by John Saxbee
from Signs of the Times No. 64 - Jan 2017
Combining the accessible style of an experienced journalist with measured analysis by a respected sociologist of religion ought to result in an evidence-based best-seller demanding to be taken seriously.
When the subject is as important as the evolving role of the Church of England in contemporary society, the need for such an essay has never been more urgent.
In many respects, this book delivers on its promise.
Andrew Brown does indeed bring all his experience as a newspaper columnist and commentator on religious affairs to ensure that this is an eminently readable account of how the C of E has performed since the translation of George Carey to Canterbury in 1991. For her part, Linda Woodhead as Professor in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University, and President of Modern Church, tempers the journalese with the fruits of careful academic research and statistical analysis.
After a scene-setting introduction which describes a culture of complacent self-satisfaction on the part of senior clergy during the 1980s, Woodhead recounts her experiences on the staff of Cuddesdon Theological College. The issues which would convulse the C of E in coming decades were already lurking in the undergrowth of complacency and failure to grasp what was happening in society.
Chapter three provides a no-holds-barred account of how conservative evangelicals manipulated General Synod to ensure that ‘Calvinist’ theology and misogynist / homophobic morality obsessed the Church and its observers at a time when society was increasingly relaxed about gender equality and sexual orientation.
There follows a surprisingly attenuated account of how sociology of religion reveals it was not so much secularism that threatened the Church, but a change in the mores and manners of Thatcher’s Britain.
Next, attention turns to tortuous debates about the ordination of women followed by a highly critical appraisal of George Carey. Whilst his diagnosis of the problems facing the church was pretty accurate, this was compromised by grandiose but ultimately ineffective remedies – especially the Decade of Evangelism and the Archbishops’ Council.
An entertaining chapter on the Charismatic Movement ends with the tantalising suggestion that an increasing number of bishops who had powerful conversion experiences found themselves ‘even more at odds with the rest of England’.
A chapter on global Anglicanism majors on how successive Lambeth Conferences fuelled divisions over gender and sexuality – divisions which plagued the archiepiscopate of Rowan Williams, the subject of two key chapters.
If George Carey was an Archbishop whom liberals could find it quite easy to oppose, they really wanted to love Rowan, and his election was greeted with hope and expectation by those disillusioned by evangelical and Anglo-Catholic obscurantism. Hence the sadness with which the authors dissect his time in office with particular reference to the Jeffrey John and Sharia Law episodes. Rowan tried his best to achieve compromise on gender and sexuality issues, but he was effectively asking liberals to stop doing what they believed in, and conservatives to stop saying what they believed. This was doomed to failure, as the demise of the Anglican Covenant proposal clearly demonstrated.
An exceptionally intelligent, good and holy man found himself beleaguered behind a phalanx of officials whose advice he seldom sought, and whose protection was all too oppressive. However, such a description of Rowan needs to be balanced by positive regard for his remarkable engagement with ordinary folk which I experienced accompanying him during four days on a Diocesan pastoral visit. It is also worth pointing out that his determination to keep people talking to each other, even at the risk of his being pilloried from all sides, stands as testimony to a resolute man of peace and reconciliation.
The final chapter gives a cautious welcome to Justin Welby although, apparently, his insistence on talking about Jesus further alienates people from the Church. This rather dubious assessment is balanced by some helpful endorsement, though unacknowledged, of what many dioceses are doing to promote local lay and non-stipendiary ministries.
The book succeeds only to a certain extent. Its fundamental premise seems to be that the English people the C of E has lost related to the church largely in its episcopal and archiepiscopal manifestations, when for all but the most dedicated of ecclesiastical anoraks it is vicars, church buildings and occasional offices which define that relationship. Whilst there is an occasional nod to parochial clergy and laity, by far the greater emphasis is on how the church has been led or misled by senior clergy and bureaucrats.
Of particular interest to Signs of the Times readers will be the account taken of liberals and the role they have played in the unfolding story. Sadly, they are given pretty short shrift. For example, in a chapter on how evangelicals ganged up on gay people, it is surely unfair to assert that ‘the liberal elite failed to stand up to any of it’.
Whilst it is as true now as then that liberals display a pathological inability to organise themselves into a coherent fighting force, still in General Synod and at Lambeth Conferences liberal voices were raised and resulted in significant mitigation of the worst homophobic excesses.
By no means least, there are a number of factual errors which serve to raise suspicions that other bits of the story, including some quite juicy bits of tabloid-type tittle-tattle, might only have a tangential relationship to the truth. Indeed, the first print run had to be recalled in order to excise a reference which could become subject to legal challenge. These are the points at which Woodhead’s studied approach gets overtaken by Brown’s rather more racy reportage.
All in all, this is a robust and forthright attempt to take stock of how the C of E as an established institution flirted with organisational fads, failed to celebrate and channel a nation’s evolving spirituality and attempted to reconcile its constituent parties when holding them in creative tension offered the best hope of fulfilling its ministry and mission.
We are helpfully shown how when the Church of England loses touch with the essentials of Englishness, it inevitably loses its hold on those it purports to serve. Of course, in an increasingly diverse and multi-cultural society Englishness is itself a contested notion. Furthermore, across the Western world the so-called establishment is taking a beating in successive tests of public opinion so presenting major challenges to an established Church.
We might conclude that our concern should be not so much with the church that was as with the world that is, and (as liberals have always done) reform our faith accordingly. In a world of increasing political and economic uncertainty, the liberal counter to the attraction of fundamentalist nostrums becomes ever more necessary, albeit never more difficult.