This is an excerpt from an interview by Cole Morton with Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, in which the latter comments thoughtfully and carefully on the discussion about the question of whether Britain is a “Christian Nation.”
Rowan Williams’ observations challenge current Christians to continue to engage with the world around, to keep the stories of faith and experiences of spirituality alive for those who would not otherwise encounter them.
He ponders this for a moment, head on one side, eyes on the garden. The sound of the traffic presses in, before he speaks. “If I say that this is a post-Christian nation, that doesn’t mean necessarily non-Christian. It means the cultural memory is still quite strongly Christian. And in some ways, the cultural presence is still quite strongly Christian. But it is post-Christian in the sense that habitual practice for most of the population is not taken for granted.
“You need to pick your way quite carefully here,” says a man accustomed to doing so. “A Christian nation can sound like a nation of committed believers, and we are not that. Equally, we are not a nation of dedicated secularists. I think we’re a lot less secular than the most optimistic members of the British Humanist Association would think.”
Think of all those flowers you see at the site of road accidents, he says. “They are one of the most interesting modern sacramentals that has developed. I said a few years ago that we were haunted by Christianity, and that is still where I would stand.”
Surely the word “haunted” implies something that is dead? “Ah. That is not at all the implication I would want to go with. If I were to say, ‘That’s a haunting melody’, I don’t necessarily mean it is dead. I mean it hangs around, persistently.”
So are we a Christian nation or not? Yes or no? “A Christian country as a nation of believers? No. A Christian country in the sense of still being very much saturated by this vision of the world and shaped by it? Yes.”
Will we lose our faith altogether in time? “Given that we have a younger generation now who know less about this legacy than people under 45, there may be a further shrinkage of awareness and commitment.”
Beyond that, he is hopeful. “The other side is that people then rediscover Christianity with a certain freshness, because it’s not ‘the boring old stuff that we learnt at school and have come to despise’. I see signs of that, talking to youngsters here at Magdalene and in school visits. There is a curiosity about Christianity.”
He remembers the delight of primary-school pupils when he told them the story of the Prodigal Son, which they had never heard. “There is a real possibility of people engaging freshly and hearing things as if for the first time.”