What is your Church of England future

Three questions will reveal your destiny!

1. Do you accept the notion of ‘penal substitution’ as an adequate account of salvation?

2. Would you receive communion from a female priest?

3. Would you receive communion from a gay priest?

If your answer is yes, no, no then you will be sympathetic to Reform, and join up with the ‘Southern Anglican Communion’/GAFCON.

If your answer is yes, yes, no then you will be sympathetic to Fulcrum, and you will seek to keep the CofE on the road as far as possible.

If your answer is no, no, no then you will be sympathetic to Forward in Faith and you’ll probably end up with Rome.

If your answer is no, yes, yes then you will be sympathetic to Affirming Catholicism and when the realignment comes you’ll join in with TEC.

(There are, logically, other options, but not many people will buy into them!)

I think the issue is how long before TSHTF and the split becomes formalised. I wonder if there are plans already afoot?

Oh, and if it wasn’t obvious already, I’m ‘no, yes, yes’.

(I initially wrote this ten years ago. Don’t see much need to change it, other than updating the names!)

What’s really wrong with the House of Bishops

house-bishops
I found Martyn Percy’s article of some interest.There are many points that I sympathise with, but a more honest title for it would be ‘a handful of thoughts stretched out in order to justify a link with Martin Luther’. Please also see Ian Paul’s response, which – in the words of my pantomime character – is “harsh, but fair”.

To my mind, however, neither Percy nor Paul come close to fully engaging with the problems in the House of Bishops, and as I have just enough ego to think I have a contribution to make on this question, here follow my thoughts.

The most obvious problem is that the House of Bishops is obsessed with things that are ‘less than God’. To the popular mind those things are all related to the gender and sexual revolutions of the last few decades, matters about which Jesus spoke very little. To me, what the House of Bishops seems most obsessed with at the moment is ‘growth’, an obsession which is rooted in fear, and which does nothing to communicate the nature of God to our world.

Yet this obsession with things which are ‘less than God’ is rooted in a more profound malaise – the House of Bishops is not spiritually serious. By this I mean to say that they don’t seem to believe that the substance of Christianity is a matter of eternal life and death. The House of Bishops seems to be filled with just the same sort of social justice pleading that a liberal atheist would be perfectly at home with, with the consequence that the Bishops sound just like every other well-meaning middle class worrier.

Why would anyone put up with all the manifold nonsenses of the Church of England if there wasn’t some sense of ultimate importance embedded within?

The Bishops, in other words, seem to embody the cultural cringe that most Christians in England suffer from – that feeling when you are a reasonably intelligent and committed believer, but in mixed company refrain from mentioning anything to do with Christian faith for fear of causing offence, or, worse, being mistaken for a fundamentalist. The trouble is that the Bishops are there precisely to articulate the Christian faith in the public sphere and – surely! – to run the risk of offending when they do.

What the Bishops have failed to do is articulate a coherent narrative, not about what Christianity is in general and as a whole, but what Christianity means for the English people at this point in our national life. There is, perhaps, less of a need to talk about Jesus and more a need to talk about the implications of Jesus for the problems that we face as a single community. The Bishops of the Church of England are embedded through their establishment at the heart of the national polity – and they need to make use of this to engage with the life of the nation.

I would like to see the Bishops make some arguments in particular: that Christianity is Truth with a capital T; that Christianity is where all the benefits of our civilisation derive from (including the benefits of science and technology); that the rapid growth and displacement of Christianity imperils all those benefits; and that all religions are not of equal value.

I would particularly like to hear a bishop say unequivocally that Islam is a false religion (not without any redeeming merits, but substantially falling short of the glory of God). Should that ever happen I would start to feel that the Church of England might possibly have a long-term future in this country.

What is not understood in the secular realm – which would seem to include the House of Bishops – is that religion is the principal glue that binds together a community. The atomisation and anomie of our society stem directly from the breakdown of a shared Christian faith. If the English people are to survive in a form that has recognisable continuity with what has gone before then it will do so through a renewal of its commitment to the Christian faith – albeit one that may be Anglicanism 2.0 We do have a lot of spiritual work to do.

I should make clear that I am criticising the House of Bishops as a corporate body (a principality), and I do not wish to criticise any single Bishop – the ones I have known personally all seem very impressive to me, and doing a job that I could not do. Archbishop Justin Welby especially is making a lot of the right noises – then again, he’s also wholly in favour of the managerialism that Percy (rightly) is so critical of. There have been others who seem to have been spiritually substantial, and I don’t see it as an accident that one of them, sadly soon to retire, presided over the strongest growth in a Diocese over the last twenty or so years.

