Religion does a great many things in addition to teaching the rights and wrongs of moral behavior. Any religion worthy of the name is also a repository of spiritual insight, metaphysical speculation, consoling rituals, and communal identity. But a religious tradition that has given up on morality is well on its way to obsolescence.

We had occasion to ponder this truth recently when a friend sent us a story from the January 26 issue of The Sunday Times of London. Under the somewhat jocular title “Holy Moses! It’s the Nine Commandments say vicars,” the Times reported on the disturbing results of a random poll of some two hundred Anglican vicars. Only a third of those polled could remember all ten of the commandments; some could remember only two of the ten. And it is significant, we think, that the three proscriptions most frequently recalled had to do with property and sex: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house,” “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” God, apparently, does not much figure into the vicars’ meditations these days.

The Times noted that the poll results “have been interpreted as a sad indictment of the standards and attitudes of modern clergy.” We can see why. Canon Peter Goodridge from Cornwall informed readers of the Times that “the Ten Commandments are not terribly important for Christian living today. They do not answer the real moral problems affecting modern society.” Really? Leaving aside the question of what the good Canon understands as “the real moral problems affecting modern society,” we did wonder just what he meant by “Christian living.” A third of the vicars polled said they did not believe in the Virgin Birth; a fifth said they did not believe in the devil; one in ten said he did not believe in the Second Coming; one in twenty of those entrusted to inculcate the doctrines of the Church said he did not believe that Jesus performed miracles. At the same time there was widespread support for sex out of wedlock and homosexual behavior, both of which are forbidden by official church teaching. The Times did not, alas, report on how many vicars think that they are entitled to a living from a church whose central doctrines they disbelieve; more, perhaps, than believe in the divinity of Christ.

The Times made it clear that, whatever embarrassment they might have felt at having been caught out on the Ten Commandments, many vicars thought that they were championing important social freedoms that were more “relevant” to contemporary life than the moral teachings of the Bible. This, clearly, is a subject of immense complexity. But in essence, we think that G. K. Chesterton had it right: “Almost every contemporary proposal to bring freedom into the church,” he wrote, “is simply a proposal to bring tyranny into the world.” It used to be that clergymen could be counted on to understand this. No longer. According to the Rev. Geoffrey Shilock of Worcestershire, for example, the “trouble” with the Ten Commandments “is that they are very negative … most people prefer a more positive approach.” Now why didn’t Moses consider that when God first communicated the Ten Commandments? Come to think of it, the entire Bible is littered with what Rev. Shilock would no doubt abjure as a “negative approach,” beginning with the early chapters of Genesis. If only God hadn’t accentuated the negative by forbidding Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil!

There is also what we might call a New Age component to this latest symptom of religious disintegration. According to the Times, “two vicars said they did not even believe in heaven, yet more than half believe in life on other planets.” As generally happens when religious orthodoxy is under attack, what rushes in to fill the vacuum is something that makes far more rigorous demands on belief. The real alternative to faith, it seems, is not unbelief but some unseemly form of credulousness.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 7, on page 2
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