A good deal of what passes in common parlance as ‘religious’ is, when examined, really cultural. One of the strongest reasons for the success of Christianity as a world religion, has been its adaptability. Our friend Bosco, like others elsewhere, sometimes uses it a a criticism that the faith took on and adapted pre-existing pagan festivals and Christianised them; this is rather like criticising Christianity for converting pagans, and perhaps stems in part for an over-literal view about what it means to be a ‘new creation in Christ’. People do not abandon, on the whole, and never have, on the whole, abandoned their existing culture. It has required converts to conform to Christian norms – no so polygamy, no same-sex marriage, no child brides – and those norms have often, even if it has taken time, changed the cultures into which the faith has come. It may be that there is a slave-owning elite which has abandoned the practice for non-Christian reasons, but the only one of of which I am aware is our own society, where in the end, the idea of owning people came to be seen as incompatible with Christianity; something of the same has happened with capital punishment. Such changes can happen only when society has evolved to a stage where they are possible, but it is still hard to see how these things would have been generally abolished without Christianity. One certainly could not point to Islam and see a similar process.
In England, the Reformation created and celebrated a link between Church and State signalled in the name of the State Church itself – the Church of England. That Church came to be seen, and, again, celebrated, as embodying things that were typically English: it was a middle way, steering clear of the ‘priestcraft’ of Rome, and the anarchy of pure Protestantism; it took ‘the Book’ very seriously, but it also valued tradition and reason, and sought to keep these three things in balance; and although it provided a way of life for the younger sons of the aristocracy, it did so in ways which gave many of them a contact they would not otherwise have had with the ordinary people, and it was, in that way, part of a wider social contract between people and their rulers. It could not fill the gap left by the dissolution of the monasteries, but it was something to be valued. The Church had a mission to all those in every parish, and to witness to Christ everywhere English men and women lived; it took that seriously enough to follow them overseas.
The failure of the national church to reach everyone should not blind us to the fact that the most numerous group of those outside was not Catholic, but even more Protestant – that is even more bloody-minded, individualistic and English: Cromwell was the exemplar of the type.
Did any of this make Christianity in the form it came to take in these islands any less Christian? That it is impossible to answer that question reveals the extent to which our faith has proved able to adapt to and to shape cultures. It is easy enough to think, as we look at the state of the institutional churches in our country that this period has come to an end – but I wonder?