Percy quotes Evelyn Underhill as saying that the people are hungry for God. This is more true than ever, as is the critique that follows implying that the Church does not provide proper food for its flock, which means that the sheep either leave or die. Yet there is another Underhill quotation of which I am fond: “The real failures, difficulties and weaknesses of the Church are spiritual and can only be remedied by spiritual effort and sacrifice [...] her deepest need is a renewal, first in the clergy and through them in the laity; of the great Christian tradition of the inner life.”

The real problem with the House of Bishops is that they are not spiritually serious. The people intuit this, and thus ignore them. Would that we had a proper prophet – not the social-justice facsimile of prophecy which so many liberal thinkers champion – but one who insists on the priority of the first commandment over all else, and works out, in fear and trembling, the implications for the decisions that we face as a nation today.

Such a person could never get through the selection process to become a Bishop of course. Such is the nature of the problem we face.

Why bother with a church that isn’t spiritually serious?

unamused
One of the long themes in Scripture is the divide between the priestly class and the prophetic class. Each of them expresses something of the divine purpose and each has a particular besetting sin to which they succumb when they lose touch with a living faith.

The priestly class upholds the form and ritual that has been mandated and commanded for worship. The prophetic class demands that the life of the nation must honour God through establishing social justice. When Jesus attacks the traders in the Temple he is acting prophetically. When he attends synagogue ‘as was his custom’ he is conforming to the priestly pattern.

By mentioning these things I merely wish to say that I am aware that an over-emphasis upon the priestly responsibilities at the expense of wider questions of justice is a temptation of the religious professional. My concern with regard to what has happened at St John’s Waterloo is that the priestly element to worship has been completely forgotten. That is, it’s not so much that Canon Goddard has done something wrong, it’s that he didn’t have any awareness that it was wrong. It is that absence of awareness that concerns me most.

After all, one of the most essential parts of a spiritually serious faith is the notion of the sacred. That there are some things which are more important than others, some places that are more important than others, and that these more important things are marked out as distinct and different in the life of the faithful. They are, indeed, named as sacred. Do not treat these things in the way that you treat other more mundane things. It is this difference in value between the sacred and the mundane that is the principal means by which a wider sense of value is inculcated. It is impossible to have a Christian virtue tradition, in MacIntyre’s terms, without some sense of the holy and the sacred.

In the life of the Church of England, this has included land – certain land, and certain buildings erected on that land, have been consecrated. That is, they have been dedicated to the worship of the God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They have been set apart for that purpose. They have gained a quality of holiness. It would be fitting for us to take off our shoes before entering into the holy space, as Muslims do before entering into a Mosque, and as Moses did before the burning bush.

With the consecration, certain acts become prohibited – and those prohibited acts are those that profane the sacredness of the space. Specifically, any act of worship which is not of a Christian character would count as such, whether that service be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Pagan or Mormon. The sacred space has been consecrated to Christian worship – any other form of worship that takes place in that space is a breach of that consecration. This is not to say anything whatsoever about those other forms of worship, whether good or bad, it is simply to say that if such worship takes place in a place that has been made sacred for Christian worship then this is profanity, sacrilege and blasphemy. It must not be done, on pain of self-undoing.

(Now there are some exceptions to this blanket prohibition when it comes to ecumenical co-operation with other Christian denominations, when, as I understand it, it is possible to gain approval from the relevant Bishop to allow, eg, a Methodist service within an Anglican church. These points also do not apply to other non-consecrated spaces within a church complex, such as a church hall.)

Now there may well be times when, as a prophetic act, it is necessary to act against such a consecration, yet surely such an act would need to be done with a full awareness of the nature of the intended act, and a fully prayed through understanding of the likely consequences. I see Jesus in the Temple precincts as the paradigm form, and I see that as the specific reason why he was executed.

Now I have no desire to add fuel to the pyre on which a witch-hunt can find a conflagratory fulfilment. I think Canon Goddard might simply apologise and promise not to do it again, and that would be the end of it. What most appalls me about this episode is, as I say, the seeming unawareness that there is any issue here, and the way in which the discussion has been presented in terms of ‘hospitality’. If such language is to retain any sense then it must involve some level of respect to the host; most especially it must involve offering respect to those things which are considered by the host to be of utmost value, those things which are considered holy. The language of hospitality is simply inadequate as the governing description for what has happened. There is a barren and atheistic secularity to such reasoning that I find shocking amongst clergy, and it is this that makes me wonder – what is the point of a church that isn’t spiritually serious? That does not treat holy things as holy but rather, as simply incidental details to be discarded at the behest of any passing good idea?

I think a church that no longer has a sense of the sacred, and therefore of the boundaries of behaviour by which to police the sacred, has failed the Ichabod test, and the Glory of the Lord has departed from it. The consecrated space has become just another building, and then it doesn’t matter what happens within its walls one way or the other. God has left the building.

