Mr Keach came to mind this afternoon. The class at school read through the account of the passion of Jesus from Saint Mark’s Gospel. The text from the Bible was broken into parts for a narrator and the various characters who were there in Jerusalem on that Thursday evening and Friday. There was neither great seriousness in the reading nor great respect for the story. At one point, I stopped the reading and commented that this was something sacred for many people and asked that they at least treated it respectfully.
Irreligion is not new. JL Carr’s beautiful novella A Month in the Country is set in the post-Great War period. Mr Keach, the prickly vicar in the story knew it was not wise to be overly religious. He confronts Tom Birkin, the narrator of the story. It is the summer of 1920 and Birkin’s mind is filled with the hideous images of the Western Front, images that have driven out any last vestiges of traditional religion. But perhaps it was not just the Great War that destroyed the church in England, perhaps the English with a tradition of rationalism and free thought, had little time for traditional religion. Keach certainly thinks so:
The English are not a deeply religious people. Even many of those who attend divine service do so from habit. Their acceptance of the sacrament is perfunctory: I have yet to meet the man whose hair rose at the nape of his neck because he was about to taste the blood of his dying Lord. Even when they visit their church in large numbers, at Harvest Thanksgiving or the Christmas Midnight Mass, it is no more than a pagan salute to the passing seasons. They do not need me. I come in useful at baptisms, weddings, funerals. Chiefly funerals – they employ me as a removal contractor to see them safely flitted into their last house.’ He laughed bitterly.
‘But I am embarrassing you, Mr Birkin,’ he said. ‘You too have no need for me. You have come back from a place where you have seen things beyond belief, things which you cannot talk of yet can’t forget, but things which are at the heart of religion. Even so, when I have approached you during your stay here, you have agreed that it is very pleasant weather for this time of year, you have nodded your head and said that your work is progressing well and that you are quite comfortable in the loft. And you have hoped that I shall go away.’
Perhaps it was not such a bad thing to be a vicar in such circumstances. Tom Birkin had the good fortune to live in a country where he could discuss the weather and wait for the moment when the priest would move on. The English propensity not to be religious had created a society where people assumed freedom to make their own decisions; where clerical power was diminished by a general air of indifference to ecclesiastical authority.
Irreligion becomes a problem when it becomes a complete lack of respect for the religion of others. The English frequent incomprehension of news from Asia, Africa and even the United States stems from a tradition of irreligion stemming back to at least the Eighteenth Century.