It’s widely accepted that Britain is a “post-Christian” society – which, of course, presupposes that it was once a “Christian” society. Certainly it seems undeniable that Britain had a distinct religious identity for much of the past that it lacks now, but what was the nature of that religious identity?
In his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, written in 1870, Bl. John Henry Newman argues that for “Catholic populations” – he cites medieval Europe, Catholic Spain and Orthodox (“quasi-Catholic”) Russia – “the Supreme Being, our Lord, the Blessed Virgin, Angels and Saints, heaven and hell, are as present as if they were objects of sight”. In contrast, he saw the national religion of England as one of “sentiment”, of assent to mere “notions”:
Objects are barely necessary to it. I do not say so of old Calvinism or Evangelical Religion; I do not call the religion of Leighton, Beveridge, Wesley, Thomas Scott, or Cecil a mere sentiment; nor do I so term the high Anglicanism of the present generation. But these are only denominations, parties, schools, compared with the national religion of England in its length and breadth.
What was this national religion? Newman continues:
“Bible Religion” is both the recognized title and the best description of English religion. It consists, not in rites or creeds, but mainly in having the Bible read in Church, in the family, and in private.
This was far from being entirely a bad thing, even if Newman is somewhat backhanded in the compliments he pays to it:
Now I am far indeed from undervaluing that mere knowledge of Scripture which is imparted to the population thus promiscuously. At least in England, it has to a certain point made up for great and grievous losses in its Christianity.
In short, this “Bible Religion” amounted to little more than “reading the Bible and living a correct life”, while sitting rather loose to the details of the doctrine professed by the Church:
It is not a religion of persons and things, of acts of faith and of direct devotion; but of sacred scenes and pious sentiments. It has been comparatively careless of creed and catechism; and has in consequence shown little sense of the need of consistency in the matter of its teaching.
Not that it was therefore entirely lacking in significant doctrinal content:
What Scripture especially illustrates from its first page to its last, is God’s Providence; and that is nearly the only doctrine held with a real assent by the mass of religious Englishmen. Hence the Bible is so great a solace and refuge to them in trouble. I repeat, I am not speaking of particular schools and parties in England, whether of the High Church or the Low, but of the mass of piously-minded and well-living people in all ranks of the community.
There seems to be no doubt that this “Bible Religion” of “the mass of piously-minded and well-living people in all ranks of the community” has now almost entirely disappeared from English life – though it has some parallels with the “moralistic therapeutic deism” that has been described as the prevailing religious belief system among American young people.
But the demise of “Bible Religion” as our prevailing social ideology may have led people to exaggerate the extent to which a more solidly grounded Christian faith has declined, whether that’s the heirs of “old Calvinism or Evangelical Religion”, the “high Anglicanism” of the 19th century Anglo-Catholic Revival, or the Catholic Church itself. Maybe a faith in “the Supreme Being, our Lord, the Blessed Virgin, Angels and Saints, heaven and hell, […] as if they were objects of sight” has always been a minority pursuit, as it remains today. It’s just more obvious today.
This isn’t to say that something significant and positive hasn’t been lost. As Newman puts it, the benefits of “Bible Religion” were not trivial, and nor is their loss:
The reiteration again and again, in fixed course in the public service, of the words of inspired teachers under both Covenants, and that in grave majestic English, has in matter of fact been to our people a vast benefit. It has attuned their minds to religious thoughts; it has given them a high moral standard; it has served them in associating religion with compositions which, even humanly considered, are among the most sublime and beautiful ever written; especially, it has impressed upon them the series of Divine Providences in behalf of man from his creation to his end, and, above all, the words, deeds, and sacred sufferings of Him in whom all the Providences of God centre.