Cole Moreton used to be on fire for Jesus. Not any more. As the embers of his former faith die out, Moreton shivers with distaste and no little anger at the arrogant certainties of his previous, evangelical self. But, like so many who have escaped the long arm of the Lord, Moreton is "haunted by the memory of religion". Traumatised by the loss of a friend, Moreton embarks on a search for England's true soul. Over a 30-year period, beginning with the marriage of Princess Diana, Moreton picks apart the decline and fall of the Church of England with a marksman-like precision born of his years reporting for the Church Times and then, until recently, for this paper.
Moreton plots a nation's exodus from the pews of "Establishment England" and its march towards the ad hoc folk faith of "People's England". We were abetted, he argues, by Thatcher's free market and our gradual embrace of multiculturalism, along with some spectacular own goals by the Church and its Royal figureheads. The in-fighting over the ordination of women and gay priests, for example, or the pitiful way in which the C of E lost its fortune, exemplify the small-mindedness and hypocrisy that turned a people away from the "English God". This God, whose high-handed superiority fuelled an Empire, is dead and never coming back.
The main argument is interspersed with fragments (though too few) of Moreton's own story. He admits – disarmingly – that his adolescent descent into Christianity was born of insecurity and social isolation. He is as dispassionate in documenting his own readiness to be lead by anyone who offered answers, as he is in drily undermining the pomp of Church and state. Moreton concludes, rightly, that England (and Britain) has diversified, culturally and ethnically, to a point at which the idea of a national church claiming to represent every man and woman is both preposterous and offensive.
Instead, he posits a faith landscape altogether more appropriate to how we are today. Away from the dogma of Temple, Mosque and Church, England's dominant faith – and he has the numbers to prove it – is now a folksy blend of sentimental emotion and ecology-driven pantheism. There is no church; we're making it up for ourselves and it's no one's business but our own.
There are flaws. Moreton is so generous in his treatment of the Charismatic Movement that he begins to sound like an apologist for demon-hunting. He coyly declines to give the name of the American youth missionary organisation to which he belonged at one stage, whose use of coercive persuasion he genially euphemises as "heavy shepherding" before moving swiftly on. Moreton pulls no such punches with pop atheist Richard Dawkins, who is dismissed as an "extremist". Apparently without irony, Moreton rebukes the Darwinist for blinding a naive young Christian with reason. He is on firmer ground with Chris Brain, the priapic megalomaniac behind evangelical group the Nine O'Clock Service. "It was a cult," Moreton asserts. The implication is that other, less hands-on abuses of the easily-led are not. Moreton does admit that the failure of the moderate Church of England has left the market-place open to more extreme forms of faith. But one feels he doesn't go quite far enough.
Still, a book that raises more questions than it answers is probably the most healthy way to talk about faith in the 21st century. The Cole Moreton revealed in Is God Still an Englishman? is intelligent, vulnerable, modest and philanthropic: an immensely likeable commentator on matters spiritual and the sort of chap who would have made a good vicar. It's a shame that organised Christianity turned out to be too hypocritical for its true believers. But Moreton's persuasive portrayal of what it – and we – evolved into should be required reading for every English man and woman – whatever their creed or colour.
Richard Lewis's 'The Magic Spring: My Year Learning to be English' is published by Atlantic at £8.99Reuse content