The analysis is so well-worn now as to have become banal – and I’ve indulged in it myself – but the more that time goes on the more I wonder whether the root problem is the loss of real faith in God. That is, we have bought into a sense that the numbers are the key thing that matter, and we then panic or plan on the basis of responding to those numbers, in line with our general characters and dispositions. Now, I’m not at all wanting to say that the numbers don’t matter, what I am wanting to say is that numbers are not the one thing needful. Giving God all that we have to give, in heart and mind, soul and strength – this is the one thing needful.
In other words, if we start from a trust in a providential God, might not the utter disaster that has been the Church of England over the last forty years – utter disaster seen in terms of numbers, failure to evangelise and so on – actually be evidence of God accomplishing his purposes? That is, might it not be *God’s* will that the Church of England has been brought low?
What, after all, might be accomplished by such a process? To lose all the trappings of power and respect – to be the object of repeated scorn and ridicule – to be reduced to begging for the means to keep our buildings open – to watch as successive generations turn away from an inherited faith – might this not simply serve to clarify our sense of priorities and enable us to return to the living God? Might it not simply be that the Church of England had become, by the beginning of the twentieth century, so enmeshed with blessing the business of the British Empire that God decided to withdraw his blessing from it? That the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar was the inevitable consequence of placing our faith in that which was not God – and then being disappointed when we noticed that He wasn’t there?
In other words, might not the way forward be to remember that God is in charge all the time, not just when we are blessed by the obvious signs of His presence, and that the process that the Church of England has undergone – having her splendid garments stripped from her until she shivers naked in a cold wind – is precisely what we needed in order to be recalled to ourselves, and recalled to God? In other words, might it not be that we need to find more suitable attire for the Bride of Christ in this land – and might it not be that a simple linen shift is more suitable than royal robes?
So, enough with the metaphor already, what might this mean in practice? I think it means to return to trusting God – to rediscover what a living faith actually looks and feels like. To remember that worship is devotion and not entertainment, to remember that loving the neighbour means active service and not pious speech, to remember that the Church was built by Jesus for a reason and is not an optional extra that is acceptable so long as it can fit in comfortably with all the other priorities in our lives. To do this necessitates a theological renewal – for it is in our theology, and therefore in our preaching and teaching and (lack of) formation of our clergy that we have lost our way.
John Milbank’s criticisms bear on this; I would very much agree that we need to renew the life of the mind, but I believe that this should not be in a Platonic academy but in the cloister, in and of the Eucharistic community (I have expanded on this at much greater length in my book). The church must stop sub-contracting loving God with our minds to secular institutions, and it will not find peace until it does. Until we are reclothed in the divine light, we shall continue to stumble, naked and ashamed, crying out to the secular scornful for pity, for we no longer even know who it is that loves us. We are like the disciples on Holy Saturday, confused and lost, not knowing where to turn, when in truth we already know what is coming. I have no doubt that the future for Christianity in England is a bright one – for us to share in it, we need to fall in with God’s intentions not ours. So, come, let us return to the Lord, for he has torn us, and will heal us.