A Godless Society?

A good Lent reminds us that we’re at another stage in the year, and another stage in our life. One of the failures of a society that has, in a sense, walked away from, or banished God, is that it does not have these regular points in the year where it is reminded about its own existence: the need to take stock, the need to make new beginnings. So, for example, if you think about baptism, in the First World War, most people being sent to the front were baptised. That was not only a sacrament, it was also a way in which society said, ‘You are being welcomed into a larger family than your immediate family.’ One of our failures in modern Britain is that we somehow thought we could not only lose God, but that we could lose all that wisdom of giving life a rhythm that religion gave us. So for example, I think we should reinvent baptism as an initiation service that, as you sign on for child benefit, there should be a little celebration of the family saying ‘Well here we are, we’re presenting a new child,’ and society saying ‘Welcome. Now this is what we want you to do for this child and these are the resources to make sure that you do a really successful job.’

So Lent for me is not just the ‘sackcloth and ashes’. It’s this wonderful dividing up both the year and one’s life to reflect on the purpose of our being. I’m always struck by those who claim that they don’t believe in God, how moral they are. The first time I really noticed this was when a friend of mine, Barbara Wootton, who was one of the cleverest people of the last century, said that she realised the point at which she did not believe in God. The next move she had to make was to decide how to draw a set of beliefs by which she would live a moral life? What she had done was largely take what she thought the best of Christian morality and lived her life accordingly. It was a life one of service. It was a life about exploring how you ennoble individuals and ensure individuals can lift themselves up. I do think that we’ve got out of the habit as a society of doing that.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, when doubt was springing up and devouring people, the cleverest of individuals thought, ‘How can we have Christian morality without Christian dogma?’ They realised you could not live your life in a vacuum; you could not do it without guidance. The miracle of their success in inventing what in fact became a public ideology, the agreement we all subscribed to without even thinking about it, was that it lasted for so long. Partly by sheer accident, the Christian morality was secularised by a group of individuals known as the English Idealists. They wouldn’t have said that that was what they were doing, but, I think looking back, most people would say that’s what they did. They took the stumbling blocks away from Christianity, particularly that you had to believe in the miracles, they reinvented worship as service, and they also taught us that God was present in all of us, but that the Creation was never complete – neither in God nor ourselves. That part of this journey was to achieve our best selves, or ourselves as moral beings.
We fell in love with that way to approach life, and this approach was shown and reinforced by an extraordinary period of the care that we gave to the nurturing of children. The English have always been a pretty brutal race. Then all of a sudden, we changed dramatically. Our natures didn’t change. We changed because we decided we should live as a community. That was the success of this secularised Christianity. So whether you were a teacher, whether you were a policeman, whether you were a magistrate, whether you were a Sunday School teacher, everybody knew what the purpose, what the train journey was about, why we were on that train, and where that train was heading. The late Victorians and the Edwardians that put so much effort into this failed teach us one critical thing, however, and that was that we have to keep remaking ourselves. We did not change our DNA – but we hit on a marvellous way of people voluntarily choosing this kind of freedom or self-governance.

One of the big events that happened in my lifetime – and I’m a war baby – is that we ceased doing the work on nurturing children and raising citizens in the way that our immediate past did. The effects of that are to be seen all around us, where young lads in Birkenhead reply with with ‘Why?’, when I say ‘I don’t think you should be doing that.’ You realise that you can’t run a society where everybody thinks they can say ‘Why?’ to every suggestion that’s ever made to them. We have to have a ‘Highway Code’ that we all are happy to use to navigate life by. We fell out of love with nurturing our children. Of course lots of people still do this job brilliantly, but increasingly, parents do not.

The reasons why we fell out of love with living in this way are complex. It’s far too easy to say ‘Oh it was the ‘60s, where everybody let everything hang out.’

The effort of winning that war, the Second World War, the surrender of freedoms, the commitment to the common good was so enormous that, I think afterwards, people wanted break from the personal cost of that. One also had living standards beginning to rise very substantially, and therefore there were choices, or ‘temptations’, which were there for the first time. The fruit of the tree was to be tasted – and why not? That’s what human nature is about. I also think that we became too confident that somehow we’d cracked the way that we raised children. That somehow that this was in the air that we breathed and hadn’t realised just how recent it was that English society moved from being pretty vicious to being a peaceable kingdom.

