The hollowness at the heart of the Church of England

“We have some explaining to do,” said Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, after the General Synod of the Church of England failed to endorse the ordination of women by the requisite majority.  That is certainly true.  Many English citizens, practising Christians and not, and in total despair about whole purpose and meaning of the church.

One thing struck me immediately about Dr Williams’s televised statement.  After saying the Church had some explaining to do, he went on to point out the reasons why he thought women should be admitted as bishops.  They were all pragmatic, having to do with the need to reflect the wider values of society, and its ability to influence those values.  This was a bit of a shock.  I had thought that religious bodies made such decisions on the basis of high principle.  If it is the right thing to do in Christian terms, then do it.  Or not.  The Roman Catholics, at least, show much greater clarity in such things.  They heroically plough on against the values of wider society because they believe that is God’s path.  The CofE’s path bespeaks a certain hollowness at its heart.

It also shows something about the toll arguments about the role of women, and indeed gays, has taken on the institution.  I was brought up in a Church of England household, was confirmed and a regular churchgoer until I was 21 (in 1979).  At university I was a member the Christian Union, though not entirely signing up to the full Evangelical credo – I never could take the literal truth of the Bible, for example.

In the 1970s arguments about women priests raged.  My mother, a senior clergyman’s daughter and brought up on a cathedral close, was a passionate supporter of women’s ordination, and the whole family followed her.  But there were antis at our rather anglo catholic (at the time described as “high church”) local parish.  I remember arguing furiously with our curate – he held the view that it was impossible for a woman to be a priest since the Christian image of God is male.

This was an instance of the anglo catholic view.  This line of thinking places huge emphasis on the church’s traditions and history, and thinks that sweeping them away drains the faith of meaning.  They have rather ambiguous feelings about the Church of Rome – but they feel that the Church of England’s ultimate destiny should be to reunite with it.  This group is fading in its importance.  It has failed to capture the imagination of the young.  It has been fatally undermined by the defection of so many of its adherents to the Roman Catholic church.  The Romans have maintained a more dynamic balance between tradition and modernity, and are fundamentally more appealing to the traditionally minded.  The more mystical and less intellectually tyrannical Orthodox church also appeals.

The most important part of the blocking minority in the Church of England is now a group that describes itself as “conservative evangelicals”.  I know very little about this group.  The evangelicals that I knew at university were different and more mainstream – a group from whom the next Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is drawn.  I have seen them described as inspired by American thinking – and their use of the word “conservative” to describe themselves rather lends support to this.  It isn’t a hurrah-word here, even among conservatives.   They are sceptical of many ancient church traditions, and treat the Bible as their main source of authority.  They seem have a strong, nostalgic and paternalistic outlook.  They do not object to women bishops as such – they just do not want to be in a position where their congregations have to accept one.

What is this institution over which these factions are arguing?  It is deeply embedded into English life and the unwritten British constitution.  Most English use it to mark the big life events of birth, marriage and death.  It is the source of pretty words and beautiful old churches.  They lustily sing Christmas carols and sigh at children’s nativity plays.  The CofE is deeply identified with the country’s lingering identity with the Christian faith.  It is a bastion of civic society, as church members carry out social work in the wider community, and even reach out to those of other faiths.  The English have mainly stopped going to church but they would no more abolish the Church of England than they would the Queen or the first-past-the-post voting system, other traditions that have long lost their intellectual coherence.

But for practising Christians this is hollow.  The ultimate purpose of the Church should be to bring people into the faith, and here it has failed.  Now it is failing even to define what that faith consists of, as it comes a loose association of incompatible understandings.

The hope among some, such as Dr Williams, was that there was enough common ground for these disparate groups to sustain a joint community – and then use the platform provided by the Church’s national status to draw more people in.

I don’t find this such a silly idea.  I think at the heart of the Christian gospel is  a wonderful set of ideas that are still capable of drawing people in – myself included.  Love, forgiveness, redemption, equality, embracing the disadvantaged.  They are as fresh today as when Jesus first preached them.  If only practising Christians could agree to talk about just these in public, and agree to differ on everything else.

But no.  Christians are obsessed with abortion, gays, the ordination of women, the literal truth of the Bible, heaven, hell and a host of other peripheral things where the church’s teaching fails to resonate with our modern understanding of how the Universe is.  The Church of England has lost so much time and energy talking about such things that they have no energy left for anything else.

Personally I think it would be right for Parliament to save the Church from its constitutional mess – and then hope that the new Archbishop, who shows some signs of promise, starts to put some meaning back into its hollow heart.

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