Church’s End

Is the Church of England as we know it coming to an end? Atheist readers may not care one way or the other, but, while it has influence, and while a conservative Reform movement is holding some of the purse strings, should we worry? Neil Richardson is part of the C of E, an institution he says is “tolerant and easygoing” – and he doesn’t want it to change.

During the course of the past decade, and even further back, there were rumblings of a fatal collision between liberal reformers in the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion on the one hand and, on the other, the more conservative forces assembled under the grouping within the church of England that is known as Reform and was established in 1993.

Reform is a movement dedicated to turning over the Church of England as an umbrella organisation.

After the fiasco in 2003 of the appointment and withdrawal of the openly gay Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading, I was asking the question: Can the Church of England survive much longer in its present state? It seemed likely that, in the course of the next few months, there would be severe challenges to the Church of England that may well have seen it break up into two or three fragments. The situation that may provoke this result is complex and has a long history, but is possibly very imminent. (Although the prophets of doom have been proved wrong in the past . . .)

It is difficult to pinpoint the start of the process that has led to today’s problems. Some might argue that the seeds of the Church of England’s potential demise were sown in its initial conception. I guess nobody at the time thought it would last 400-plus years. It was always a makeshift compromise, designed to keep together theological views that are, at root, incompatible. The incompatibilities are now staring at each other. They see that the end is in sight. The only question would appear to be who will survive in best shape when and if we finally part company?

If we look back for signs of today’s situation, we may point to the 19th century and the well-documented alternatives to the biblical version of reality that surfaced in that century. There was the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 and the public attempt by a Bishop of Oxford to argue down by ridicule the theories it presented. There was the work of Sigmund Freud, which uncovered areas of human life hitherto only glimpsed at, and the political philosophy of Karl Marx, which reduced the churches to an opiate of the people.

One by one, they came forward to demolish one or more long-established tenets of the Bible, and, as we know, the 20th century saw the gradual demise of the Church’s teaching and the total victory of modern thinking as the norm for ordinary people. The people voted with their feet, and now only a tiny percentage of the population find themselves in a Church of England church, or any church, on a Sunday.

Unusual phenomenon

In more recent times, the two appalling wars of the bloody 20th century knocked a lot of faith out of the nation and the rise of scientific explanations for life saw the end of a biblical interpretation of life for the vast majority of people. In the universities, even theologians were having doubts and were reinterpreting the Bible in the light of modern thinking and secular ideas.

But the 20th century saw an unusual phenomenon. It was understandable that university thinkers and theologians might be reflecting radically on the Bible, and outsiders might attack the church, but then senior Church figures came out and seemed to be casting doubt on the Church’s doctrines. A good example is the popularising Honest to God, a book written by a Bishop of Woolwich, which presented to the popular reader a selection of ideas critical of the traditional theology of the Bible and apparently undermining it.

There were some strange anomalies. The Rev. Don Cupitt was writing about the death of God and atheistic Christianity, while at the same time drawing a stipend as a C of E cleric and celebrating Holy Communion in parish churches. In 1977, Maurice Wiles, then the Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, contributed to a book called The Myth of God Incarnate.

The book was an intellectual exercise designed to understand how the Church could re-present the Christian claims about incarnation in a language and thought pattern that was understandable to modern people who had lost faith in the original language and thought patterns of the Bible. He was widely abused for this brave effort.

Uproar of opposition

Then, in 1984, a scholar and academic was appointed Bishop of Durham. His name was David Jenkins. He made some public pronouncements that appeared to indicate that he, a bishop, did not believe literally in the virgin birth or resurrection of Jesus. He caused an uproar of opposition and, oddly, part of York Minster burned down just as he was to be consecrated bishop.

All these goings-on in the Church of England were watched with mirth by the media, with sadness by our friends and with glee by our detractors. Within the Church, a group of evangelical Christians were watching with a growing sense of horror. After preliminary discussions, they met in 1993 in London and created a new grouping within the Church, which was given the name Reform. Reform is now a large and powerful grouping of evangelical congregations from all round the country and it is the largest-growing part of the Church of England.