The Church of England is an institutionally abusive church

In the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the Metropolitan Police were criticised for being ‘institutionally racist’. I have for some time now believed that the Church of England is institutionally abusive, and I would like to spell out what I mean by that.

Institutional racism (from Wiki): “the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin”. It is the ‘institutional’ part that is key; in other words the emphasis is not so much that individual members of an organisation are in themselves racist – they may or may not be – rather, it is simply that, in being obedient servants to the institution, those individuals cannot but help to act in a racist manner.

In a similar way, my claim is not that members of the Church of England are in themselves personally abusive – they may or may not be – my claim is that, in being obedient servants to the institution, the individuals within it cannot help but act in an abusive fashion to those in their care.

Let me give some examples of what I mean.

The first is Jeffrey John, and the question of whether this man was fit to become the Bishop of Reading. Views on that question are split. What is alleged, however, is that the decisions about whether he is to be a Bishop or not are being made, not on the grounds of his own personal merits but rather on whether it would lead to adverse financial and political consequences for the Church as a whole. So this example has two elements: firstly, is it the case that financial considerations are determining the appointment of Bishops (and if so, what are they)? Secondly, why is this not publicly confirmed information? I have written before about the way in which it seems that Bishops are simply incapable of telling the truth about a situation. This is profoundly unhealthy.

The second case is Jonathan Hagger, aka the MadPriest. Here we have someone who once suffered from depression and received medical treatment for it, so that it has not recurred. He is also a faithful local pastor and someone with a clear gift for sharing the faith through social media. One would have thought that such a person would be cherished by the institution, and encouraged to deploy their gifts more effectively. On the contrary, because Jonathan was a whistleblower about a specific case of abuse he has been completely frozen out of the church establishment.

Finally I would mention the hierarchical defence of the Green report (see here). This might seem trivial compared to the previous two, but I think it illuminates the attitude that I am seeking to highlight – and it is what has triggered this post. The needs of the institution – and the need to protect those in high ranking and established positions in the institution – are leading to a closing of ranks and a suppression of dissent. This is, once again, profoundly unhealthy.

There are many other examples that I could refer to (see here for an earlier form of this rant) as I know very few clergy in the Church of England who are in a place of peace with regard to the institution. There are, of course, also many positive stories of good care and consideration – but these are where someone gets ‘a good one’. It is wrong that the avoidance of abuse by the hierarchy is such a lottery.

My point is that, pervading the institutional atmosphere of the Church of England is an unhealthy mix of fear and denial of the truth. This leads to directly abusive consequences whenever the needs of the institution are placed ahead of the needs of the particular persons involved in doing the work of the gospel. The Church is a fallen principality – that is not news – but this needs to be taken very much more seriously.

I believe that faithful Anglicans must more and more operate on the basis of a division between “the gospel as the Church of England has received it”, and the workings of the institution which at the present time instantiates that understanding. We need to actively and radically foster the former, and keep a wary distance from the latter. To use my more hackneyed analogy, we need to spend much more time on our lifeboats than on how we run the ship.

If we continue to allow the Anglican gospel only to be expressed through the institutional forms then I see no grounds for believing that any thing will change. The institution will continue to devour its own children and then it shall die a sad and lonely death, for the Glory of the Lord will have departed from it.

Tainted love

Sometimes I feel I’ve got to run away
I’ve got to get away
From the pain you drive into the heart of me
The love we share seems to go nowhere…

Every time I think that I’ve plumbed the depths of despair at what the Church of England gets up to, along comes another episode of ‘how to demonstrate to the world that we are spiritually incompetent’. I refer, of course, to the debacle that has clustered around Fr Philip North’s consecration.

Two things first, before I let go and rant.

One, I feel immensely sorry for Fr Philip, who seems both principled and capable. Two, I have a huge amount of sympathy for the traditionalist perspective, not because I ultimately agree with it but because the process that has led to our present position has been driven by politics and a largely atheological form of argumentation (using the language of rights and justice). I well understand the fears and frustrations of those who see their perspective being marginalised and driven to the wall without even the courtesy of being properly engaged with by the wider church. It would be like seeing children let loose to play with the family heirlooms where the most distressing element is not that the heirlooms are being damaged but that all the other adults in the room do not recognise that there is damage being done. Far better that the damage is done openly and clearly with a full consciousness of what is going on rather than this blundering.

However.

The consequences of our compromises are absurd and damaging and will make the eventual and inevitable collapse of our unity all the harder to deal with.

What, after all, is going on with +Sentamu’s ‘gracious restraint’? I have to confess to being rather baffled, in that I simply don’t understand the theology, the ecclesiology, of what is about to happen.

