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.

Rowan Williams’s legacy

Rowan Williams is stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury. For all his faults he is one the world’s great intellectuals. Can the Church of England sustain its establishment status without him?

Archbishop Williams’s departure has drawn a lot of comment.  I’ve seen references in Twitter and such to some very negative views, but I must admit I haven’t given these much time.  I have read one of his books (Lost Icons, published in 2000); rereading the review of this book I wrote at the time reminds me of just how profound and disturbing (in a positive sense) I found it.  His language is over intellectual; he seems to idolise a past that never existed – but he poses challenging questions that modern agnostic liberals like me that I have no ready answers to.  He makes most commentators on religious and spiritual subjects seem utterly superficial – and I have feeling that if I was left alone in a room with him my comfortable agnosticism would end up in tatters and I would be going to my local (CofE) church the next Sunday.  I know of no other person that could have that power.  I have total respect for everything he says, even though I disagree with much of it, especially when it comes to politics.

As for his stewardship of the Church of England and the Anglian Communion, I don’t have much to say.  In spite of my tendency to lecture practising Christians on their own faith, I feel completely out of my depth when commenting on the ins and outs of Church affairs.  This post which I picked up via Twitter has the ring of truth though.

But though Church politics are not something I am part of, they do impact on general politics, of which I am.  And the Church of England has a special role, as it is an established part of the state.  This is much discussed, and generally thought to be a positive.  Apart from adding a decorous component to official ceremonies, it forms a link to the country’s past heritage.  Much good can come of ambiguity.  But it is under threat for two reasons.

The first is because the Church could fragment into a number of pieces, none of which is able to sustain its state role.  Tensions abound over the status of women and gays.  I find it impossible to understand why, of all the issues that the Church has to deal with, these are the ones that threaten schism.  Can’t they just agree to differ, as they do with so much else? But it is clearly a big problem.

And the second, related, threat is that the Church is losing its moral authority over the general, agnostic populace.  Most people in this country describe themselves as Christian at some level, and have customarily looked to the Church for moral leadership.  This is what prevents the Church’s establishment status from being just a sham.  But the population’s general sense of moral values has been changing.  So far the Church of England has skilfully adapted its own practices (on divorce, contraception and women priests, for example) to stay within touching distance.  On occasions it has even led the change from the front – such as on racism and inclusion.  But with the growing acceptance of gays in civil society, the Church has mostly lost the plot, not helped by its need to stay in touch with values of the flourishing African church.

Churches must be led by their spiritual calling, and not by the fashions of the society they inhabit.  But to preserve the Church’s special status as part of the political establishment it has to stay within a broad moral consensus.  If the Church, or strong elements of it, persist in teaching things that we, the rest of society consider to be morally wrong then it is up to us to exclude them from that special status.

Cardinal O’Brien: is this all that’s left of Christianity?

After a wonderful day out in the sun, I return home to a Twitter feed bulging with reaction to Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s Easter sermon in Edinburgh.  It was near top of the BBC news this morning, but it was surprising difficult to locate their coverage on the BBC website (here) this evening.  Archbishop Rowan Williams’s sermon (something about happiness) got much more coverage.  From this coverage I find it rather unclear what Cardinal O’Brien actually said, beyond an attack on “aggressive secularism”, and calling for all Christian denominations to unite against it in defence of traditional Christian values.  This was enough to get Evan Harris wound up and twittering.

I do support state secularism, but my deeper reaction to Cardinal O’Brien’s sentiments are about what it means to Christians.  There seems to be a large body of people for whom a (the?) fundamental purpose of Christianity is to defend its traditional values.  I have heard people on the radio suggesting that the Church got these values right at the start, and that to change them to suit modern fashion is a betrayal.  There is a massive reaction against accepting gays – quite disproportionate to the significance of the issue.  Likewise, many react badly to the idea of women priests and bishops, to the extent of switching from Anglican to Catholic denomination.

I find this very strange because it seems so at odds with the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, to say nothing of how the church has evolved since.  The central message to me of the Sermon on the Mount was that Christians should not be deceived by the letter of the law, but always go to the underlying purpose, and to do so with humility and love.  This is a dynamic message, allowing practices to be continuously re-interpreted.  One of the examples in the sermon was the observance of the Sabbath – where Jesus said that it was nonsense to be totally strict.  And so the church did adapt, notably by extending membership to Gentiles. And this adaptation has been dynamic.  Take its attitude to women.  It is quite clear that in the very early days, the time of Paul, women had a leadership role in the church.  But as Christianity became closer to the establishment this was less acceptable, and so doctrine changed (including some rather dubious epistles making it into the Bible, supposedly from Paul himself).  More recently, women have been returning to prominence, although the Catholic hierarchy are still determined to hold their line in the sand.

Defence of tradition actually undermines the core Christian message.  It is a doctrine to hide behind rather than face up to the challenges that real faith should lead you to.  It is a message of despair.  Is that really all that is left of this once great faith?  At least Archbishop Williams is trying to use his Easter pulpit to promote a message of hope.