Monday, April 09, 2007

Quite religious

Tim Hames tackles what has become a proper chestnut: what to do about the Church of England.

There is a story about William Whitelaw which, in a touching if faintly damning way, sums up the plight of the Church of England. It involves the moment when the Conservative politician was told that, somewhat unexpectedly. Robert Runcie was to be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Whitelaw, who had admired Runcie’s military record during the Second World War, was delighted. “Splendid news,” he said. “Fine man, Runcie. I knew him in the Army; very brave, very brave.” He then concluded: “Quite religious too, you know.”

“Quite religious” is an awkward place to be stranded between the more robust stations of militant secularism and theological fanaticism. “Quite religious” is also an accurate description of our contemporary Easter. On Friday, Gerard Baker wrote in these pages that in Japan, where there are not many Christians and an element of confusion is perhaps understandable, it is possible to purchase a Father Christmas nailed to a Cross. Coming soon, a chocolate egg nestling in a Nativity manger?

Anglicans are desperately close to the worst of all worlds. They are perceived as both irrelevant and bitterly divided, especially over homosexuality, which threatens to rip the Church apart at the Lambeth conference next year. It is a moment when leadership at the top — charismatic, intellectual and spiritual — is especially important. Yet leadership is not so much missing as mislocated. Rowan Williams at Canterbury and John Sentamu at York are well qualified to occupy the two most senior portfolios in the Church of England. Unfortunately, they are most well qualified for each other’s positions.

Dr Williams is probably the most intelligent man to sit in St Augustine’s chair for centuries. He is kindly and thoughtful and almost painfully reasonable. His anguish over how to simultaneously hold his Church together and his conscience intact is manifest. He is the personification of the thesis that a liberal is a man so broadminded that he would not take his own side in an argument.

At a deep level, I identify strongly with Rowan Williams. I like him and, to use an Appleyardism, I find him consoling.

He is everything that is good about religion. The sad thing is that he is presiding over the decline of everything that is good about religion, and by being good, he is in a way helping to accelerate this decline.


martpol said...

Coincidentally, I chose the bank holiday to write about Catholicism over on Woolgatherer. The Catholic Church has, in Benedict XVI, a sort of polar opposite of Rowan Williams. Although he isn't quite as fiercely conservative as initially expected, his opposition of moral relativism, references to homosexuals as "sufferers" and the continued unhealthy position on condoms and HIV, mark him out as just the sort of person that gentle, consoling Williams would find it difficult to deal with.

I met Williams once, by the way. He was quiet and modest and seemed to have his head in the clouds somewhat.

Duck said...

I don't think that "painfully reasonable" is a very good trait for successful leadership, religious or otherwise. That phrase makes me think of Jimmy Carter. At least the painful part does. Ebullient charisma and certainty are what fill the pews.

I wonder why the Anglican church pretends to universality anymore. They could cure a lot of headaches by saying "we're the Church of England and nowhere else. You Yanks, Aussies, and Nigerians can do what you bloody well please". Is there any point in trying to keep disparate cultures together under one steeple?

Brit said...

It depends what your aims are.

If your aim to be sell the CofE Brand and get Bums On Seats, then yes, you're right that Williams is a rotten leader. The worst possible leader, probably.

Peter Burnet said...

What other would the aims be? To impress secularist-minded dunnoists who think it is all a fairy tale and wouldn't be caught dead in a church?

Assuming we can agree that man is somehow genetically or otherwise attracted to religion naturally, what conclusion do you draw from the fact that Anglican pews are emptying everywhere in the West under Williams style leadership and CoE doctrinal ambiguity? And from the fact that many churches who presumably do not reflect what you consider to be "everything that is good about religion" are growing?

Brit said...

Um...His main aim would presumably be to ensure that the Church continues to do its work and proclaim its message as God intends.

Peter Burnet said...

Oh my, how pious of you. But you are the materialist who doesn't believe there is a message as God intends, so how about answering the question on those terms.

Or did Easter bring a revelation this year?

Brit said...

That's my guess as to what is his aim on his terms.

