by Richard Truss
from Signs of the Times No. 50 - Jul 2013

This is a slim volume, necessarily you might say. Yet that would be unfair as the author seeks to cover the vast span of the theology and practice of the Church in a succinct and readable form and to identify its strengths, but with no illusions about corresponding weaknesses and dangers.

The title is based on a book What's Right with the Church of England written in 1966 by Ronald Williams, then Bishop of Leicester. Williams was one of the last be-gaitered bishops who rejoiced in being addressed as 'My Lord Bishop' even after the Lambeth Conference had a suggested a humbler form of address might be more appropriate in the egalitarian Sixties.

He ordained me and also conducted my wedding and had a generous heart behind a very traditional and sometimes forbidding exterior. It is therefore of personal interest to see both how much and yet in some ways how little has changed between his time and this new work.

For Jennings the chapters of Williams' book provide convenient pegs on which to expand their themes as he sees them today. These vary from the eminently practical such as how can the Church pay its way with declining congregations and increased demands, to broadly doctrinal issues such as the place of the creeds today, so Williams wrote, surprisingly to those of us who saw him as an arch-traditionalist, that:

'The modern Christian is not expected to look on the Creeds as infallible, in the sense that no phrase in them should possibly be better expressed. It would be incredible if statements drawn up sixteen hundred years ago expressed perfectly the thoughts of those who live in a totally different world.'

Jennings's book is unashamedly partisan. Almost all his well-chosen quotations are from those with liberal credentials, including our own Adrian Thatcher and John Saxbee.  Those who see the Church as a counter-cultural separated community have got it wrong.  We have to choose between being a Church or a sect, the latter seeing themselves,  in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's analogy, 'travelling in a sealed train through enemy territory', unwilling to engage with modern culture and for whom theology and ethical questions  were all done and dusted by the time of the New Testament canon, or the writings  of Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin - take your pick.

Two major themes run through the book:

  • First, that the parochial system and localism are good things and worth fighting for against the odds, and
  • secondly, that theology, ethics, and practice must be in continual dialogue with society and must, if to be relevant at all, share something of the zeitgeist.

On the former, Jennings gives wise advice. Make sure that there is a priest in each parish  and that church buildings are kept and used imaginatively. This clearly is more easily said than done, and he does not shy away from the financial and personnel implications, but how much better than the "managed decline" which seems so often to be the order of the day and which gives out all the wrong signals.

On the latter, among much else, he considers the Richard Dawkins phenomenon, and especially the often disproportionately aggressive attempts to rebut him, with the Church in the process inadvertently showing itself as a threatened species fighting for survival, for sadly the religion which Dawkins attacks is by no means always a caricature. Jennings adds, "There are many within the Church who dismiss this atheist scientist with a vigour that is often inconsistent or at odds not only with basic human respect, but also in such a manner that is profoundly opposite to the pursuit of open and free enquiry." (p.32)

I suppose the biggest issue for all of us is how to live with those with whom we profoundly disagree, who see the Church in very different terms from those espoused by Jennings, and often seem to be extremely successful in marketing their brand.  His response is not to suggest a dialogue which would almost inevitably be fruitless, but to match it with liberal success. For Jennings this means showing  that the Church is really engaged with its local communities, treating people with intellectual respect, offering inclusive and well-designed worship and providing real care, and through all this realizing again that the whole parish, not just churchgoers, have an investment in the church  even if they darken its doors seldom or not at all. "Churches will grow when they are perceived and experienced as having relevance and significance with the life of the parish, confronting and addressing both individual and corporate needs and issues." (p.119)

This may seem quite an old-fashioned agenda, certainly for the 'covens' - his word - which seek to manage the Church. But Jennings makes his point well, that though we need to change, yet we must not do so too much, and there is also much which can be recovered from the thought of half a century ago.

The liberal agenda of the Sixties, even when refracted through a seemingly reactionary figure such as Ronald Williams, is worth re-visiting. This would make a good book for the PCC or for a church study group looking for both affirmation and inspiration.

Revd Canon Richard Truss retired as Vicar of St John's, Waterloo in 2008. He is a Modern Church Vice President.
What's Still Right with the Church of England: A future for the Church of England by David Jennings is published by Circle Books
ISBN 9781780994772.