Phillip Larkin did not believe in God and yet a memorial has been laid in his name at Westminster Abbey. It might be argued that through his 1954 poem Church Going Larkin expressed the best articulation of the modern experience of Church of England Protestantism describing it to be ‘a shape less recognizable each week,/ A purpose more obscure.’. My community in Putney is largely protestant. I attended the Church, connected to my primary school, until the age of 10. The majority of people I attended primary school with did not believe in God. Many of these people then attended Church of England secondary schools, and yet, still their faith did not surface. Similarly, following the graduation from primary to secondary school many parents peeled away from the church simply because they knew, as Larkin did 66 years ago, the church’s goal of instructing people about Christianity does not provide the necessary emotional, spiritual and intellectual guidance to navigate the modern world.
Phillip Larkin recognised something that still has not been remedied:
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals on show,
Their parchment, plate and pryx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent free to rain and sheep. Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?’
There are over 16,000 C of E churches. Very often these are the grandest and most central buildings in British cities, towns and villages. As implied by Larkin, some 66 years ago, there spatial significance cannot be matched by spiritual impotence. The fact Larkin could be so critical about the function of churches and still be glorified in the site where they coronate the head of the Church, reads as a cheeky admission that the Church of England shares the judgements of Phillip Larkin.
The rupture between church and society is not as jolly as Larkin’s poem suggests. The deficiency of well-being within our networks and communities is most acutely exemplified at the moment when individuals graduate from the conventional structure of family and secondary school. The Guardian suggests there is a ‘mental health crises’ at Universities. Between 2016 and 2019 there were 13 suicides at the University of Bristol. When terrible things happen, the University gets blamed and then responds by investing millions in mental health services, yet, clearly this ‘crises’ points towards a society where we are not teaching our children the skills to understand their minds and bodies and thus there is an impoverished sense of meaning. These are exactly the functions that a Church should play. In absence of these lessons students grope for mental balance that will enable effective social functioning, generally manifesting themselves in drugs and alcohol. This cycle is vicious because the medicine is very addictive. The most addictive substance of all is social media and these platforms are, for the first time, the main site for governance and organisation, but also a crucible of gossip, communication and presentation. These three factors, limited knowledge of mental wellbeing, the search for connection and control through drugs and alcohol and the organizational importance of networked communications are the zero day vulnerabilities of British network building that are only realised at the moment of departure from the family and secondary school networks. When people describe identity politics as a new religion, this may encapsulate student desires to find meaning within themselves, and to be able to assert a faith in authority of identity over any confrontation with rational criticism. I believe that all these problems can be effectively treated by the transformation of the Church of England into a network and space that specialises in secular ceremonies and practices.
The importance of the Church of England lies in the significance of space within British communities. First this can be established by confronting and undermining the views of Christopher Hitchens. Secondly by asserting that space, not Protestantism, provides the single most significant factor for the church and thirdly proposing content for the secular assembly.
Christopher Hitchens was wrong when he argued that ‘there is no need for us (non-believers) to gather… every seven days or on any highly auspicious day, to proclaim our rectitude or to grovel or wallow in our unworthiness’. Hitchens provides an alternative sustenance of meaning through ‘a leisurely or urgent walk from one side of the library or the gallery to another, or to lunch with an agreeable friend, in pursuit of truth or beauty’. This rejection of collective communion seems to contradict the actions of a man who spent a large amount of his time doing public speaking or debating at ticketed events to like-minded audiences. Unlike the Hitchens events, any meeting of non-believers within churches would be free. The orator may not have the ability of Hitchens, but the topics may well be similar. What Hitchens does not mention is the importance of church space in the creation of strong and healthy networks. Like Hitchens I am an atheist from the protestant tradition, I however, seem to find much greater merit from the protestant structure than he did.
In the Putney of my youth church created the structure where you were effectively bought up by 4 or 5 parents (as suggested in Aldous Huxley’s the Island) through virtue of regular connection and subsequent meetings within the community. The networks built through the protestant spaces of school and church then successfully migrated to secondary school. Through church, school and scouts there were strong ties on the 85 bus route from Putney to Kingston. Despite growing a network of non-believers, the Church was very effective at network building, however, because these networks were grown through a space that lost relevance after the children graduated from primary school, children of 11 were divorced from a central space of network building. Surely it would be more effective to utilise the space of the Church into a communion of people that come together for a set of principles and activities that have relevance throughout people’s lives. This means that the network successfully built for secondary schools would be sustained beyond the age of 10.
St.Mary’s Church Putney
The importance of church lies in its spatial significance within the community connected to schools, providing a proximity towards friends and a space where people can contribute their time, effort and attention. These spaces are egalitarian and provide the ability to transcend race and class boundaries. Churches are built as oratorical spaces of collective communication. Historically protestant sites provide connection towards an area’s past. During lockdown I found myself continually drawn toward the Putney graveyard because it displays a set of symbols, be they crosses or family names (‘Musk, Hitchings, Wiggins’) that provide me with a sense of connection towards the landscapes past and remind many protestant atheists of the service that their grandparents and great grandparents gave towards the community through the Church, yet are left bastardised by a space that no longer offers meaningful teachings. This experience can be extended towards the churches and St. Mary’s was the sight of the 1647 Putney debates that championed and advanced ideas of vesting authority from the House of Commons and forwarded equal rights like freedom of conscience and equality before the law. These spaces connection with landscapes may be characterised by Protestantism but they cannot be monopolised by the Church of England as they exist and belong beyond faith. The spatial significance of protestant sites needs to be repurposed to enrich the families, partners and individuals that choose to reside in these areas.
The gifts of humanism, mindfulness and the counterculture provide rich lessons that could be taught at assemblies. The marriage of humanism and protestant space is best exemplified through Westminster Abbey were ‘over 100 poets and writers are buried or have memorials’ these include William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Geoffrey Chaucer, WH Auden, Dylan Thomas, William Wordsworth, Charles Dickens and of course Phillip Larkin. Christopher Hitchens calls upon these writers to navigate the non-believers ‘sense of wonder and mystery and awe’ writing ‘(we) find that serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoevsky and George Elliot than in the mythical morality role of the holy books’. A space that provided insight and introduction to such thinkers would provide evergreen enlightenment for all those that attended. These ideas and writers that mastered and played with the English language could be provided not by vicars but by guides. Beyond poetry and literature, the assembly could provide mindfulness lessons – the most practical way of recognising consciousness – walking, history, philosophy, science, climate change and nature. Like the church seminar the guide could give continual reflections about happenings with in the local, national and international communities providing experience of in person articulation and dialogue that most find only at the theatre after paying £220 pounds. These assemblies, nights, seminars, whatever you call them, would replenish the collective intellectual and spiritual drought created by irrelevant politicians and the divorce from activities that took place in protestant spaces.
Therefore, it is time to transform Church of England spaces to provide a secular service that will give communities the guidance they so need. There are over 16,000 Church of England churches who have not effectively served communities for a very long time. Nonetheless, these buildings are positioned in the most spatially significant areas for the community. The University mental health crises point towards an emergency in mental wellbeing that can be remedied by the creation of a rigorous infrastructure of spirituality that makes sense in the modern world. Community networks need to be built and sustained not until the graduation from primary school but throughout one’s brief existence. Assembly over shared principles, ideas and goals provides one of the strongest and most egalitarian ways of providing this and the Church of England offers the perfect structure for the reseeding of community ties.