Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. And as a critic I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended. Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Heart and Soul of England

Some time ago my father posited the concept of the relationship between pub and church as embodying 'the Heart and Soul of England' (I forget exactly how long ago, but given the rate at which time now passes it might be as long as 30 years!) with the pub being the 'heart' of this country, and the church its 'soul'.

We would occasionally revisit the topic and sometimes even consider the 'expanded universe', so a butchers shop would perhaps be 'the Loin of England' and the great universities the Brain, but the core of the idea - and indeed the core of any traditional English village - was very much Heart and Soul; Pub and Church. Perhaps located tangentally across the road from one another, inextricably linked through generations of the worshipful and the thirsty.

Both instutitions are of course in long-term decline and indeed seen to be in long-term decline, though perhaps latterly through a lens that magnifies the actual crisis level.

To be clear, what we're talking about here is specifically 'traditional' or 'proper' pubs and Anglican churches, rather than the loose-blanket categories of 'somewhere you can get a drink' and 'places of worship'. So while the micropub and the megachurch may buck the overall trend of decline in beer consumption and belief in God and could even be hailed as minor success stories, they have not arrested the overall slide, and even if they did so, it would never be a like-for-like comparison.

Thus, the taproom of a modern urban craft brewery that only opens a couple of days a week might be a great place to drink the latest Cryo-hopped Thiolized Imperial Saison, but the opening of such an outlet is of scant consequence to the residents of a small village that just lost its last pub. And, equally, if St Barnabus is now only used for occasional worship because the parish has been merged with St Crispin's three miles away, the fact that an African Pentecostal church now uses their hall for services isn't going to compensate much. 'Tings dain't same!

But it's not just pubs and churches that have been in a seemingly irreversible downward spiral - it's also the relationship between the two, and I'd argue that this bond gave both institutions an additional strength and sense of relevance that is now lacking.

Empty Pews; Empty Selves

So what are the actual (OK, approximate) numbers and how serious is the consequent decline? 

Well, if we start with the good ol' Church of England, formal church redundancies are in the region of 20 a year or thereabouts, which isn't a huge deal when there are still 15,000 or so churches still in use. Individual losses may be felt in the parishes and communities they serve, but generally only happen when congregations have dwindled down to close to single figures. And even then outright closure and sale or demolition is never a given. The number of 'alternative' options springing up - both other Christian sects and indeed places of worship for other faiths entirely - may even be greater than the number of CofE churches that are lost. 

Disused Heart
But if you care more about the Heart than the Soul, the news is less encouraging. Something like 500 pubs in England are closing every year, the vast majority of them of the kind we'd consider to be 'traditional boozers', and there definitely aren't enough alternative drinking options opening up to compensate for this. Rural areas are particularly hard hit: a village without a single pub would once have been an oddity but is now entirely normal.

I'm not in the business of picking sides - I like my communities to have both pub and church, preferably sterling examples of both - but pubs would seem to have it particularly rough. Even struggling churches tend to get a reasonable amount of help and support from neighbouring parishes and at a Diocesan level. By sharing resources they can sustain smaller congregations than in the past, whereas pubs really need customers coming through the doors at a certain level to survive. 

A lot of anti-Church criticism focuses on the fact that they own a lot of property and valuable land, and this is true - but they're not known for avariciously cashing in on it at every opportunity. Asset hoarders they may be, but I'd consider that a relatively minor offence. On the other hand, breweries and PubCos are rarely charitable when a pub is losing them money. And if a private owner is facing personal losses the decision to shut up shop and cash the fuck in is even more understandable.


Strike up, O Harp

But I think there is something deeper to consider - that the relationship between church and pub is probably weaker than it has been since the Reformation, and this particularly hurts the pub trade. It's very easy to succumb to nostalgic longing for a time and place that no longer exists and whose memory may have been tinted with concentrated rose. But that doesn't mean that the 'better times' didn't happen at all. 

Disused Soul
When I was a child, 35-40 years ago, it was more 'normal' to attend church, and even if not doing so religiously, to be loosely associated with the surrounding community, through being a chorister or bellringer or simply a friend or relative of someone who was. And it was just as normal for this expanded community of people to be known to one another because the other thing they all had in common was that they went to the pub. 

Singers would adjourn to the local after choir practice where they might see someone they knew vaguely as the brother of one of the sidespeople. Someone would pop in on their way home from work on a Tuesday because they knew that was the bellringers practice night and they needed to have a word with Rob about something or other. And so on.

That was just real life - and this wasn't some tiny village somewhere. It was South London. An area that doesn't really have that sort of Pub/Church-based sense of localised belonging any more, because people have stopped doing both. And this behavioural shift has happened within my lifetime.

You can't force a 'lifestyle' onto someone. If somebody likes to drink at home, or go to Homebase on Sunday morning, or be teetotal, or worship at a mosque, that's their business. And I know there are plenty of Militant Atheist types who will celebrate the decline of the established church while mourning the loss of pubs, essentially rejecting the necessity of any connection between the two. (And indeed those of a persuasion entirely opposite to this whose preferred flavour of religiosity actively rejects 'the demon drink'.)

But for me there will always be a special relationship between pub and church. That will always be 'my' England. And the thought of it fading into a distant memory is one that fills me with sorrow.

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