I hear that it is not about ‘taint’, by which I understand that it is not about a form of purity and/or contamination that will follow from consecrating or ordaining outside of the tradition. It is, apparently, all about communion. That is, those who take part in such consecrating or ordaining are placing themselves outside of the historic communion of the church catholic.

What I don’t understand is where this leaves Fr Philip’s future apostolic ministry within Diocese and Province. After all, I thought the very definition of being a bishop is that they are the principal celebrant of the Eucharist, from which all other priestly ministry in their area derives? Is this aspect not considered crucial as Fr Philip is to be a suffragan? But then, how can a suffragan bishop not be in communion with the Diocesan or the Archbishop?

+Sentamu has indicated that there are ways in which his authority will be recognised during the consecration, such as through oaths of obedience and ‘presenting the episcopal ring’. Yet to my mind this is to elevate the outward forms of episcopal office above the spiritual heart, which is centred on communion. What sort of witness is this?

I can only conclude that we are not a spiritually serious church. We are neither hot nor cold and thus we are apt to be vomited out of our Lord’s mouth. Which, now I think about it, is a rather good description of this noxious mess.

Don’t touch me please – I cannot stand the way you tease.
I love you though you hurt me so
Now I’m gonna pack my things and go…

Remorseless logic and a Bishop’s rest

So at least one Bishop has now made the decision to enact discipline with respect to a priest who has entered into a ‘gay marriage’. As Ian Paul rightly asserts, the time of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has now come to an end, and the Church of England is going to have to choose where it stands with regard to non-tradtional sexuality.

There is a remorseless logic to the situation that the Bishops now find themselves in. The remorseless side of things stems from the nature of the society that we now live within, which will consistently seek to assert pressure from the progressive side of the sexuality argument. The logic, however, is an internal one. After all, it was the acceptance of contraception at the 1930 Lambeth conference which has led directly to our present social understandings of sexuality. The Roman Catholic hierarchy recognise that the logic of accepting contraception leads inevitably to a much more progressive understanding of sexuality tout court, which is why they have held out against it.

I can see any particular Bishop resting safely on a traditional Roman Catholic understanding of sexuality. That much could be argued for, and we don’t have to go far to see how it could be argued for. To my mind, those who oppose modern sexual mores need to accept the internal logic of their position and accept that, if they are to reject gay marriage (for example) then they are also required to reject contraception and re-marriage after divorce and so on. There are people who have made that argument within the Church of England and it seems to me to be an honourable position to hold.

However, what of those who do not wish to accept such a stance? What might be a place of ‘Bishop’s rest’ – that is, how might a Bishop exercise due authority within his Diocese when it comes to questions of priesthood and sexuality? Is there a place to stand at the end of the progressive path?

I am concluding that there is, and I believe that the new substantive policy would rest upon: an acceptance that questions of sexuality and marriage are second-order issues; an acceptance of the authority of the individual baptised conscience; and an acceptance that we are called to exercise a radical non-judgement.

Practically, the outworkings of such a framework would mean a repeal of Canon B30 (which articulates the traditional view of sexuality) and an understanding that the sexuality of any particular priest is first and foremost a private matter for the priest themselves. I think that there would still be some room for the exercise of discipline over a wayward priest, but it would have to be on the grounds of either a) illegality (in which case the church disciplinary process would follow the secular one, as in other areas of misbehaviour) or b) bringing the church into disrepute. For the latter, an individual bishop would have to discern whether there was in fact clerical misbehaviour or whether there is simply a faithful position which is out of step with wider cultural mores (in other words, the Bishop needs to discern whether the disrepute arises from waywardness or a prophetic vocation).

Article 32 might be rewritten in the following form, to articulate the new perspective: “Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, are not commanded by God’s Law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from sexual relations: therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to develop lawful sexual relationships at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.”

One last metaphor to assist contemplation: there is a remarkable sequence in Peter Weir’s ‘Master and Commander’ when the ship’s captain has to take the momentous decision to sacrifice the life of one crewmember. A storm has stripped away a canvas-filled mast from the main body of the ship, with the man on it, and the detached rigging has begun to work as a sea-anchor, and will eventually cause the entire ship to sink. The captain has to cut the ties to the lost mast in order to enable the ship itself to come right and continue to be a safe vessel for the other sailors.

I see the traditional view of sexuality within the Church of England as being that broken mast. Unless we cut ourselves free of it we shall all sink.

Things we cannot bear

Andrew Goddard’s article in Fulcrum lucidly sets out the challenge presently faced by our Bishops as they seek to adjust to the new social reality which is gay marriage. As Ian Paul points out, this is the end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’. The church is going to have to move in one direction or another.

