Today marks the ninetieth anniversary of the Act of Parliament that allowed sports to be played in England on a Sunday. The legislation was one of the moves away from the Sabbatarian spirit that had shaped English laws. Ninety years later, the legacy of that spirit still lingers in the restrictions on the Sunday opening hours of shops.
Perhaps the laws were meant to help make people religious, if so they failed entirely. (Oddly, Ireland has never had such restrictions and remains one of the more religious countries in Europe, people did not need to be barred from shopping to make them attend Mass). Perhaps any piece of legislation that restricted people’s freedom was more likely to inspire resentment than reverence. Perhaps the English were too far gone from religion to be prompted to go to church because there was little else to do.
The words of Mr Keach come to mind when hearing of such anniversaries. Mr Keach is the prickly vicar in JL Carr’s beautiful novella A Month in the Country. The story is set in the post-Great War period. Mr Keach knows it was not wise to be overly religious when 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.’
Mr Keach might almost have been relieved when Parliament allowed people to attend sport on a Sunday.