps,
incidentally, that is why they Were as regularly informed as ourselves that institutional religion was on the way out.
Dreadful prognostications regarding the Church attended almost every religious crisis in the 19th century (a period not renowned for its theological placidity), and their continued reiteration today might well lead one to suppose that fixity rather than change is far more characteristic of the human condition.
In view of this state of affairs, it is at least refreshing, if nothing more, to find in Andrew Greeley's "The Persistence of Religion" (1973), a sociologist of religion putting purveyors of pessimism in their place.
While accepting that changes in society have obviously occurred, he finds no empirical evidence to suggest that man's basic religious needs and functions have changed, and none to warrant the assertion that man's primordial ties (including the religious) are not as strong as ever.
Greeley is especially critical of university intellectuals who too easily credit the majority of people with their own pet theories — especially, for example, .that the "world has come ot age" and what is now needed is "religionless Christianity".
Equally scornful of dyed-inthe-wool dons of despair is David Martin, another sociologist of religion; he reserves some of his strongest barbs for theologians who accept de fide, as it were, the existence of the so-called modern man. (One would have thought in any case that the prevalent interest shown by so many in the occult knocked this notion for a six.)
Six years ago in his book "The Religious and the Secular", Martin estimated that in contemporary England 85 to 90 per cent of people continued to believe in God, more than 90 per cent are buried with religious rites, some 80 per cent are baptised and some 70 per cent are married in church.
And in his essay "Can the Church survive?" in his "Tracts Against the Times" (1973) he perceptively noted the persistent reaction of people in
modern technological society to the transcendent in prayer, music, literature and architecture and their need for
ceremony, rites and symbolism. Given this data — a spur to evangelisation if ever one were needed — together with the little-publicised development of mutual understanding and charity among Christian bodies and their aspiration to achieve unity, perhaps those who foretell the imminent demise of Christianity and of institutional religion should think again.
The fact that both have their origins in actual history, that they provide in the Person of Jesus Christ a focal point for commitment and worship as well as a meaning to life, and that their message is one of Good News in a world badly in need of it, makes them still a potential force to be reckoned with in the human heart.
This is not to deny what Jesus himself confessed, that the harvest is rich and the labourers few; but neither should it be interpreted as meaning that the labourers are losing their grip. At the grass-roots level of society and within the much maligned parish system of the Church there is considerable evidence to the contrary.