As the United Kingdom has secularised, so the role of Christian ministers has diminished. If you read stories of natural crises from fifty years ago, priests and Anglican vicars are often involved. At the 1966 disaster at Aberfan in Wales, when a heap of spoil from a coal mine engulfed a school, the local vicar was practically the only person regarded as having responsibility for the emotional and spiritual trauma suffered by the people of the town. One of the most memorable images from the “troubles” of Northern Ireland is of a Catholic priest waving a white handkerchief, escorting a group of people carrying an injured man to safety, on “Bloody Sunday” in 1972. Times, sadly, have changed.
As the role of the Church has diminished, so have priests’ opportunities to make a positive difference. Last week a prominent Catholic Member of Parliament, David Amess, was stabbed by (apparently) an Islamist fanatic. As he lay dying, a Catholic priest was refused admission through the police cordon to give him the Last Rites. The priest seemed to accept the explanation: Amess, surrounded as he was by police officers and medics, was in a “crime scene” which couldn’t be disturbed by anyone as trivial as a priest.