Kate Fox, in her book Watching the English (Hodder, 2004, pp 353-357), offers a fascinating account of the ‘rules’ underlying English behaviour. The book is full of witty and insightful observations. After all, Fox writes as a trained anthropologist (which she defines as a being a professional ‘nosey parker’). She talks engagingly about how we English converse about the weather, the way we approach humour, the rules that govern our behaviour regarding driving, work, dress, sex, and so on.
‘Religious’ rules are subsumed under the heading of ‘rites of passage’. This, she says, is because ‘religion as such is largely irrelevant to the lives of most English people nowadays.’ All that remain for most people are the rites connected with ‘hatching, matching, and dispatching’.
In fact, suggests Fox, the English are possibly the least religious people in the world. Although in surveys up to 88% of people claim to ‘belong’ to a Christian denomination (usually the C of E), in practice only 15% of these regularly attend church.
Of the three religious rites of passage, few babies are christened nowadays, about half get married in church, but most still have a Christian funeral. This is not because people suddenly become religious at the point of death, but because it is still the ‘default’ position:-
Not having a Christian funeral requires a determined effort, a clear notion of exactly what one wants to do instead, and a lot of embarrassing fuss and bother.
And in any case (says Fox) the Church of England is ‘the least religious on Earth. It is notoriously woolly-minded, tolerant to a fault and amiably non-prescriptive.’ As Alan Bennett observed in a speech to the Prayer Book Society,
[in the Anglican Church] whether or not one believes in God tends to be sidestepped. It’s not quite in good taste. Someone said that the Church of England is so constituted that its members can really believe anything at all, but of course almost none of them do.
It seems that even its own leaders do not take the Church of England very seriously. In 1991, soon after his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, said, ‘I see it as an elderly lady, who mutters away to herself in a corner, ignored most of the time.’ As Fox remarks, ‘If the Achbishop of Canterbury himself likens his church to an irrelevant senile old biddy, it is hardly surprising that the rest of us feel free to ignore it.’
Kate Fox says that when she has asked people about their belief in God (given that about 60% claim such a belief), many give the following answers. They:-
- are ‘not particularly religious but sort of believe in Something’
- are vaguely willing to accept that there might be a God, so saying ‘no’ would be a bit too emphatic
- would quite like to think that there is a God, even though on the whole it seems rather unlikely
- don’t really know but might as well give Him the benefit of the doubt
- haven’t really thought about it much to be honest, but yeah, sure, whatever
She adds, tellingly, that if the English were real atheists, the church would have something to get its teeth into, something to argue about. As it is, indifference reigns. When we attend church for hatchings, matchings and dispatchings, we behave ourselves and make all the right noises. Otherwise, it makes very little difference to anything at all.
Other people are very welcome to worship Him if they choose – it’s a free country – but this is a private matter, and they should keep it to themselves and not bore or embarrass the rest of us by making an unnecessary fuss about it. (There is nothing the English hate more than a fuss.)
Fox is not the first to observe that in many other countries – America, for example – politicians are very ready to make a public display of their religious devotion. But here in England, they must to the opposite. Tony Blair, for example, was known to be a devout Christian while he was Prime Minister, but he never, ever, used the ‘G’-word.
That, for Kate Fox, is just about it. ‘So much for religion’, she concludes. I suspect there’s a little but more to it than that.