For this reason and because it teaches tithing of incomes for congregations, Reform churches have lots of money. In fact, it has been said that, without the money these churches plough into the Church of England’s diocesan structures, the C of E would fold up.

That is where we are possibly approaching.

Reform argues that we are in need of reform because we have strayed from biblical teaching and started to talk like secular and liberal people of our own time, rather than keep to the faith. It stoutly holds to the Bible as having supreme authority in all matters and it identifies the major areas as:

  • doctrinal purity on matters such as the virgin birth and the resurrection and the finality of revelation in Jesus Christ;
  • sexual ethics, in particular, opposition to homosexuality and all sex outside marriage; and
  • theological objections to women having charge of churches.

Reform people argue that the current liberal catholic leadership of the C of E is contradicting the teaching of the Bible by:

  • permitting the questioning of such matters as the virgin birth and accepting the validity and integrity of other faiths;
  • accepting homosexual relations as good – and what a strange coincidence that another Bishop of Oxford should now have triggered the furore about Jeffrey John!; and
  • giving women priests authority over men and moving towards women bishops.

But the crunch for Reform members is that they do not want to spend their money supporting Christians who are deeply undermining what they believe is the true Bible message. So, as the crunch time comes, there is a head of steam in Reform for them to withdraw their money or at least cap their contributions to the central church funds and use their spending power to support only those church congregations who are of the same mind.

That is where we may be heading, and, if it does come to that, we in the other parts of the Church of England will be feeling the financial pinch immediately and there will be difficult and life-changing decisions for all of us to make. It may not happen, but I feel that, this time, the Church of England will unravel into its constituent parts and we will be looking around us for inspiration.

The whim of a king

Well, despite what I have been describing above, I am still a believer in the Church of England and I am very proud to be part of it. It is broken in places. Human weaknesses are abundant and obvious. It is irritating and often as slow as a dinosaur. But would you want it any other way?

The Church of England may have been born in blood and at the whim of a king but it slowly evolved into an expression of faith that is uniquely English and tolerant of differences. That is the way I found it and that is the way I want to leave it. I don’t want a Church of England that is cocky and assertive and I don’t want a Church of England that lionises a supreme leader or worships the Bible. I want a Church of England that is an open and accepting place for everyone who seeks it and needs it.

It feels to me that the current tensions are largely due to what, for want of a better term, we might call “entryism”. The position is similar to that in which the Labour Party found itself in the 1970s, when people of an extreme political persuasion joined to steer it in the direction of the far left. People who do not have the character and temperament to be C of E have been entering the church and are now in positions that permit their extreme views to create division, whereas hitherto we have lived side by side under the C of E umbrella. Is it now showing more tolerant followers the digitus impudicus – or, in other words, flipping the bird?

The tolerant and easygoing C of E is where I grew up and discovered myself as a young person. It has served the nation well for hundreds of years and it because it hasn’t been too pushy or arrogant, it has witnessed to the God of love who is beyond our grasp to control. Some of the Reform people seem to think that God is their glove puppet and they can make him say or do whatever they want him to say or do. We must resist these people. Being a tolerant and liberal Christian may not be fashionable any more, but it is worth defending ourselves against attack and being changed into an authoritarian or Bible-blinded church.

“Above all,” wrote David Jenkins, “we need to pray . . . that God will . . . spare us the ultimate humiliation . . . of discussing him in ways which deny his mystery, his freedom, his infinite openness and his incredibly suffering love.

Neil Richardson has been the rector of the Parish of Greenford Magna  in Middlesex since 1982. He is also a Prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral and an Honorary Alderman of the London Borough of Ealing. He has been a member of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) since the 1970s.

Related links
Maurice Wiles (Radical Faith entry)