The Anglican church I attended in London was always full on Sundays. The one I visit now in Oxford is not so popular, we have no vicar and the congregation is older and mostly women. Country parishes seem to be in most trouble and according to a new survey the decline in the Church of England has accelerated rapidly.
This Sunday, May 31st 2015, NatCen, an independent social research agency released its findings about our state church after questioning nearly 3,000 people. They found that the proportion of people saying they are Anglican has fallen by two fifths, by 4.5 million in ten years, from around 13 million church goers to about eight and a half million,l part of an overall picture of decline going back more than 30 years. Atheists now account for half the population and the number of Muslims stands at five percent. These findings if they are accurate and unbiased, show a dramatic shift in religious beliefs in the UK over the past ten years.
As a practising Anglican I am naturally very worried about all this, without wishing to play a numbers game it does not look like good news for the state church or the monarchy, our oldest institutions. But since I moved to Oxford, a very religious city, even though at present it has no Bishop, I have been surprised by the reaction of other Christians to this crisis.
Last November I attended a debate about the future of the C.of E. The only answers I heard, and the only questions, suggested that the future lay with gay rights and ecclesiastical justice for lesbians. There was also a lot of retrospective recrimination along the lines of, ‘Why have we waited so long for women bishops?’
I was surprised to hear then and since, that the issue of homosexuality is regarded by many in the clergy as of overwhelming importance for the future of the church. No one ever asks the laity, here in Oxford they are mostly elderly ladies, what they think about this or the downgrading of marriage which seems concomitant. I did once stand up and asked this question about the laity, but received no reply.
The latest CofE crisis think-tank, published its ideas on June 1st, coming up with another solution to the lack of bums on pews. They have decided to change or rather improve on the traditionally understood nature of God by deciding that he is a woman. Forget the God of our fathers strong to save, and the poems of John Donne, the Ancient of Days is now more of a cross between Harriet Harperson and Oprah Winfrey.
A women’s group in the Church of England has called for the inversion of male language surrounding references to God and asked that the Christian deity be referred to in future as “She” The call is pioneered by Watch (Women and the Church), which spearheaded the campaign for female bishops. Watch member Rev Jody Stowell said the group wants to re-configure the almost exclusively male references to God.
‘Orthodox theology says all human beings are made in the image of God, that God does not have a gender,’ she says. ‘He encompasses gender – he is both male and female and beyond male and female. So when we only speak of God in the male form, that’s actually giving us a deficient understanding of who God is.’
The Rev Emma Percy, chaplain of Trinity College Oxford, also a member of Watch, said a change in language would change the way God was perceived, and shake the image of the, ‘man in the sky.’ There will be no more ‘Men of God’ rising up to serve the, ‘King of Kings,’ and at Christmas we will soon have to do without the ‘Merry Gentlemen,’ rested or not.
As usual we are following the USA in all this. In 2009 an ‘Honors Project’ was submitted by one Lindsay Oakley to her supervisor the wonderfully named Dr. Clark Measels, entitled, ‘Feminine God language in Modern Hymns.’ Over here the likes of the Rev Percy probably spells the end of hymns Ancient & Modern and what remains of the Prayer Book liturgy. Perhaps more significantly she also represents the end of Christian marriage in the Church of England, as we knew it.
The idea of marriage as being a sacrament between a man and a woman, with the ideal of founding a family has been thrown out. That institution is seen as too much about masculine power. Besides, marriage is no longer a sacrament to most people, who probably do not anyway know what a sacrament is, and the church itself doesn’t want any of that hocus- pocus going on. Intensive concentration on gay, lesbian and trans-gender rights has seen a downgrading of traditional Christian marriage, which of course reflects society where the need for marriage is now largely disregarded. The day before the Watch report, a female reporter from the Daily Mail, once the paper of the frantically respectable, wrote a piece about her three daughters, proudly declaring they all had different fathers, and as she put it, ‘What of it?’
It’s very hard to stand up for traditional marriage these days and the church certainly isn’t doing it. What are the ordinary folk in the pews to make of it? We shall never know and most of them have voted with their feet and left the church. It’s milk-toast liberal message does not seem to attract their loyalty anymore than the stone tablets recently presented to the multitude by Ed Miliband.
The views of all the good religious folk who are desperately trying to change the church and its language for their own needs are of course grounded in the idea that God is really some kind of universal, liberal psychotherapist. This was highlighted for me two years ago on my last trip to Coventry Cathedral. I asked one of the ushers clad in a cassock to show me the best way to see the statue of St. Michael casting Satan out of Heaven, by Jacob Epstein on the southern end of the east wall.
‘We don’t talk about Satan in that way anymore,’ she lisped. ‘We prefer to think of him just having some time out, just to think again about his attitudes.’
That statue was put up less than twenty years after the Nuremberg Trials when our culture was forced to determine right from wrong and forcefully punish what was clearly seen as evil. Times have certainly changed. Her God was without ire or an ounce, heaven forefend, of wrath and indignation. He/She doesn’t ‘do’ anger and loves everyone equally for being exactly what they are, like a good middle class parent, ignoring failure, sin and vice to accentuate the positive. This is the new God of funny fridge magnets and children’s art work, not the exacting parent who rewards failure with punishment. I hope they are right or God help us, whomsoever she may be.