I attended my first Oxford debate yesterday, 4th December 2014 in the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in what is called, ‘The High.’ It was advertised under the heading, ‘Vision,’ with the none too pithy banner, ‘What Does the Church of England Offer the Next Generation? What is the good news it brings to society today? What God do Anglicans worship, and where is the Spirit moving the church today?’
That gave me an Alan Bennettish vision of well meaning vicars asking a lot of rhetorical questions but never giving any answers. The question of what kind of God Anglicans worship is a bit of a fond old joke. In Bennett’s play, ‘A Visit From Miss Prothero’ the pensioner, played by Hugh Lloyd, wistfully points out that religious belief, even in parsons, wasn’t really necessary anymore.
That was in1982 when no one was terribly excited about such things, but times have changed. The position of the C of E is now a hot topic, attracting ambitious media folk, academics, politicians and ardent secularists.
Organised by the atheist Rt Hon Charles Clarke, our panel of pundits featured the very blonde Vicky Beeching, ‘Theologian, writer and broadcaster,’ who works for Sky TV while also being a happy clappy Evangelical. She’s not that happy though, as she told us we probably already knew her from her appearances in the tabloid press, when she came out as gay. She sat beside The Revd Canon Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ’s Church, the most venerable college in Oxford, who sported a red tie, fashionable beard and managed to look like an estate agent. There was Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, also very blonde, Christina Rees, a member of the General Synod, not a young woman but sporting a very short skirt, and Dairmaid macCulloch, DD, Oxford professor of the History of the Church.
Professor Linda Woodhead, a sociologist from Lancaster University, introduced the event, and said the most telling thing I heard all evening: A recent survey showed, she said, that the laity in this country value the Anglican church because they feel it is integral to British culture, the whole of it from Saxons to the present day. They appreciate the national cohesion it gives. They also love the history it represents. Not for nothing are our cathedrals our visited ancient buildings,with many doing a roaring trade from tourists from both the UK and abroad. The clergy however do not share that view. They see the chief concern of the church as involvement with that nebulous thing, ‘the community,’ bringing new people to God, and supporting the needy.
So it seems we have a population happy with the idea of a national church, probably readers of the Daily Mail, Telegraph and the Sun. But we have a clergy of Guardian readers. I am aware of that dichotomy as a church goer. I am also aware that what British people mostly like are church buildings to visit at Christmas, get married in or show off to visitors. They do not expect much else from the church. They are no longer taught about Christianity in school, very few of them study British history, so these old stones are all the information they get. Vicars, on the other hand, are out there trying to create something spiritual and relevant to today’s multi-cultural Britian, five years into a ruthless Tory Government, at the same time denying that the C of E has any distinctly British identity.
As the debate got underway this issue vanished. The views expressed were entirely those of the clergy. I felt like a member of UKIP sitting at a Labour Party conference or the meeting of some socialist/secularist sect . Professor MacCulloch launched into a bitter tirade against the church. He said he was desperately disgusted and disappointed in it. His reason was its reaction to gay marriage. He then spent the rest of his minutes castigating the whole of Africa for their regressive attitudes, giving details of individual cases where gay men had been attacked. He finished by blaming all of it onto British colonialism.
Blonde Vicky Beeching told us she’d had trouble with the Evangelicals when she came out as gay, quoted from the Khahil Ghibran, and informed us that to survive the church would have to adapt to the young by giving up any kind of formal services, and replacing them with something ‘interactional.’ She said young people no longer sit and listen as everything has to be done through new technology. It was all about ‘relevance.’ I think most of us had heard that one before, even if she hadn’t.
Rosie Harper to told us that the church was likely to die soon, ‘death by a thousand cuts,’ things were changing and soon there would it was likely there would be no bishops in the House of Lords. ‘No bad thing,’ she said. She wanted more women bishops and an end to discrimination against, ‘LGBT’ people, I think that means, ‘Lesbian, gay, black and transgender.’ It’s not an issue which ever comes up at my Sunday morning services. Perhaps we should be ashamed of that.
Christina Rees from the Synod called for some of our 13,000 parishes to be merged into much larger ones, with a sharing of resources between interfaith groups. She wanted to see the ‘development of a common creed including all faiths and none.’ That was so we could all have respect for one another‘. This was one of only a few brief references to the looming spectre of Islam. There were also mentions of prayerful Muslims who had problems, ‘very similar to our own.’
The radical clergy’s vision of the future for the church is one of ‘interconnectedness,’ ‘community,’ ‘building relationships.’ It’s feminist and gay, more BBC Woman’s Hour than theology. As far as I am concerned this is a radical new identity, I don’t recognise it from the past, but the main problem with the Church of England has been its long term refusal to espouse any set identity at all. Sadly if you have no identity and root around trying out new ones, people will become confused and in the end despise you.
Working with the church in a C. of E. chaplaincy in a London hospital I saw at first – hand how muddled and ultimately futile that stance is. Our lead chaplain, an Evangelical who disliked formal services and loathed Roman Catholic emblems of faith, was determined that we should be there for everyone. The Catholics visited Catholic patients, and the Muslims certainly stuck to their own without criticism, but as an Anglican you could not make distinctions, and were advised never to mention God or faith unless, for fear of giving offence, you were specifically asked to do so. We must be the only denomination in the world which hates itself.
This cultural cringing and fundamental lack of confidence in the church by its own leaders is the thing most likely to destroy it. After the debate, over mince pies and mulled wine, the non believer Charles Clarke expressed his anxiety about this.
‘This lack of basic identity should have come up in the debate,’ he said. He doesn’t like the way, in the absence of a strong identity, believers are increasingly ridiculed by secularists. In ordinary life, thanks to institutions such as the BBC, there is an increasingly powerful secularist view that all believers have a screw loose. Men like the grinning Alan Johnson are comforted and supported by the likes of Richard Harries the former Bishop of Oxford who hates his own people so much that he says we should stick verses from the Koran into the next Coronation service. The church has no obvious future because its leaders, obsessed with popular cultural issues, have no real faith in their own institution. Not surprising as they don’t approve of national institutions.
In the old days, at least until the 1960s, it was said that the British public were largely indifferent to religion but would not endorse vice. These days they won’t vote for trendy vicars obsessed with gay sex and food banks, or women with Doc Marten’s under their cassocks. They are still lukewarm about religion, there is nothing wrong with that. They prefer a pint of warm beer on a Sunday but like to know the church is still there in case they need it. There is nothing wrong with that, it has worked for centuries and is what might be called, ‘the British way.’
If only the God botherers and reformers would realise this, and let us get back to what we had before, with the addition of Christian religious studies and History being taught again in schools.
When will UKIP get its first bishop in the Lords? That might sort it.