You and Duck are the ones projecting marketing aims onto him - or rather, you're saying that increasing the number of churchgoers - even if this means compromising on his principles - should be his main aim.

You might be right.

Duck said...

He has the goal that any leader of an organization has, to promote the organizational imperatives. There is some creed, philosophy or belief behind any organization, and the leader has to voice that creed, philosophy or belief as confidently and persuasively as he can. And yes, getting people in the pews, or at least keeeping people there is the job of the leader.

Peter Burnet said...

Well, Brit's best point is that there is a tension between sincerity or purity of spirit and increasing "market share", but that is an eternal issue all churches face and deal with in various ways, some more admirable than others. The point I'm trying to make is that the Anglican clergy has been watching its churches empty (and close) for a long time over a wide area and I don't think it has a lot to do with the minutiae of theology. Whatever they are offering is turning people off, yet Brit seems to see it all in admirable terms and appears to be rooting for the Williams thinking to continue.

When we talk about those bad old days of pre-Enlightenment theocracy, the adjective we hear all the time is "priest-ridden", which everybody thinks was a very bad thing. Yet here is the Anglican clergy defiantly promoting milquetoast Christianity, open-ended tolerance and moral relativism, a vague incohate sense of wonder about Existence that they are too embarassed to try and concretize into doctrine or articles of faith and non-stop social activism, all with little regard for what their members say they want or need. Twenty years ago it could have been blamed on a general decline in religion, but I don't think that is very persuasive today given the growth in more doctrinally robust churches. So why is Brit so sympathetic to Williams and his ilk when they are clearly just standing by grooving on how complex everything is and watching the whole thing blow up? I think the modesty and humility they show must hide gargantuan egos.

monix said...

I think the modesty and humility of which you complain actually shows a move towards real Christian values. It is far easier to pay lip-service to doctrine and to get emotional satisfaction from ritual than it is to live daily life according to Christ's teaching and example. That is why the pews are emptying. The challenge of uncertainty is too great for most people.

Brit said...

Peter: I will answer your question fully in a new post. But suffice it to say that I don't have a sinister agenda, but am merely saying what I like and don't like.

Peter Burnet said...


Yes, many do feel as you and you encapsulate nicely the driving force behind much of the evolution of mainstream churches for at least several generations now. But is it not a little dated? What you say resonates with many believers when juxtaposed against 19th century untramontane Catholicism or the old alliance between Anglicanism and the aristocratic social order, but that's not today. By setting themselves for so long against simplistic certainties and their handmaiden, priggishness, the liberal churches have now reached the point where they have rooted out meaning itself, as well as any notions of right and wrong, good and evil. When your vicar reaches the point where he/she admits to having no idea whether you should leave your spouse or how to respond to 9/11 ("so let's talk about global warming instead"), many folks simply aren't going to bother anymore because they aren't responding to the religious impulse and they are offering a spiritual wasteland instead. Can you tell me what the difference is today between mainstream Western Anglicanism and Foucault's despairing deconstructionalism? More to the point, can they?

Examples are legion and here's just two. A couple of days after 9/11, when everyone was still reeling, my wife and I stumbled on an Anglian congregation having a little family gathering with hot dogs at the local park to be together in such scary times. All well and good, but the minister, a limp-wristed caring type, clearly hadn't a clue what it all meant or what to say about it. After expressing a little mild anti-Americanism, he talked a lot about his psychology courses, confessed his utter confusion and concluded by quoting that well-known theologian, John Lennon, that we should all "let it be." I really would have been more impressed if he had taken the Islamist line.

The second is from an even more liberal church my wife had family ties to. Week after week we were treated to homilies on aboriginal peoples, the environmental crisis, etc. Finally one week the children were all brought to the front to hear a story about forgiveness. The illustration was to ask them to imagine one or other of their parents had "stepped out" with a new lover. The kids were encouraged to see things from the parent's perspective and not be judgmental. That was it for me and I remember looking at my wife and saying: "Road trip!"