The inherited position, still maintained by the Roman Catholic church, is that the telos of sexuality is procreation; and therefore all sexuality that isn’t inherently open to the procreative is objectively disordered and sinful. The insitution of marriage is the structure that the wider society has put in place in order to regularise sexuality. Any sexuality which is non-procreative or extra-marital (NPEM) is to be forbidden.

The fundamental shift that has taken place within our wider society is that the telos of sexuality is no longer seen as purely about procreation. As Rowan Williams has pointed out, once you accept contraception, all the other elements of the traditional position are also undermined. From that point on there are no coherent grounds on which to claim that a sexually expressed homosexuality as such is sinful.

This change in the understanding of sexuality has been going on for an extremely long time. Indeed, the language of the 1662 marriage service, in talking about the mutual society, help and comfort of the marriage, and not just simply referring to the right ordering of procreation, is part of the opening up (this is somewhat ironic in the light of the Bishop’s statement). The end-point of this development is our present worldly situation, whereby the ‘quality’ of the romantic relationship is what justifies sexuality and marriage, rather than marriage justifying sexuality and romance.

The contradiction takes form in the House of Bishops’ advice and so they shout ‘stop the world I want to get off’. They do not wish to accept the consequences of what they have already agreed to. The CofE really has to decide whether NPEM sex is inherently sinful, and then commit itself to working out and implementing the conclusions that flow from such a decision. It may be worth pointing out – although it is not necessarily a defect, it might be a virtue – that to say that NPEM sex is sinful is to adopt a minority position within the culture of today. After all, if the church commits to a re-affirmation of the traditional position, that trajectory does not simply rule out an acceptance of same-sex marriage, it will also commit the church to ruling out, inter alia, the remarriage of divorcees.

If we wholeheartedly accept that NPEM sex is not inherently sinful, then this opens up all sorts of other questions – questions which we have really only begun to wrestle with. Part of the answer will involve something like covenanted relationships – which is what civil partnerships could be, and blessed by the church – but is there a stable place to rest at the end of the progressive path?

What, after all, is the sin involved in NPEM sexuality? What is the sin involved in consensual non-monogamy? Or polygamy? Do people have to be assorted into one of two clearly marked out boxes in order to have non-sinful sex, and then only with someone from the other box?

A quick sketch of my own thinking would be: there are profound sins, which the church must be more actively engaged in denouncing, to do with the raising of children and the breaking down of family homes, the betrayals of trust and so on. Yet on the question of NPEM sexual relations, beyond a clear teaching about the difference between I-Thou and I-It relating, I do not see any scope, apart from the tradition, for saying anything beyond ‘All things are permitted, but not all things are edifying’ and ‘It is not good for the human being to be alone’ and then leaving it to the individual conscience of the believer. In other words, it involves a radical non-judgement, and a taking seriously that baptism confers both a new creation and an authority to decide what is good (what can be ‘loosed on earth‘).

This might apply especially to the clergy, for whom the 39 Articles reserve the authority over whether a marriage is of God for them or not. The two options that the CofE will therefore end up choosing between – or, more realistically, splitting over – are therefore a re-establishment of the conservative position or an embrace of a progressive path, and this latter option will, in the terms of Andrew Goddard’s article, mean removing any understanding of marriage from Canon Law and leaving the assessment of any and all sexual relations to the conscience of the individual believer. As I intimated back in 2009 I do not see this as representing a major threat to any form of Christianity. Tobias Haller articulated this well:

“Marriage is not a proper subject of dogmatic theology, but at most of moral or pastoral theology. There is no core doctrine concerning marriage, and it is doubtful that the subject warrants a doctrine at all, and at least some of the efforts to construct a theological defense of marriage do more harm to theology than help to marriage. The church did very well without much doctrinal reflection on marriage for centuries. The creeds and classical Anglican catechisms are silent on it. The Articles of Religion refer to it as an estate allowed, and available to clergy as they see fit. There is no settled doctrine of marriage, only changing rules, laws, rites and ceremonies — all of these, as the Articles also remind us, subject to amendment by the church.”

I believe this is something that we cannot yet bear, and yet, it seems to be where the Spirit is leading the church.

Rev, establishment and the pursuit of unafraid Anglicanism

Courier article

I have been watching and enjoying (sometimes through gritted teeth) the wonderful BBC2 series ‘Rev’. For those unaware, this is a sitcom following the Reverend Adam Smallbone as he seeks to pursue his priestly vocation on the streets of the East End, where he is the Vicar of St Saviour’s in the Marshes. If you haven’t been watching it, but think you might – and I’d recommend it, because it is superbly written and acted – you had better stop reading now because I’m going to spoil the ending. One of the elements which I believe the show captures perfectly is the way that the insitutional Church of England cannot help but become abusive towards its clergy, and the various characters who hold authority over Adam – the Rural Dean, the Archdeacon, the Bishop – are all shown as conscientiously pursuing the interests of the organisation and crucifying the poor parish priest as a consequence (an imagery which is developed superbly towards the end of the series). In the end, Adam is unable to “save something precious” and the insitution is able to sell the physical building where he works in order to raise millions of pounds for the central church finances. Out of this supposed disaster, however, there is shown a profoundly faithful and orthodox hope – when the small congregation gathers around Adam in order to celebrate the dawn service of Easter morning on the steps of the closed church.

