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.