Religion has always fascinated me. While sitting, standing, sitting, standing, sitting, standing, kneeling, sitting, standing, kneeling, sitting and standing through a very Catholic service at the weekend (associated with babcia’s death), I got to wondering where I personally stood (sat or knelt) these days with regards to acceptance by one or more of the religious clubs available to me.
At a time of my life when someone, most likely a vicar/priest, thought I had reached the “age of reason” I became a ‘confirmed member’ of the Church of England. For a subject as complicated as religion and with religious instruction being so completely biased in favour of the home side, I have to say that any “age of reason” that is set below the age of 40 is complete nonsense. That aside, here I was, a part of the Church of England. A church that as far as my history goes was only created because Henry VIII wanted rid of Catherine of Aragon at the same time that Pope Clement VI was pretty much imprisoned in the Vatican by the troops of Emperor Charles V who was Catherine’s nephew and not about to let Henry get away with it. Getting no satisfaction from the Pope who, it seems, had already bent the rules a bit to allow them to marry in the first place (Catherine having been married once before), Henry just went ape and started passing all kinds of laws that effectively told Rome to stick their religion where the sun doesn’t shine. Henry was now “the only Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England” and anyone who didn’t like it, or he thought might not like it, lost their head, literally.
The Church of England was therefore, after nearly a thousand years of Papal rule, born-again and went on to become the mother church to what I now discover is termed the “Anglican Communion” that embraces around 77 million members (compared to over 1 billion Catholics) in thirty-eight provinces and six extra-provincial churches all around the globe. They are all independent, each with its own primate and governing structure although they all (to join the club) have to accept the Archbishop of Canterbury as their spiritual head and focus of unity. Strictly symbolic, you understand. In other words, replacing the Pope with another guy who keeps everyone in line but is a lot easier to do business with.
I had thought for most of my life, rather simply, that “If I’m not a Catholic, then I must be a Protestant”. It seems though that this is not strictly true as the Anglican Communion considers itself to be both Catholic & Reformed, at the same time. How’s that for sitting on the fence! It is Reformed because it does not accept Papal authority (thanks to Henry) and has been influenced by Protestant reformers and the subsequent Protestant Reformation. Yet, it is Catholic because it sees itself as a continuation of the original (Catholic) apostolic and medieval churches rather than as a new church and because it has retained more Catholic tradition than other reformed churches. I have a feeling the Pope might disagree with the idea that the Anglican Communion is in any way Catholic, but what do I know! So, for some Anglicans, their church represents a kind of non-Papal Catholicism while for others it represents Protestantism but without the leadership of the likes of Luther, Calvin or Wesley. It is therefore a very English church, one that sits precisely in the middle of nowhere at the centre of all things Christian. Maybe Catholic, maybe Protestant, perhaps something else entirely. Led, in a mild mannered way, by a nice civil servant type of guy who’s not about to upset any apple-carts. No Pope, no Wesley, no nothing much at all really. In the Anglican church, it seems, you can be religious, without having to take it to extremes. Tea and biscuits. Perhaps a nice slice of fruit cake. All the benefits with none of the downsides. The easy route to heaven!
When living in England we never went to church much. In the end, not even at Easter or Christmas. Nobody in my family is what could remotely be called a church-goer and, judging by the number of churches being converted into offices & apartments, we are not alone. I can’t help feeling that the very nature of the Anglican Communion, its ever so middle-of-the-roadness, is a strong factor in this drift away from the church. When you remove real hardship from the majority of the population, when people can enjoy a free and relatively easy life, as is the case in modern Britain, you remove (in my opinion) by far and away the biggest driver for people to gather together in churches and pray to God. The need to find a way, any way, to make things better or, at the very least, to know that you are not alone. When this impetus is removed any religion is going to have to rely on having a strong character, a strong position, to keep people coming back. Those that are not already deeply indoctrinated or spiritually inclined, that is. The Anglican Communion doesn’t really have that kind of pulling power and so its numbers are declining while some of the more overtly characterful religions grow stronger on British soil. ( I have no facts at hand to back that up) Ironically, it may prove to be the growth of these other religions that provides the impetus the Church of England needs.
Where does the Church of England stand anyway in the ranks of global religions? I mean, how are we supposed to take this seriously? The Sunday League status of my church was brought home to me in 1994 when I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity, supposed birthplace of Jesus. It was not the best time to visit because there had been a recent massacre in Hebron and the situation was still tense, to say the least. Bethlehem, an Arab town, was in fact closed to visitors at the time but the guy I was with was well connected with the Israeli military and was able to get us through the blockade for a while. Anyway, more on that later perhaps. What shocked me at the time, naive as I was, was that my religion (Church of England, Anglican) was not represented at this ground zero of holy sites. The Church of the Nativity is run by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenia Apostolic authorities. Surely having a piece of the action at the Church of the Nativity is muchos kudos for any religious organisation? And the Anglicans don’t even have a stall set up in Manger Square!
It won’t surprise you to hear therefore, that as I left the UK I had little or zero affinity with the Church of England, nor with any other organised religion. There must be a word that defines what I do feel but I don’t know what it is. It’s certainly not “religious” or “spiritual” but neither is it “agnostic” nor “atheist”. I believe there is something above, bigger, better, more powerful than me, than any human. It doesn’t have a name but God is the closest we can get. I talk to it sometimes, it doesn’t talk to me but I think it can influence things. I don’t blame it when things are tough, I do sometimes thank it when things go well. It is not public, it is mine, possibly my families. It does not need prayer, or churches, or priests, or anything whatsoever associated with organised religion of any brand. I have no idea what it is or how to describe it but whatever it is, I’m glad it is there.
And so it was with this religious baggage that I came to live in 75% Catholic Central Europe, specifically, 95% Catholic Poland (yet to meet any of the 5%), arguably one of the most religious countries in the Western world outside of Latin America. To make matters more confusing, I married a Catholic and promised someone (God, the Catholic church) that I will bring up my children in the Catholic faith. They have my signature so there’s no getting away from it. If I fail I expect to see someone pointing their finger at my signature as they escort me through the gates of hell or purgatory.
Thoughts on living in a strongly Catholic country will follow another day……….