This, I believe, is a parable of the Church of England for our time. If an Anglican understanding of the faith is to survive in this country then the faithful must indeed be prepared to move outside of the building. We must learn to sit lightly to the inherited ‘plant’ – the framework of buildings and laws that have accumulated around the Anglican expression of faith in this country over the last few hundred years. In other words, I believe that the Church of England not only must be disestablished but that it is very much in the interests of the Church for it to be so.

Historically, the church community experienced its greatest growth when there were no church buildings. World wide, churches which are suppressed and have no official status, eg in China, also experience tremendous growth. It is absolutely not the case that buildings are essential for our task. However, the paradox of place is that, whenever and as soon as it becomes possible for a church community to erect a dedicated building to assemble in, they always do so. Why?

A dedicated building, put simply, can make it so much easier to carry out the core objectives of the congregation – to grow more deeply into the love of God, to work and serve each other. It can also make it easier to share the Christian faith with outsiders – we learn an awful lot from architecture and the use of space. That being said, however, we should never forget that they are optional. The key question for the Church of England now, it seems to me, is simply “is responsibility for physical buildings a Godly use of the resources of this church community?” By resources, I do not simply mean finance. I also mean the amount of time and heartache that goes into questions of fabric, often so sacrificially. Are congregations more faithful Christian communities as a result of bearing the responsibility for these buildings? Or do these buildings represent a snare and a delusion which distract us from our core tasks and actually contribute hugely to our undoing and our failing as a Church? These are questions which do not have easy answers, yet I believe that they are the questions that the established church needs to spend time explicitly considering.

Where the inheritance of establishment does work, it seems to me, is in emphasising that the building belongs to the whole community, not just to those who gather within on a Sunday morning, and certainly not just to the one who exercises the legal right of ownership (that would be me). This is why I see one of the great blessings for the Church of England in recent years on Mersea has been the development of the Friends organisations, at both West and East, which not only give practical aid to the churches in order to pay for the regular repair and restoration work but also ensures that the building is used by the wider community. I am sure that I speak for both congregations when I say that we are profoundly grateful to them for all of their hard work and dedication.

Our political class have been discussing the question of establishment, prompted by some remarks by Mr Cameron over Easter. Are we a Christian country? Well, legally, obviously we are. We are, in fact, a theocratic state, in that the head of state is also the head of the established religion. I believe that only Iran has a similar arrangement amongst the other countries of the world. Historically, obviously yes as well. Most of our legal system and cultural mores descend from an explicitly Christian view of the world, which is only recently breaking down. In terms of existing practice? That’s slightly more debatable. The majority of the country still claim adherence to Christian faith, although how to assess that is much more difficult to judge than many commentators assume. It certainly can’t be equated with church attendance.

More specifically, what role does an established religion play in making our nation more or less Christian? (There is an assumption in the question that a nation is something that might possibly be or not be Christian – an assumption I would dispute – but that would require another article to explain!) The argument that is often advanced in favour of an established church is that it means that there is an official Christian presence in every part of the nation of England. The entire country is separated out into parishes, and every parish has their equivalent of Adam Smallbone. This is a good thing – but why does Adam need to be a member of the Church of England? In other words, in Christian terms, it is certainly important for there to be a Christian witness in all the highways and byways of our society, but if that Christian witness is Roman Catholic or Free Church, is that not enough? We Christians might, after all, have a much more effective witness to the rest of society if we were less caught up in our internecine disputes and enabled to act together in common serving people.

More than this, it has long been part of the self-identity of the Church of England that we are the ‘official’ church in this country. This is legally true – that is what establishment means – yet I am more and more persuaded that this part of our self-identity is ultimately idolatrous, and gets in the way of our proper discipleship and growth in faith. We are, after all, the odd one out when it comes to global Anglicanism. It seems perfectly possible to be a good Anglican Christian in places like Canada and Wales without the context or support of establishment, and there is no inherited expectation that the ministers there will spend their time engaging more with the people outside of the congregation than inside.

I believe that Rev has indicated the path that the Church of England must consider. The desire to save the building annihilated poor Adam Smallbone, leading him to despair and spiritual death. Yet he was raised to celebrate Easter with his congregation. That, in all of the messiness and hope, seems to me to be a properly faithful vision of an unafraid Anglican future.

