Paignton is a pleasant seaside town in Devon, in the western part of England. Its wide, sandy beaches are packed in summer, and most of its 1930s houses offer bed-and-breakfast or are rented out as holiday apartments. There are boat trips across the bay to Brixham, where William of Orange landed in 1689 a statue commemorates the event, bearing his words: “The liberties of England and the Protestant religion I will uphold.” There are steam trains to Dartmouth, where one can eat a traditional cream tea, potter round the little shops, and see the Britannia Royal Naval College.
The local authority for the district—Torbay Borough Council—is housed in a magnificent 19th-century mansion built by the Singer family with the profits from their sewing machines. In a small museum on the ground floor, solemn children in dark stockings and starched pinafores gaze out from old photographs of the vanished fishing village that preceded today’s popular resort—boys who will be slaughtered in the Great War; girls who will survive as old maids in the Britain of the 1960s.
Torbay is Conservative-controlled. The responsibilities of the borough focus on the tourist attractions of the area: wide beaches to be cleaned daily, formal gardens tended, lawns cut, sewage outlets controlled, floral displays placed everywhere. And divorce encouraged.
Divorce? Yes. A shiny brochure (“FREE: Please take one!”) available in the foyer celebrates the joy and delight of second marriages. “You can get a divorce within three months if you both agree and have no particular issues to sort out, like access to children, financial matters or who’s going to keep the dog . . . . There’s also something to be said for living your life a bit before you settle down. How many people marry young, become tied down with kids and money worries, then moan about not having had any life?”
Torbay is also keen to promote alternatives to Christian baptism: Another brochure enthuses, “A Naming Ceremony is, in every sense, a very special and unique occasion for everyone to feel involved and to offer their support in your child’s future development.”
If all this sounds gruesome (and I won’t even go into details of the commitment ceremony that is also offered: “a meaningful and dignified ceremony for adult couples . . . to make a public declaration of commitment, love and dedication between two people . . . . A unique event that you and your guests will remember”), and if you are wondering why on earth a Conservative-run local district in the most picturesque corner of England should be busy with such things, the key lies in the small print:
The fee for a naming ceremony is £150 (around $300). Naming ceremonies can be held at Oldway Mansion (Monday through Saturday and Sunday during the summer months) or at any of the approved premises in Torbay.
Back in the days of the Soviet Union, alternatives to Christian sacraments were heavily promoted by the Communist authorities because they wanted to undermine and destroy the last vestiges of Christian belief. They succeeded, to some extent. Two or three generations of brides dutifully posed with their wedding bouquets at Soviet monuments, visited the tomb of Lenin with their bridegrooms, and, when they had children, received “Heroic Mothers of the Soviet Union” medals from officials at party headquarters.
People need rituals. They need ceremonies that impart meaning to what they instinctively know are the real events of life—birth and marriage and death. In the early years of Bolshevik power, marriage was discouraged as being bourgeois. When the resulting social chaos threatened to pose a real danger, civil ceremonies were introduced and were initially kept strictly formal, with papers to sign and statements to be read. But party officials realized the value of ritual as propaganda: Soon matrimony was a way of glorifying the Soviet Army, bridal bouquets were left on the steps of war memorials, childbirth became a way of producing new Communists, and emergence into adulthood was celebrated with various stages of initiation through the Young Pioneers and the Communist Youth League.
Some of it stuck, too. While church weddings and baptisms have been on the upturn ever since the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union, and young people continue to turn to Christianity in noticeable numbers, the atheist/agnostic mindset has lodged firmly in the minds of many of the older generation. And rituals that once seemed bleak and stylistic can acquire a patina over the years: Communist East Germany offered a teenage affirmation ceremony partly designed as an alternative to Christian confirmation. Since the ceremony’s abolition with the destruction of the Berlin Wall, people have felt a loss, and there have been calls for its revival.
What of Torbay? The motive is mostly money: I don’t think the good officials in their offices in the Singer palatial home particularly want to see the abolition of Christianity. Many likely had church weddings themselves. They would probably argue that they are merely offering a useful service, and that it’s all about choice. “In Torbay we take pride in making sure that every couple choosing to marry here receives individual and professional attention . . . a choice of wonderful locations . . . opportunity to enhance their ceremony with appropriate readings and/or musical interludes.”
But there is an inevitable ideological slant nonetheless: “Being a civil ceremony, these enhancements should not include any religious element.” There is a strong conviction—not actually born out of any constitutional requirement—that official structures must be specifically distanced from religion. The local newspaper recently highlighted the case of a hostel in the district that is run by a Christian charity for people with social and psychological problems. Because it receives a grant from the local authority, the hostel was informed that it could no longer have prayer services on its premises. The distress of staff and residents was finally assuaged by an agreement that an adjoining house could be used.
Britain has no official separation of church and state. We are ruled, officially, by a monarch crowned and anointed in a Christian ceremony, albeit one of a particular brand of Christianity created by the Act of Settlement (“The liberties of England and the Protestant Religion I will uphold”). Our Parliament starts every day with Christian prayers; New Testaments are provided in every courtroom for the taking of oaths—though the sacred books of other religions have also by long tradition been provided—and schools are, theoretically, compelled by law to have regular acts of worship and the inclusion of Christianity in the curriculum.
The dilemma lies in the fact that no one is compelling Torbay to promote ceremonies specially designed to exclude Christianity and to ape Christian sacraments. No one is currently banning church weddings in Britain or campaigning to make it illegal for parents to have their children baptized. This is no Soviet-style atheism imposed on an unwilling populace and backed up by the forces of a police state. This is consumerism, pure and simple.
Torbay is a picture of modern Britain: exquisite countryside, enchanting old buildings, a sense of history and tradition—all requiring considerable funding to maintain in the right way and, at the same time, all offering immense commercial possibilities. No one wants to return to the half-remembered days of the 1950s when, after two world wars and a depression, a once-grand mansion would typically be kept by a local authority in dreary shabbiness with no funds for adequate repairs and a general sense of faded glory.
Today, Torbay sparkles. Restaurants sell food of a variety and splendor unthinkable in the recent past. Entertainments of all sorts flourish. The dark-stockinged children of yesteryear are no longer even a memory, and the more recent images of the 1950s—sandwiches on the beach with dads dressed in fading khaki shorts from wartime—are fading too.
There should be no reason to feel depressed, I tell myself. This is the English Riviera, and it is extraordinarily beautiful. Devon has a quality all its own. In the old (Anglican) church in Dartmouth there is a rood screen dating back to the 15th century. It survived destruction under Elizabeth and again under Cromwell. The Old Faith that it represents and served is still alive despite four centuries of persecution and the depredations of the modern era.
William of Orange, whose reign saw the initiation of a fresh wave of persecution of Catholics, is no more than a folk memory now. Someday people will grin and shrug at the notion of a public authority offering naming ceremonies to gain money, supported by a populace sufficiently distanced from Christianity and unfazed by such absurdities. But in the meantime, I’m saddened. History offers no evidence of a godless consumerist society ever surviving. We must work for what comes next.