I’m not religious, but I dread a future where our churches are gone and St Paul’s is a Wetherspoons


Reading our front page on Tuesday morning, Philip Larkin would have been horrified. Back in 1955, he finished writing one of his greatest poems, Church Going – in which he explained why, despite being a firm non-believer, he feared a future in which churches “fall completely out of use”. To him, religion was nothing more than a “vast, moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die”. Yet, on Saturday afternoons, when he could rely on them to be empty, he often visited churches, because it “pleases me to stand in silence” in a “serious house on serious earth”. As he did so, however, he would glumly wonder who “will be the last, the very last, to seek / This place for what it was…”

He didn’t live to find out. But I have an uneasy feeling that I might. Seventy years ago, when Larkin started drafting that poem, weekly attendance in the Church of England stood at a healthy three million. By 2019, the last year before the pandemic, the figure had plummeted to 850,000. In that light, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by our story from Tuesday that, in England, more than 400 churches have closed in less than a decade. But even if we aren’t surprised, I think we should be worried. And when I say we, I don’t just mean the religious among us. I mean the non-religious, too.

I’m non-religious. I prefer to put it like that because in the past couple of decades the word “atheist” has gained some unhappy connotations. In the wake of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, atheism seems almost to have become a religion itself, and not a very pleasant one. So many of its followers behave like missionaries, preaching their dogma, hectoring heretics and endlessly questing for converts to their creed.

But, even though I have no faith myself, I am able to see the good that faith can do – and also to see what can go wrong in its absence. The world of 21st-century political activism, for example, teems with people who, though not religious in practice, are certainly religious in temperament. They seem to have an innate need for a messiah to acclaim, and unbelievers to denounce. Anyone who has encountered Corbynistas on social media, or at one of their many exultant rallies between 2015 and 2019, will know exactly what I mean.

In any case, as Larkin suggests, you don’t have to be Christian to appreciate the beauty of churches. When I say beauty, I don’t just mean visually, although they invariably are magnificent buildings. There’s also beauty in what they represent.

Last month, I went to our local church to watch my son sing at his school’s annual Christingle service. It was a wonderful occasion. But an observer from out of town would have noticed something striking about it. Something like a quarter of the children present were Sikh.

For more than 50 years, Gravesend, the town where we live, has had a sizeable Sikh population. Naturally, these children and their parents wouldn’t normally attend a CofE service. Yet every Christmas, they come and join in the singing of hymns and carols – just as I did. And it was lovely: the feeling of unity and community it created. Even if we didn’t all believe every word we were singing, we could feel as much joy as those who did.

My son and his class have occasionally been taken on day trips to the church, to learn about it. At a parent-teacher evening in Year Two, I got to see a report my son had written about his experiences. “I went to St George church,” he wrote. “Reverend Jim showed us the vestry. I saw the special cassok and stole. I lernt that the candle is a symbell of Gods light.”

I loved that. Of course, it may be that my son wrote this purely out of scholarly duty, because it was what he’d been told. Or it may be that he genuinely believed every word. I won’t pretend that the two of us engage in much theological discussion. But either way, it’s fine by me. If he does believe in God, I have done nothing to disabuse him. He can make up his own mind.

Even if he turns out to be as drably unspiritual as I am, however, I hope that in his lifetime the dwindling of our churches can somehow be arrested. I don’t want to picture him living in some nightmare future Britain where all the churches are boarded up, the stained glass windows are broken, and St Paul’s has been converted into a branch of Wetherspoons.

Still, there is room for hope. Gloomy though Larkin was, I think he would tell us to have faith – and to believe, as he did, that our churches will always hold a mysterious and irresistible pull. A pull that can draw even a godless cynic “to this ground, / Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in, / If only that so many dead lie round.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

7 + 1 =