Jeremy Paxman

(‘The Church of England’s fight to survive’, FT Weekend Magazine.)

Jeremy Paxman’s article about the future of the Church of England is both affectionate and exasperated. While he points out just how far from the thinking of the rest of the country the Church of England is in many social matters, he admires the ‘reasonableness’ with which the Church of England works at them. While he notes the many good works the Church of England can point to, he also reminds us that numbers (of people, resources) are dwindling. ‘I admire the Church’ he writes, ‘In many ways the story of England is the story of her Church, and there is something endearing about its endless anxieties.’

Paxman also points out that it is not the many good works that the Church of England does that are an issue for its mission, it is God: ‘not enough people believe in the one thing that makes it different from the secular world.’ The Church of England may well have begun to make some adjustments to the realities of our society (‘the world the rest of us have been living in for years’) but they seem to have caught the Church by surprise and it is struggling to catch up.

Paxman concludes by pointing out the theological tradition of Richard Hooker and his three-legged ‘stool’ of ‘Scripture, tradition and the application of reason’, suggesting that it is ‘the third of these that distinguishes the Church of England’.

The ‘application of reason’ – using our minds to attend to the directions the Spirit of God is moving in the world, in the society around us, is how the Church responds in mission to its environment (and is something Modern Church has been gently prodding the Church to do for nearly 120 years). Changing, in the light of our thinking, through our attending to the Spirit in the world, is how Christianity develops and maintains some sense of being meaningful to the world, with all its particularities.

Two things occur to me from this. One, the picture of God we present to the world is not attractive. I wouldn’t want to believe in the God that so many of our contemporaries don’t believe in either. The God of the Church of England is often seen as simply against things: against women in leadership positions, against loving same-sex (or differently gendered) relationships, and so on. We need to change the picture (it is, after all, just a picture). The picture of God we present needs to be painted from the palette of what love in God incarnate looks like: God who loves you as you are; a God who offers you mercy, forgiveness and peace; a God who looks for justice and the flourishing of all people; a God who does not threaten whole nations with oblivion; a God who takes the particularities of our time and place with complete seriousness as the means of grace.

Two, the institution is not our mission. There may be something ‘endearing’ about the Church of England and its endless anxieties, but mostly as an irrelevance. If we truly believe that for the sake of God’s love the world need not be the way it is, then we need to spend less time worrying about the institution, and more time living the life of love to which God calls us in Christ. If the Church’s leadership is largely perceived as being mostly worried about itself (and sometimes going to extreme lengths of nastiness to protect itself), then that leadership – and by extension the church they lead – will continue to be perceived as a part of the problem and in the way of a contribution to solutions.

I do not believe that any of the leadership of the Church of England wants to be seen in that way – the bishops are, by and large, decent people and want the Gospel they preach to make a difference in the world. But if the Church is to avoid what Paxman describes as ‘tottering from irrelevance to the edge of extinction’, it needs to observe more closely the ways in which God is speaking to the church through the changing society around us, using the discernment of love and justice and human flourishing, and follow.