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Losing faith, finding soul
In just two generations, Britain has lost the faith which it followed for several centuries. This dramatic national loss has been replaced not by atheism, but by an improvised spirituality which is followed in a thousand different ways. In this personal piece for Ship of Fools, Cole Moreton, author of the new book Is God Still an Englishman? argues that the Church of England is being replaced by the Church of Everywhere and Nowhere.
I SPOKE WITH the tongues of angels. I had dreams and visions, I cast out demons and saw the sick get healed, or so I thought. I marched with tens of thousands of my fellow believers, and stood outside the Bank of England rebuking the Spirit of Greed. There was nobody in there that day. The policemen laughed, but I didn't care.

Then I played guitar at the head of a small group of pilgrims, walking in the name of the Lord across a housing estate, singing, "Make way, make way, for Christ the King." When the bricks began to fly, the captain of the soldiers who were protecting us said, "Enough."

It was the Bogside in Derry, after all. It was the 80s, and a time when the Troubles were intense. The Apprentice Boys were about to march. We thought we were making peace. We were making trouble. "Captain," I said, "Do you know your problem? Not enough faith."

I was a teenage fundamentalist, a new convert, a cocky, spotty know-it-all, one of the Elect, convinced that not only was I right, it was the only right. The one true right for humanity, now and for always, brought to earth in the body of a carpenter, delivered to the unbelievers nearly 2,000 years later on the tongue of a fool.

Time passed. I learned. I saw. I felt. I was hurt. I fought hard not to lose my faith, and I held on to it for years, by the skin of its teeth, as the song of hope in my heart and the song of pain in my head made a dissonant row and then merged and all there was, was noise. And I lost it. Gone.

Time passed again. It wouldn't stop. Then a trip to Jerusalem, for work, when they were expecting millions of tourists for the Millennium. Men were going mad in the street, saying they were the Messiah. Women were turning themselves into bombs. It was mad, a crazy place, full of sound and fury, and yet... by the Wailing Wall, looking at the golden dome of the mosque, I thought of Mohammed ascending to heaven on the back of the winged horse, the temple curtain torn in two on the day of crucifixion, Abraham bringing Isaac up the hill with a guilty secret burning acid in his gut. All here. And I thought, "Something's going on."

That's all. Nothing profound. The thought that there, on that spot, some kind of fractured attempt at a conversation had been going on for such a long time, between us and and the divine. Him. Her. Them. Just there. Which was the birthplace for a new hope.

Time passed all too quickly for my beautiful friend Ali, who was dying. Stomach cancer, at the age of 40. Just wrong, like the sun rising one day as pale as the moon. She asked me, on a sunlit afternoon, "Where am I going?" And I said, like a fool, "Up the A22."

It was the best way home. "No," she said. No. What next? The questions we had discussed, late at night, over wine and over whiskey, were no longer hypothetical. Where was she going next, when the flesh turned cold and the Ali left it? I didn't know. I didn't know what to say.

I'm telling you this because that is where it started, the urge to write the book. Not a memoir, despite getting personal from time to time, but an attempt to make sense of what had happened to me – and, I saw, bizarrely, looking around, not just me but the whole country.

Only a fool would make a parallel between his own life and that of his country, but maybe I am one because it seems to me that the English have also gone from absolute certainty to a loss of faith, and are now moving into something new.

Once we were so sure of ourselves. "God is English," it was said, after the Spanish Armada had been dismayed. "God blew and they were scattered." Elizabeth I built a nation on the idea that we had been chosen by the Almighty to protect true faith.

It waxed and waned, but was there again in Victorian times, when it was "the Englishman's duty" to take his righteous strength and press down on the neck of India, among other places. "The ordinary Britisher imagines that God is an Englishman," complained George Bernard Shaw a century ago, unwittingly giving me a title. Where did it go, that imperial delusion?

It happened more recently than you think. It was still alive in 1981, when Charles married Diana in the last festival of English certainty. But on the eve of the wedding there were signs of what was to come. Not everybody was living the fairytale. A young man was killed in Toxteth, run down by a police van in the riots that were a cry from a different kind of England. One that would rise. "Ghost Town" by the Specials was number one. Margaret Thatcher was in power, but the battle had only just begun.

Fast forward to now and the future king wants to call himself Defender of Faith. Quite right, too. This has become a land with a thousand deities. The idea that the monarch is appointed by God, which was common currency in this country for 500 years, on and off, is over. Whose God would it be now, anyway?

THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND likes to blame the wars, and the patchouli riots of the 60s, for the way most of us have left it, but that's wrong. The last blows came in the 80s and 90s, from the most unexpected quarters. The middle part of my book investigates how this massive shift in the national DNA finally happened. The story is maddening, bizarre, amusing, absurd and sad... but you'll have to read the book for it.

Then you'll find out why a Methodist grocer's daughter from Grantham did more than anyone else alive to kill the Church of England. You'll find out why one of the men who crippled it by losing hundreds of millions of pounds used to cross the Atlantic on the QEII, travelling with the contents of his wine cellar. There's lots of scandal, about money, sex and power. Lots of stupidity too. You can be sure of that.

Not everybody has gone, of course. There are still good people in the churches, and good priests, doing good things that nobody else will do, but they've been betrayed by the institution. At that level, it's dead. There's no point arguing for or against disestablishment any more, it is happening by default. What right does it have to call itself a state church if it can no longer afford to do its one main historic job, putting a priest into every parish to care for every soul? The old privileges – such as having bishops in the House of Lords – look hopelessly anachronistic and are withering away. They just can't be justified any more. The church still kids itself it has influence, but nobody is listening.

Here's a story for you, to show what I mean. The Christmas before last, I went to the bandstand on the sea front near us, with a couple of thousand people who were wearing Santa hats and taking nips of mulled wine as they sang carols with the local silver band. The bishop had been asked along. He was invited up to the microphone.

You or I would have said how lovely it was to be there, given people a momentary reminder of the day (they were singing carols, after all) maybe said a quick prayer and got off. Two minutes, tops. By the time he passed the twentieth minute of his impromptu sermon, more than half the people gathered there had given up, turned their backs and walked away early.

He ruined it. But presumably he went away feeling that he had given an important message and that he had a right to be heard. Because this is a bishop who actively encourages his priests to turn their churches into Bible clubs – pushing out all those who don't believe the same things – in an outright betrayal of the Church of England's long-standing mission to serve everybody, regardless. They also make homosexuality the worst sin of all, putting words into the mouth of the Lord, who said nothing about it. That's blasphemy.

Meanwhile, the church authorities fiddle the numbers and ask for monthly attendance to be taken into account. The plain fact is that there are more Catholics at Mass on any given Sunday now, and that is still less than a million. More people go to IKEA on the Sabbath than go to church. But that's not to say we've stopped believing. Not at all.

The last part of the book explores how we are in a place beyond the loss of faith now, and our identity is being remade. There are about 26 million men and women in England who believe in a higher power but don't belong to a church, temple or mosque. I call it the Church of Everywhere and Nowhere Baby, because that's where it's at. All rise for the opening hymn, "Hi Ho Silver Lining." Look it up on Facebook. It's not just here, it is across the world, as people react to the rise of fundamentalism and the collapse of the old structures by saying no, I will not be told what to do. I want to think for myself.

The new national faith of England is a loose, improvised creed that is superstitious and sentimental, but nevertheless sincere. It is haunted by Christianity, but also influenced by Buddhism and paganism, with its belief in the earth as a special or sacred place, heaven as a kind of absorption into the natural realm ("the brightest star", as Jade Goody was called at her funeral last year, like in The Lion King) and the right of each person to find their own way, as long as they cause no harm.

That's one reason why the English are (with a few nasty exceptions) quite good at tolerating incomers, if not exactly welcoming them. We still believe in fair play, the right to live in peace, and the necessity at all costs to avoid any kind of fuss.

We're a bit ashamed now of the way our old imperial faith made us stride across the world telling everyone what to do and which God to worship at the barrel of a gun. If you're reading this in America, you might want to think about that. I am ashamed to say that the model of faith that saw us march for Jesus through that housing estate was not so far removed from that which ruled India, nor that which told George W Bush to "liberate" Iraq.

It still has its moments here, but on the whole, those are death throes. Thank your god, whoever it is, that we've lost that old imperial faith. We've had to. We live in a land with a thousand gods now, although in the English imagination they all seem to blend into one.

We're all mixed up: we're morris dancing and dubstep, we're roast beef and balti. It's wonderful. The future is challenging, because all sorts of extremists want to step into that space vacated by the nice, mild Church of England. The only way we can stop them is by celebrating what we have, together. We can do it. We can think for ourselves again. We have lost our old, stifling faith, but we have found new soul.

Is God Still An Englishman? by Cole Moreton is published by Little, Brown. See the website of the book.
steve tomkins
is god still an englishman
Is God Still An Englishman? by Cole Moreton is published by Little, Brown. See the website of the book.
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