Atheist Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins: the Archetypal Anglican

Dwight Longenecker

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As a former Anglican priest and dedicated Anglophile, I have observed with great interest, Atheist Richard Dawkins’ recent profession of faith. Getting spooked by the increasingly aggressive Islamization of Britain, Dawkins has registered as a “cultural Christian”. He denies any hint of actual belief in the Christian faith, but he prefers to live in a country that supports a Christian cultural heritage.

In other words he is fond of Evensong in a country church, Carols from Kings College Cambridge, the towers of an ancient catherdral punctuating the horizon, and maybe even the heart warming sight of the vicar cycling home from church — complete with bicycle clips and his cassock tucked into his belt. All very charming…and is there honey still for tea?

I share his nostalgia for a Christian and Anglican England. Enchanted by a similar pipe dream I went to Oxford to study theology in my early twenties in order to be ordained as an Anglican priest. I dreamed of a country vicarage, an ancient church smelling of incense, musty hymnbooks and wilted flowers. I wanted to be like the seventeenth century poet George Herbert — who gave up everything and retired to a country parsonage to help the poor, meditate on God and write sparkling poetry that evidenced God in the beauty of rural England.

The charm of Anglicanism and the blend of the mellow English countryside, English literature, and the history and pagaentry of England had me firmly in its grip. Eventually my dream came true. I ended up as the vicar of two ancient churches on the Isle of Wight, lived in a rambling old vicarage and enjoyed all the delights of Anglicanism. I tell how this all came about (and my eventual return to the USA to become a Catholic priest) in There and Back Again- A Somewhat Religious Odyssey.

So, I share Dawkins’ love of a Christian culture in England. I’m glad he recognizes that what made Great Britain great is two thousand years of Christianity — for the historians now tell us that Christianity in Britain dates not to the sixth century mission of Saint Augustine to Canterbury, but to the time of the Roman occupation of Britain in the second century.

Dawkins’ nostalgia for a Christian culture in England actually sums up the reality of Anglicanism: that Christianity in Britain now consists of not much more than the Miss Marple manners of middle class England. In fact Dawkins’ vague fond-ness for a national church infused with Englishness is the soul of Anglicanism. Thomas Merton summed it up in his autobiography The Seven Story Mountain:

The Church of England depends, for its existence, almost entirely on the solidarity and conservatism of the English ruling class. Its strength is not in anything supernatural, but in the strong social and racial instincts which bind the members of this caste together; and the English cling to their Church the way they cling to their King and to their old schools: because of a big, vague, sweet complex of subjective dispositions regarding the English countryside, old castles and cottages, games of cricket in the long summer afternoons, tea parties on the Thames, croquet, roast beef, pipe smoking, the Christmas panto, Punch and the London Times and all those other things the mere thought of which produces a kind of a warm and inexpressible ache in the English heart.

The obvious question is, “Can this gingerbread cathedral of a church with its candy cane croziers and sugar plum vicars withstand the blood and guts, thunder and lightning religion of Islam?” Dawkins feels threatened and so he should. From its beginning Islam has been a militaristic ideology whose conquest has always been through the force of arms not the arms of charitable embrace. If you have any doubt do some reading on slavery in Islam. Can Oxford Anglicanism punting on the Isis stand up to ISIS? I think not.

In 1995 I and my family said farewell to all that and left the comfortable Church of England to be received into the Catholic Church. The years since have not been easy. I liked the Anglican church. They had the nice people, the grand buildings, the beautiful music and the best sherry parties. Soon after we entered the Catholic Church an Anglican friend asked, “Well, now you’re a Catholic do you like the Catholic Church?” I answered “No. If I were joining a church I liked I’d still be an Anglican. I joined the Catholic church because its true — not because I like it.” Indeed there is still much that I dislike in the Catholic Church, but what I have come to respect and admire about Catholicism is that everything is NOT to my liking.

Rather than being an exercise in nostalgia and the charm of Anglophilia, the Catholic Church is gutsy and real. The reality of humanity — with all our glory and grit is there. History has shown if there is any religion that can withstand the sword of Islam it is Catholicism. There is something concrete and solid about it — as if it were founded on a rock — not on cotton candy.

For it to do so Catholics will need to sidestep the allure of mere cultural Christianity. Dawkin’s shallow attraction to a “Christian culture” will melt in the oncoming heat. Declaring oneself to be a “cultural Christian” — a non-believing Christian is a form of hypocrisy and cowardice akin to a person claiming to be a vegetarian while eating in a steakhouse.

Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic priest serving in South Carlolina. Read his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com

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Dwight Longenecker

Catholic priest, author and speaker. Read his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com