The contours of an Unafraid Anglicanism

What might it look like if the Church of England stopped being afraid of death, held captive by the principalities and powers, and simply allowed the gospel ‘as the Church of England has received it’ to animate its life?

It would start from the glory of the resurrection, through which all the powers of death have been defeated, and would proceed with the assurance that death has no dominion over us, and is therefore an object of pity or ridicule, not a source of fear.

Therefore, all actions which have as their premise the need to grow the church, or face up to the decline of the church, or seek to enable the ship to sink in good and orderly fashion – these are all beside the point. They are the ministrations of the death cult. They have no value.

The premise of an Unafraid Anglicanism is, rather, the unbounded joy and freedom from fear that is the authentic mark of Christian witness. We are called to be so caught up in the exuberant Spirit that we see the bleatings about ‘growth’ as the diabolically destructive distractions that they are.

If we are animated by the conquering of death, then all the structures and patterns that shape our common institutional life can be assessed from that standpoint. How far does this institutional arrangement serve the sharing of joy, and how far does it simply subsist in its own inertia? The inertia is not neutral, of course, and it can be assessed by its fruits. Does this institutional inertia lead to a spirit of compassion and enthusiasm, of healing and hallelujahs, of laments and laughter? Or does it instead lead to a deadening of the soul, a letting out of the air from the balloon, a crowding out of the heavenly chorus in favour of the bureaucratic bathos? What is the definition of a Deanery Synod? A collection of Anglicans waiting to go home.

What of unity, that bugbear of our time? Is this not also, if not primarily at least substantially, yet one more sacrifice offered up to death? For if we do not have unity, then we shall die, and the rumour of Anglicanism shall fade from this world… Is the unity for which Christ successfully prayed (how could his prayer not be successful?) captured by an institutional form? Is not the friendship between brother and sister Christians across denominational divides precisely the unity for which he prayed, and about which he taught? Is not the Good Samaritan, who exercised compassion across sectarian division, held up as the very model of love of neighbour?

Why not set our manifold Anglicanisms free? Why not have an Anglicanism that preserves the catholic and orthodox understanding of women’s ministry? Why not have an Anglicanism that preserves the Reformed understanding of Scripture? Why not have an Anglicanism that is oriented towards social justice, that seeks out the lost and the marginalised and assures them that Christ’s love is for them just as much as for those who are so certain that they have it right?

As free and unafraid Anglicans, sharing a parentage of faith and rejoicing in a friendly sibling diversity, recognising that what holds us in common in Christ so far surpasses what separates us – then we can cooperate together on unmasking the death cult that animates our wider society, the systems that reduce human beings to units of economic value, the cultivation of systematic blasphemy as the image of God is so routinely effaced. Would we not then be properly obedient to our Lord’s commands, bearing the fruits which he promised, and finally and freely pursuing the fidelity which is our vocation as his disciples?

Surely, were we to be so unafraid, the marks of the Spirit will anoint the different Anglicanisms according to their distinctive gifts, so that by being all things to all people we might indeed help to save some. We would do this for the sake of the gospel, not for the sake of the institution, that we might then share in its blessings.

Longing for an unafraid church

The Church of England is afraid of dying; consequently it is failing to be a church at all.

As someone who is persuaded of the merits of the ‘Limits to Growth’ argument – and who believes that we missed the opportunity to change course back in the 1970′s and that therefore our industrial growth culture is substantially over – I have become very familiar with the language of ‘doom’ and the way in which it can be misused. Just because something can be misused, however, does not mean that it is always false. The core argument of the Limits to Growth, after all, was that if present trends continued, then we would end up arriving where we were headed – and, indeed, we have now arrived there. Can the same analysis not be applied to the Church of England? 

After all, it is fairly unambiguous where we are headed – by the mid 21st Century there will be less than 100,000 members. It is not as if the trend has been hidden and come upon us unawares – it has been the unpleasant background music for several decades now. Clearly, unless something changes, the Church of England as it has been known and understood for several centuries is going to die within the next generation or so (the institution will collapse under its own weight well before we get to 2050). Perhaps the history of the Church will be described as resting between the two Elizabeths – the first pulled it together, and the second watched it pull itself apart.

Let me at once clarify two things. The first is that this anticipated fate of the Church of England needs to be separated out from the expected fate of Christianity within the world as a whole. I expect that well before 2050 disciples of Christianity will pass beyond 50% of the world’s population. Key to this will be the continued growth of Christianity in China, which already has more practising Christians than Western Europe, as well as all the other places where the faith is being spread. The gates of Hades will not prevail against the church, and I am confident that one day, at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.

