The oblivion of the CofE

A.N. Wilson, author of 'Unguarded Hours' and a book on the Turin Shroud, wrote a piece in today's Daily Telegraph that examined the current situation of the Church of England as increasingly a fringe part of English society. He raises some important issues and I thought I might add my own pennyworth to what is a very important debate which hasn't really got any traction yet.

Firstly let me put my cards on the table. I am a former Anglican clergyman, now a Roman Catholic. Members of my immediate family are practising Anglicans, and I number Anglican clergy, both male and female, among my friends. Being 51 I remember the time when being an Anglican was normal, indeed quite central to English society. I also recall the pretty rapid extermination of anything even remotely Christian from that centre ground during the 1990s through to the present. As an iconographer I constantly come across the Anglican community while fulfilling commissions, holding exhibitions and running courses. So, the Anglican world is one I know, and that matters to me even if now in a more detached way than when I was a teenage and young adult.

Wilson's analysis boils down to changing sexual mores and an inability for contemporary people to believe in the core beliefs of Christianity: virgin birth, resurrection etc. I think he is onto something here, though not perhaps quite as he presents it.

Certainly attitudes to relationships have unravelled confidence in the Christian vision of life. First it was perhaps divorce that cracked the Anglican Church's perceived adherence to ancient Christian beliefs. It was parodied as old fashioned, heartless, rule bound, indifferent to the realities of the contemporary world and the lives real people were leading. Divorce was a fact of life and the Church had to 'get real' and embrace it. It did, but found itself under a deluge of social permissiveness on every aspect of its moral map. Sex outside of marriage, adultery within it, cohabitation, baptism of children born out of wedlock all rapidly become normal, mainstream and central in the life of very ordinary English people. The centre of English life had changed. The question was, would the Church of England.

Its answer was to squirm. It sort of accepted divorced people and their remarriage, but in a begrudging sort of concession. It sort of embraced the change but at the same time still clung to its Puritan inclination to lecture and to condemn. But as time passed even the clergy were allowed to be divorced, and then remarried, even bishops, which left it open to the suspicion of some sort of hypocrisy. For example, cohabitation isn't acceptable still among the clergy, but I remember one friend of mine in the late 80's being accepted for theological college (clergy training college) while living with his girlfriend on the condition that they got married. It left the impression that it didn't really see it as a serious moral issue, but that appearances had to be kept up. And the impact of that was to propel two young people, one of whom hadn't at that time been baptised, into a short lived marriage that eventually was torn up by being annulled.

All sorts of permissiveness wove its way into the mainstream of English life, and the Church of England tried to embrace it, while at the same time holding its nose.

The latest element to this farce has been over homosexuality, with the Church in convulsions over whether or not some or all or nothing of homosexual relationships has a place within it. No one knows what the Church of England thinks about this, for while it not only lacks a Vatican like oracle to make and declare the Anglican communion's position on this but at every level in every diocese around the world its is teaching every possible opinion as revealed Church truth, from extermination of a wretched vice to a beautiful relationship to be understood just like the sacrament of heterosexual matrimony. Quite simply the Church of England and its Communion haven't a clue, but still wants to lecture and pronounce and take on all the trappings of leadership.

This simply doesn't ring true, and leaves it open to the accusation that it is a hollow sham, clinging to its last vestiges of privilege and power for its own sake and having nothing of conviction left to say or do. Sadly, Archbishop Rowan Williams, a man of deep faith and prayer, ended up being the ultimate confused and befuddling Anglican cleric, with meaning gobbled up in fine sounding phrases and much hand wringing and seeking some nice middle way to enable these confusions to be covered up. After a great welcome by the British establishment, including coverage of some of his speeches on the front page of the Times, the essential vacuum of meaning in contemporary Anglicanism subsumed him in irrelevance  and a man of great talent was lost to mediocrity.

Given its inability to shed any light on the moral development of a society in the grip of radical social change its not surprising that people take it less and less seriously, to the point of considering it a joke. As this began to bite in the mid 1990s you saw a marked disappearance of clergy from the media. Once the local priest was a decent bit part in East Enders, while at the other end of the spectrum, a bishop was always to be found on Question Time and other such programmes. Now they are completely absent. They only time there was a blip was during the riots in the summer of 2012. Archbishop Setamu was invited onto the QT panel, but left the impression of a self-important blatherer, waffling on about using cricket bats in self defence or some such irrelevance, while others, such as the former deputy police commissioner Brian Paddick, made insightful comments that showed a depth of understanding and a dose of humility. Like Archbishop Donald Coggan's 'call to the nation' at the end of the 1970s it simply showed how the Anglican hierarchy in England assumed a posture that was totally out of touch with how people perceived them and their authority, which in turn simply undermined their position even more and left people turning off completely.

