Great Britain is a country often portrayed as becoming increasingly secular and distancing itself from organised religion.
The popular supposition is that most people no longer go to church, do not believe in God, and as a result are desperately searching for someone or something with whom to share their anxieties and innermost thoughts.
How else, it has been suggested, can the bizarre public outpourings of grief at the death of “celebrities” such as Diana, Princess of Wales and the reality TV personality Jade Goody be explained?
Why do the country’s highways and byways feature a growing number of flowered shrines in makeshift memorials to victims of motor accidents or savage murders?
The answer, we are asked to accept, is that people no longer have the Church to look to at times of grief or crisis.
But is this really the case? Is it not possible that the faith communities are already in the early stages of a stirring revival?
Birmingham, it should be noted, is playing a major part in this. John Sentamu, the city’s former Anglican bishop, has emerged as a major figure on the national and world stage in his new role as the Archbishop of York, while Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, will become the spiritual leader of more than four million Catholics in England and Wales when he is installed as Archbishop of Westminster next month.
The choice of the charismatic Archbishop Nichols is already proving to be inspirational and it is pleasing to note that he shows no sign of toning down what might be called a no-nonsense approach to defending the “high ideals” of the church’s teaching. Past campaigns against gay couples adopting children and in favour of faith schools are likely to be given fresh vigour, while the Archbishop has wasted no time in condemning plans to allow abortion services to be advertised on television and radio.
One of the benefits that he will bring to Westminster is a gift for straight talking combined with effective sound bites. The country, he declared, would not expect abortion to be advertised “alongside a packet of crisps”.
And addressing Catholic teaching that all sexual activity should be within marriage, a carefully phrased reply hints at pragmatism: “It is difficult and I think it is important that we don’t simply give up on that ideal but journey towards it as best we can.”
Finally, in a media-savvy way, the Archbishop insists he is neither conservative nor liberal, simply a Catholic. He will be badly missed in Birmingham, but rejoice that Vincent Nichols has been called to higher things.