Also, I think we put too much emphasis on the content of creed and incidents of belief and not enough on the way we revere--ceremony, liturgy, etc. I don't believe even most of the evangelicals are as certain about things as their adversaries claim or assume, but they do seem to understand that they go to church to worship and nourish the yearning for the Eternal we all feel, not for a political harangue or to hear the minister wring his hands about how complicated and confusing everything is.

So, once again, what are the people filling the "conservative" churches looking for? More than naive certainty, I think.


My good man, I would never accuse you of being sinister or bad or anything like that. Just wrong.

monix said...

I knew I should have avoided getting into this debate - it is impossible to avoid misunderstandings. On the whole, I think I am singing from a very similar hymnsheet to yours. The kind of certainties that I am pleased to have outgrown are not the basics of right and wrong, good and evil. Had I heard the preachers you quote, I would have been for the road trip too.

I was referring to the pre-Vatican 2 Catholic church that I was born into, where we ordinary members were given a formula for getting us from cradle to grave to purgatory and beyond. Fear and guilt were used to keep everyone in line and if that is the only way to keep the pews full then I'm delighted they are emptying.

Great opportunities were offered by Vatican 2 but they have mostly been missed because change has been resisted or compromised. People feel safe when they have a formula: it was much easier to go through the checklist of mass on Sunday, fish on Friday, confession once a fortnight and sex for procreation only, than to face the challenge of the full 'examen'. I find myself challenged daily by what happens in my immediate environment as well as world events and I would be very suspicious of any church leader who had a certain sure answer for everything. Sometimes 'I dunno' is the only honest, humble answer.

I don't know if the evangelical churches have the clearest message, our youngsters certainly think they have the best music! Good liturgy, ritual and symbolism are essential and some of our Latin rites have been replaced with very inferior stuff, but that can be remedied without returning to the days when we were observers at a performance, instead of participants in an act of worship.

Maybe naive certainty and good music are all that a lot of people want from church hence the growth of the evangelical movement. I'll stay where I am with all the uncertainties, I've always loved a challenge.

Mark said...


You talk about the bad old pre-V2 days and bemoan the resistence to implementing the "opportunities offerred" by the council, as if if they had been enacted in full it would have had a positive impact. Even half implemented the fruits of the Council led to a mass exodus from the church, a drop of over two-third in vocations in the West and the almost total elimination of female religious orders as a substantial force.

Having said which I might be being a tad unfair, because, of course, it was not V2 that prescribed these things but the 'Spirit' of V2. That Spirit which allowed a bunch of crazed neophiles, purpose-seekers and Gramscians to ransack everything. Yes liturgy and ritual are important, but they are all of a piece with culture and for better or worse Fish on Friday, Signs of the Cross, Nuns in Habits,Corpus Christi processions, Popes on Sedia Gestatoria,etc helped to define Catholicism and bind people to the faith. Yes it was tribal, but no, I don't think they were leading poor miserable and benighted lives until someone came along and said you can have mass with tambourines, homespun vestments and no judgements made: spiritual, moral, aesthetic or liturgical.

monix said...

I don't believe in 'golden ages' so I don't think everything was fine pre-V2 and it is cetainly far from fine now. I'd be interested to know if you had first-hand experience of the pre-V2 church? Would you like to go back to the Index and not being allowed to read the Bible? It wasn't just Gregorian chant, birettas and processions.

Many of the disastrous and hideous changes you describe did not come out of the Council but because there was a lack of leadership and organisation in planning and implementing change. I've been part of commissions on catechesis and liturgy and have been shocked to find the majority of the decision-making members have never read any of the relevant documents, as a result we have had years of 'anything goes.'
That said, forty years is nothing in the life of the church. Sooner or later it will hit bottom and then sort itself out. (We had two popes at one time so I'm sure we'll survive a few tambourines and nuns in Marks and Spencer clothes.) There will have to be major reform of some kind because, as you point out, we are running out of priests; my diocese does not have a single student in seminary.

I think Africa, India and Poland will shape the church for the next few centuries.The indications are that Tradition will be restored, the 'certainty-wallers' will be back in charge and everyone will get back on the safe track to purgatory.

monix said...

Oops! I meant 'certainty-wallahs' of course!