by Alan Wolfe
from Signs of the Times No. 46 - Jul 2012

Current events suggest (at least to me as a layman) that the Church of England has been drifting back towards its predecessor, the Church in England.

Up to 500 years ago the Church was ruled by its Bishops and Priests who saw their function as instructing their congregations what to believe and how to behave; and for those who were seen to disobey in any respect to judge and punish them (even to the point in exceptional cases of inflicting a death almost as cruel as that suffered by Our Lord).

What the Reformation insisted was that the Church was not an ecclesiastical hierarchy (or a building come to that) but the community of those who acknowledged 'Jesus is Lord', as recorded in Acts, Didache and the documents of 1st-3rd centuries. The first Christians believed they had access to God not via the Church, but directly through Jesus the Saviour and His Holy Spirit. Ministers were called to be 'prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers' (Ephesians, 4: 11) who gave their congregations guidance and encouragement to worship, pray, study Scripture and listen to the inspiration of the Spirit, who would tell them what and what not to do.

It can be suggested that the current problems have arisen because certain Bishops and other ecclesiastics, arising from their personal and undiscussable interpretations of Scripture, have been demanding the imposition of their strongly-held beliefs and procedures upon the whole Church including the lay public. The Anglican Covenant is a specific example of there being no alternative choices on offer, and our Archbishop (despite being an extremely broad-minded man) requesting us all to comply.

One understands from history that it is tempting to those in power to become theocratic: 'I have been appointed by God to enact His laws', and then to take strong measures to enforce them. But history also suggests that the end results seem to resemble secular totalitarian dictatorships as far as the person in the street or pew is concerned. It is easy to interpret the 'Arab Spring' as a kind of Islamic Reformation, but a better parallel may be the French and Russian Revolutions which both led immediately to systems in many ways worse than before. And even the intentionally tolerant Church of England took 160 years between shaking off the Papacy and legalising non-conformist worship!

This is not in any way to suggest that the CofE would be better off without clergy; despite the fact that the Quakers have done very well since inception on the principle of the Ministry of All. Our large membership would be a shambles without a professional, knowledgeable and dedicated administration to deal with worship and pastoral care alone. We are fortunate that so many of our clergy carry out their vocations with much love and humility.

Nor is it a suggestion that those who hold strong beliefs should keep them to themselves. Surely Christians must all live in accordance with our faith and freely tell others what we believe and why. But we have to accord equal rights to the differing beliefs of others, and just as we will not actually accept all of them, so we must not forcibly impose our own. Even Muslims know from the Holy Qur'an that there can be no compulsion in religion, so there should be choices available to all.

For example, someone who cannot accept Communion from a woman or homosexual should be allowed to find a compatible place of worship, just as others (like me) who take care to avoid fundamentalist evangelism, and some who (for all I know!) shun Vicars with red hair or Welsh accents.

We are worried by falling attendances, and it seems to me that the future of the CofE will depend not on Tradition, Scripture, or even Reason, but 'Reception'. We need to know what congregations will and will not tolerate, and what they understand, accept, prefer and look forward to.

The current system of including the laity in mixed Synods does not seem to be producing helpful results: could it be too 'top down', or perhaps the lay members do not represent (or discuss controversial subjects with) the people at the other end of their pew? Certainly there should be some mechanism whereby topics that cause congregations resentment, anxiety and confusion, or enlightenment, thankfulness and joy are identified and signalled straight from the bottom to the top.

This need not change Christianity or the teaching of Jesus (which is in any case not at the disposal of humankind); only the way in which it is presented and carried out (which is).