The second point to make is that the Church of England is not the be all and end all of Christianity in England. Whatever the merits of Catholic Emancipation – and I suspect the Church has still not caught up with what it meant – the consequence is that there are now more practising Christians in England outside the Church of England than in it. Whereas it has historically been the definitive form of English Christianity – as epitomised by its establishment status, and (in many ways) in its ongoing self-understanding – it has become, to all intents and purposes, merely another sect. Theologically the status quo is untenable, and the Church of England has to either fight that fate or embrace it.

Now an objection might easily come to mind: what if there was a revival? For sure, a major revival might well stop the Church of England declining so much – and I’m sure that evangelisation is one of God’s priorities – but we have been needing such a revival for some time now. I am persuaded that the tide of faith has turned, the Spirit is moving; I am convinced that the bombast of atheistic secularism is the last gasp of a dying ideology, and the potential for growth is immense – but might it not be the case – and I say this with all due humility – that God doesn’t want the Church of England to continue? I’m sure God wants Christianity to continue, but the Church of England, in its present form? Of that I am not so sure.

Might it not be the case that, rather than a story about the long, melancholy withdrawing roar of the Sea of Faith – and therefore a sad story of decline and death – what we have in the religious history of England over the last 150 years is, in fact, the direct working out of God’s will? In other words, that the Church of England, as a centralised and established form of Christianity, intimately bound together with the legal and constitutional arrangements of the country, that this glorious old lady has in fact achieved all that God wanted her to achieve (quite possibly the worldwide transmission of the via media approach to the faith) and that, now this task has been accomplished, what God actually wants is for her to enter her rest, and hear those most gracious words ‘well done thou good and faithful servant’?

After all, what is it that is actually ‘dying’? It isn’t the gospel itself; it isn’t Christianity in this country; it isn’t even the local church, which is often in robust good health. No, it is simply the place that a particular form of Christianity held within the national life of England. England has moved away from it, and all of the ways in which being an Anglican were tied in to the old cultural forms are now dying. What is wrong with that?

I believe that we most need to recognise that the good ship of Establishment is sinking, and trying to prevent that from taking place is not simply a wasted effort on our part, it is actually a blasphemous and misguided attempt to thwart God’s will. What we are called to do is the same as what all Christians are called to do, every where and at every time – to be faithful, to hold on to Christ alone and to be willing to let go of everything else. The centralised Church of England is sinking – what strikes me now as being worthy of theological interest is the multitude of Anglicanisms that shall follow – a flotilla of lifeboats floating away from the wreckage, seeking a new shore on which to embark on new adventures. Which is, after all, a more exciting and more inspiring prospect.

Terry Leahy, in his book ’10 words’ begins by talking about truth, as the foundation for everything else that can come, and writes “Organisations the world over are terrible at confronting truth. It is so much easier to define your version of reality and judge success and failure by that.” Why does the Church have such a problem with truth and honesty? My take on this is that it is because we have lost our way spiritually – we are afraid of our own death – and yet we can see the consequences around us of that state. We can feel that we have been mortally wounded, but we can’t see where the wound was inflicted and so, in lieu of actually dressing the wound and healing it (allowing God to heal it) we throw ourselves into ever more frenetic endeavours to try and cover up the truth. We substitute social and secular agendas for the gospel to show to the world how righteous we are (as if the gospel could be reduced to being righteous); we throw away the inheritance of our liturgy for the mess of pottage that is children’s entertainment, poorly done (as if the right way to worship God could only be properly discovered with the advent of Powerpoint); and we throw away the long, slow obedience of loyal, local discipleship for the ‘because I’m worth it’ pick and mix of the preferential rather than the penitential. Is it any wonder that we are in the state that we are in? 

I believe that the only thing that will energise the church and lead it out into the kingdom is a renewed appreciation of the gospel – a sense of confidence that what we share and why we share it is genuinely a matter of real life and real death – and that that in itself will give the strength for mission, and allow the temperature of things like the women bishops debate to be lowered. At that point all will recognise that wrestling over who has the helm is not the most crucial decision at a time when the ship is sinking and all hands need to be on deck. Given the nature of the traumas that have begun to be inflicted upon our culture – and which will continue to worsen through the coming years, with all the genuine hardship, poverty and starvation that ensues – I believe that we will look back on our arguments at this time with a profound sense of shame; shame not simply that we were distracted from the one thing needful, but shame that this blinded us to the mission that God wishes us to carry forward in a time such as this. 

The blunt truth is this: the Church of England is at death’s door. All I’m arguing for here is that I’d rather that we went out fighting for a joyful gospel rather than trying to save a particular historically conditioned administrative pattern which has turned the cornerstone of our faith into the proverbial millstone around our neck.

(This is a Courier article, drawing together a couple of previous blogposts)