There were no rosy prospects regarding the future of the church in the Year 11 lesson on Christianity in modern Britain. The textbook presented statistics from the 2011 census outlining the decline of Christianity and the rise in the number declaring themselves to be of “no religion.” The percentage identifying as Christian had fallen to 59% whilst those who had no religion had risen to 25%, or more than fourteen million people. The trend since 2011 has seen a continuing decline of adherence to the faith and the demographic profile of those belonging to the church is that of an ageing population.
Talking to the class about the continuing role of the church, its place in communities, its contribution in the realm of education, its part in the constitution of the country, left the students unimpressed. The culture of the students and the culture of the church were so far apart that they could perceive no relevance.
Perhaps the problem with the church in England is that there is a lack of local connections, a shortage of saints with the local traditions that developed around them. In rural Ireland, there seemed hardly a town or a village that did not have an association with a local saint.
Irish saints were different from those of Bible times. Christianity arrived in Ireland without bloodshed; there was none of the “red” martyrdom that marked the early Christian centuries. When the Irish monks sought ways to witness to their faith, there was the “green” martyrdom of those who went to live severely ascetic lives, subjecting themselves to harsh physical conditions and spending their time in prayer and reciting Scripture. For the course of European history, more important than the green martyrdom was the “white” martyrdom, the monks who left behind everything to head towards the white sky of the morning, to head from familiar fields into the unknown dangers of Europe in the Dark Ages. The white martyrdom of those monks perhaps had the most profound and long lasting impact.
Perhaps it is was the rootedness of the monks in the lives of small communities that gave them their enduring appeal, to be able to stand in the same spots as they stood and to hear their tales gives faith a local connection – even if that faith has as much by way of ancient paganism as it has of anything Christian.
There would once have been such traditions in England, there would have been green and white martyrs, but Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Protestantism and Eighteenth Century rationalism slowly erased such customs. Now, a church, with a declining national profile and one which lacks affection in local culture, that is struggling to survive could do with a few local saints.