In the beginning was the Father. The Father Almighty. I grasped that early when we recited the Creed. I could grasp him. He was quick to anger and to chastise his people, who were sinful and erred and strayed from their duties to him. That described well something I knew: it reflected my own relationship with my own father. There was a deal of judgment, usually of me, and a mite of repentance, usually by me. I was never clear whether I might be smitten hip and thigh, but as with dad, it was likely.
That my father didn’t believe in God didn’t matter, I had a father, and the Father presented to me at chapel on Sundays pretty well matched him. This was the God of the Old Testament, and he was the one whom the folk at chapel seemed, to me, to worship. My mother would stress we were the new Israel, a chosen people, called out from the sinful world. The C of E folk in town were Laodicean, the ‘Methodies’ were a bit better, but the Catholics over in Bradford were sad deluded folk under the control of their priests, and we used to pray for their conversion. My father, who’d been brought up an Ulster Protestant, thought we were all as bad as each other, feeding opium to the masses; my mother bore him as her cross with Christian patience – leavened with what he’d call her ‘funny look’. He was the odd one out though, although he’d laugh as they rest of us went off to chapel, and he sat back with ‘the Sundays’ as he called them. Within a decade and a half, he was far from being the odd one out, although it wouldn’t have been until after his death that we became the odd ones out.
The Christianity I, and others, imbibed, had many excellent qualities, not least in keeping us on the straight and narrow and helping us cope with life’s misfortunes. It was a code, embedded in our culture, it was all about us like the air. It was like my school winter overcoat – necessary for the climate and a sign of belonging. But then the climate changed and the codes with it, and it was as though, realising the coat was no long necessary, folk began to leave it at home; the young ones first, but some of the older ones too. Stern fathers were no longer in fashion, and there were other things to do on Sunday, and in the evening.
As explanations go, this isn’t very complex or dramatic. There was no modernist assault on our Bethel, or on the ones in the neighbouring villages, neither was our pastor a convert to some other philosophy; he kept on preaching what he’d always preached, and we went on doing what we’d always done; it was just fewer folk came. Yes, there was the odd TV programme with the (usually very odd) atheist, but I’m not sure anyone ever watched them – they were on late at night. It was something more prosaic and less dramatic – what we’d been offered was as fashionable as stern fathers in this new climate. Folk lost a sense of fear, life got easier and better, and that coat which had once been needed was discarded. Other activities and preoccupations filled the gap.
The attempts made to combat this trend – which seemed to be common across Catholic and Anglican churches – making things more ‘modern’ and trendy, were perhaps natural reactions, but they failed on the whole, and they failed because so many folk no longer found a need for the God that had been preached to them. The roots may have been wide, but they were not deep; they were not, I suspect, nourished from any deep sources, and so failed when the drought came. Houses had been built on sand with shallow foundations, and when the weather changed, they were found inadequate and abandoned. Fault, if fault is to be imputed, lies with the type of faith we were too often fed – we wore it, but it was not part of us; it came to us from our culture, not our hearts; we feared God, but I am not sure we loved him – or knew he loved us. But then, perhaps the contours of one man’s narrow experience are just that, and others won’t recognise this casual drifting away.
The puzzle seemed, and seems still to me, why that was not universal. In terms of the big churches, institutions can generate protection for themselves for a long while, but even so, without a living faith, that will avail naught. So, it is to that living faith I’ll refer on the morrow.