Given the Church of England's inability to know what on earth to make of the real issues in people's lives, and to articulate Jesus' love for them in that context, it became more and more obsessed with peripheral issues of little or no importance to that central message. The debacle over women's ordination, which has seen over 500 clergy leave their posts over the past 25 yrs, has not only consumed masses of energy and financial resources in debate after debate as the protagonists sought to impose their views onto a sceptical Church, but took it down a route that totally refashioned its culture as one wedded to that centre ground of relativistic humanism. What brought this home to me was the recent literal weeping and gnashing of teeth when the General Synod failed to vote to allow women to be bishops. Really it seemed the world had ended and what credibility the CofE had left had been shredded. Even the Prime Minister said so, so it had it be true.

Yet, earlier that year the Daily Mail reported that half of English children thought Easter, that central core event in Christian history and faith, was actually about the birth of... the Easter bunny! This catastrophic development didn't elicit one single tear from all those women clergy, let alone all those male supporters. There would never be more than a handful of women bishops, because there are only a handful of male ones...but half the children of England are affected and not a bleat of concern. And those tears and wailings showed just where the good old CofE had its heart, what really mattered most...This is what having women clergy has ingrained as the priority for the contemporary Anglican.

Such self-obsession while the spiritual house of faith has been burning to the ground has succeeded in tying the CofE to the mast of irrelevancy. It doesn't talk about Jesus, faith, salvation, hope, etc. Rather it talks about who can get in on the clergy gravy train, or about Wonga, of some concern perhaps but hardly at the cutting edge of the Gospel and people's actual lives. It has become submerged into a froth of issues while its doctrinal bearings have been totally obscured. The wobbling over doctrine which took hold in the 1970s crashed the credibility of the CofE on the faith front, and in the 80's issues were the fig leaf trying to cover its essential nakedness. A church without a coherent dogma is a church irrelevant to itself, let alone the rest of society. That should be obvious enough. If it doesn't understand itself how on earth can it have the cheek to lecture the rest of us on how we should behave?

No amount of fancy initiative can mask this fundamental crack below the Anglican waterline. This is particularly relevant in considering Archbishop Carey's commitment to the Alpha course and its ilk. Despite two decades of Alpha courses sweeping the country, and a take over of the CofE by Evangelical clergy, the decline has not taken a breath. Carey's solution has been tried to exhaustion point and its made not one jot of difference. Or perhaps it has, and the decline would otherwise have been total wipeout?

Which ever way you look at it, the CofE no longer appeals to the central mass of English people, for whom it ceased to have any internal coherence decades ago. Now that central mass is raising its children not only totally ignorant of Christian faith, but contemptuous of it. This is in part because of the  internal incoherence, but also in comparison to what religion looks like more broadly. The UK now is very much a multi-faith environment, and the international scene is dominated by Islam, which seems highly motivated and for all its followers to know exactly what it believes (I would stress seems to here as in fact there are many, many different versions of Islam being held by British Muslims but all with absolute conviction). While Anglicans apologise for believing anything the Muslim community seems filled with hyper-convinced adherents, able to command not just suicide bombers to its cause but also to gather in the young while in prison, especially those who are Black or Asian, people notably not seen as the centre ground of contemporary England. As a fringe religious force Anglicanism seems weak, lost and pathetic.

But surely the CofE, having shed the old fashioned Anglo-Catholic traditionalists, is now facing a bright future as it is free to embrace the liberal interpretation of the Creed which so many in its leadership have argued for and provide a nice united front? Well at least it would stand for something clear and definite, like its Episcopalian sister church in the United States. But if the success of that route in the US is anything to go by, it is heading for complete extinction.  Being convinced of believing in nothing of your past and in your own wisdom to follow what the world is saying anyway doesn't land you in the driving seat of contemporary society, and hence of any real value to its middle ground. All the liberal churches are shrivelling across Europe and in the USA, without exception.

Is there any hope for the CofE? Well, that's another question perhaps for another post. But is there a very serious crisis, yes, indeed there is.


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