The case that I make is not that somehow we’ve always been very civilised; but rather we had an extraordinary interlude. We see how sharp the present change is if we take any parliamentary seat like mine. During the last year for which data are available, there are more violent crimes against the person in my seat, and in every other seat like it than was in the whole country fifty or sixty years ago. And I use that not to suggest there’s anything very peculiar or awful about Birkenhead – far from it. It is that those restraints have gone, have collapsed, which we somehow thought we could take for granted. The problem is how do we draw back and begin to remake our characters again?

That is why I’d like to see a secular Lent to run alongside the Christian one, because I do think we, as a society, need these different festivals and, and seasons of the year, to help us take stock in building our best selves. If you look back a hundred or so years, we had lots and lots of collective services, but they were not run by the State at the centre. We’d run our own local hospitals, or we would have charitable foundations doing that. There were many more independent or church schools then, with their own governing bodies. The Victorians fell in love with the Greeks, and their ideal of citizenship was what they tried to reproduce in England’s green and pleasant land.

The vote was conceded in this country because people like Mr Gladstone saw that, in fact, the working class were running their own welfare states, their friendly societies, their mutual aid societies, their hospitals, their trade unions. How could you say that this group didn’t deserve the vote? By their very nature, the way they behaved, the sort of people they were, they showed they had actually earned the right of full citizenship, which included the vote. We as a nation somehow felt this was a once and for all operation, and was not something that was continuous. That not only had we to renew it daily amongst ourselves, but we had to do it through the generations. And I think that, with rising living standards, wanting the freedom after the efforts of the Second World War, led to us becoming very careless about who we were, how we should gain respect and what we think is worthwhile and In the end, what we really thought about our own country, because our country’s only us writ large.

I’m anxious that we look across the various religions in this country and examine how much of their teaching on how we should live our lives as individuals, in families and communities, is common to all of them. From that basis we could establish our social ‘Highway Code.’ This self-governing, peaceable kingdom is another way of talking about a land where order is not imposed, not run by law, not centrally directed in the way we are now and one that is natural to us. But we need the guidance to do that.

Finally, this social ‘Highway Code’ needs to be backed up by contracts. We have contracts in employment, if I buy a house, I have a contract buying the house. And I think we need contracts – to establish what we should expect? What are the different parties going to bring to our education system, including the pupils themselves? The biggest Government budget is welfare. It is absurd to think that we can change people’s behaviour on smoking, but we cannot change their behaviour through the way welfare is paid. So there needs to be contracts in that area as well. They’re not once and for all – we’re not coming down Mount Sinai with them. They’re ones which somebody has got to start and say ‘Here’s my first effort. But, as time goes on, we will improve them.
On one occasion, while I was listening to the Archbishop speak about children, Peter Bottomley made the most wonderful suggestion that we should have a guide to ‘5-star parents’ so that you could know you were a ‘5-star parent.’ I said ‘Peter, for what are the stars to be awarded?’ He replied ‘Well the first one is that you get your children up in time and they have something to eat and they are at school in time.’ Then I asked what the other four might be. This year we were both at the Advent service in Westminster Abbey. He began scribbling on the service sheet, and he passed me down the other four stars, which he put on his website.* That is a start. The aim of him putting it on the website was for people to improve on it.

So, if you haven’t had a wonderful Mum and Dad, and you feel cast adrift, you can easily catch up on the ground rules. We need to give people the confidence to do what their gut tells them is right, and to do so even if they might look silly. This whole exercise in making good citizens has to become once again a passion of the whole of society. Here is the theme for a secular Lent; by which we stir up a passion again about becoming – all of us – first class citizens. That great adventure will simply get nowhere unless all parents begin the wonderful task of nurturing their young.

*Peter Bottomley’s “Five Star Parent Guide” – one star awarded for each of the following
1. Get each child to school each day on time, fed and in the right clothes.
2. Have a planned event in the child’s diary on one day next week.
3. Have a meal together with another family at least once a fortnight.
4. Be on the best terms possible with the other parent.
5. If in doubt, the child’s best interests come first, but usually there should not be any doubt.

(This post was originally broadcast by BBC Radio 4 as a part of their Lent Talks Series.)


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