In its search for 'relevance', the Anglican Church is losing relevance
The Anglican church seems to have forgotten why people go to church
By Tim Stanley
November 21st, 2012
Being cruel to Anglicans is about as low as kicking a puppy. The Anglican Church does a lot of good for a lot of people and its presence in British public life forces debates about politics and social policy to be a bit more reflective than they would otherwise be. It is also capable of profound beauty. Village churches are arks of Englishness: neatly stacked Books of Common Prayer, hard wooden pews, a perfume of human breath and burning wax, a Union Jack hung above a shrine to the fallen. I pray that the Church of England is never disestablished, for I feel about these temples in the same way that I do public libraries. I never visit them, but it brings me comfort to know that they are there.
In the 21st century, what is the purpose of the village church? For much of the establishment of the Church of England, the answer seems to be "relevance" - they must earn their status in society by reflecting society's diversity of background and opinion. The great irony is that they want to make relevant something that is actually devalued by the attempt to make it relevant. God doesn't do "relevance." He just is - and, for most religious consumers, that's what makes him so appealing. For this newspaper, Helen Goodman writes that the Synod's decision to reject women bishops is driven by a "backward-looking minority" and is a threat to the "church's mission". She sums that mission up thus, The Church of England is a great institution. It is the established church with a vital role to play in the life of the nation. There are certainly plenty of challenges where the Church's unique voice needs to be heard: how to bind fractured communities; address alienation and the inexorable rise of consumerism and how to protect the natural environment.
Note that one word that is missing from this mission is "God". Of course, binding communities and criticising capitalism is a big part of The Big Man's agenda; we are all called to love our fellow man and question injustice. But, atheists can do those things too. Aside from a hearty chorus of "All Things Bright And Beautiful" there's little to differentiate Helen Goodman's essentially humanist vision of Christianity from socialism - it's just nice people trying to be nice. Great stuff, but it lacks the sense of spiritual authority that actually makes going to church a unique experience. It's difficult to distinguish between joining Goodman's church and, say, joining Greenpeace - although Greenpeace don't ask you to get out of bed on a Sunday morning.
I was raised in the very different tradition of Baptism (and I'm now a Roman Catholic; it's a looong story). For us, doing good was a manifestation of evangelism. We wanted to feed and clothe the poor, but we also explicitly and loudly wanted to save their souls - and, by so doing, perhaps save our own. Fundamentalism will freak out many readers, but if you see churches as competing brands within a free market of ideas then I have to report that that Hallelujah Brigade is doing rather better than the Tea and Sympathy crowd. While liberal church attendance continues to plummet, evangelical churches are multiplying. In fact, there's a good reason why the margin of defeat for women bishops came from the lay part of the Synod: roughly 42 per cent of Anglicans are now evangelical. The Church of England's essentially liberal establishment has dithered for so long over women and gay clergy because it doesn't want to alienate the one bit of its congregation that is actually growing.
It's very English (and, therefore, quite Anglican) to dismiss the evangelicals as crazy people with an antiquated addiction to the Bible. But it's actually the strength of their faith that makes them so attractive to people searching for certainty in a confusing and often horrible world. After all, "we offer the keys to the kingdom of heaven" is a far more compelling advertisement for a church than, "help us address alienation and the inexorable rise of consumerism."
Put aside your prejudices and ask why anyone might visit a church in a time of distress? To hear moral clarity; to be told that "you too can be saved."? Or to discuss "how to protect the natural environment"? I struggle to understand why much of the Anglican leadership doesn't understand the difference. Forgive my presumptuousness, but I presume it's the result of being embedded in an institutional culture that is obsessed with causing as little offence as possible.
I sometimes get the sense that the Church hopes that by remaining as quiet as possible, it might be permitted to go on existing. And the best way to maintain silence is to pursue consensus.
Ah consensus - the watchword of all failed politicians. The problems that the Church has faced over women bishops or gay priests are not the product of a "backwards minority" or an over-trendy majority at war with its own parishioners. Rather they are the consequence of refusing to speak with authority on anything.
In this sense, liberals are as much damaged by the establishment's lack of definition as the conservatives are. A Church of England with a more theological sense of mission would simply say, "This is what we believe God wants and we will make it so." Instead, ironically, its supine desire to be all things to all people means that it has refused to define once and for all where it stands on the ordination of groups that it ought to fight for. The result is that even reforming zeal is paralysed by good manners and bureaucracy. This morning, I saw a friend on Twitter demanding "electoral reform" of the Synod. Is this a church or a branch of the Liberal Democrats?
In its desire to be "more human," the Anglican Church has rebelled against human nature. For it is natural to want some dimension of authority in our lives. People go to church for answers to the big questions, and it's the answers ("Love me and love thy neighbour") that then compel them to go out in the world and build a better society. I hope the next Archbishop will break from this trend and talk more forcefully about God. He might notice a small bump in Sunday attendance.
Dr. Tim Stanley is a historian of the United States. His biography of Pat Buchanan is out now. His personal website is www.timothystanley.co.uk and you can follow him on Twitter@timothy_stanley
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