For 500 years, the Anglican tradition has survived many calamities, argues Tom Wright. It will survive the Current Unpleasantness:
Plus ça change. From today’s perspective, 1866 looks to be the Church’s high Victorian pomp; but the same voices are raised today, warning that the Church of England, never mind the wider Anglican Communion, is finished. The ship is going down, and it’s time for the lifeboats, whether those sent across the Tiber or the homemade ones which offer a ‘safe’ perch for ‘conservative evangelicals’
Not that Anglicans don’t have problems, mind you. All Christians do.
I would be the last to say there are no causes for alarm. Every age has produced serious challenges to Christian faith and life, within the Church as well as outside. Ours is no exception. But it may be worth reminding ourselves what the Church is for, and what the Church of England in particular is known to be for up and down the land — except, of course, among the chatterati, who only see ‘gay vicars’ in one direction and ‘happy-clappies’ in the other.
Dr. Wright has what might be termed an Episcopalian outlook. “The Episcopal Church is dying?!!” your Episcopal friend angrily exclaims. “Balderdash!! The Episcopal Church is not dying!! My parish has never been healthier!!”
Snapshots from my time in Durham tell a true story of what the Church is there for. The foot-and-mouth crisis strikes the Dales, and the local vicar is the only person the desperate farmers know they can trust. A local authority begs the Church to take over a failing school, and within months, when I visit, a teenage boy tells me, ‘Well, sir, it’s amazing: the teachers come to lessons on time now.’ Miners’ leaders speak of the massive coal stocks still lying there unused, and we campaign, in the Lords and elsewhere, for the new technology that can release it. The new vicar at a city-centre church, dead on its feet a few years ago, apologises that the weekday service is a few minutes late in starting; he has been helping a young, frightened asylum-seeker whose case is coming up the next day. In one old mining community, so many shops had closed that the bank shut as well; the local churches have taken it over, and run it as a credit union, a literacy training centre and a day centre for the very old and the very young. In a world where ‘family’ means ‘the people in the neighbouring streets who are there for you when you need them’, I ask a young adult what’s different now she’s become a worshipping member of the Church, and she replies, ‘It’s like having a great big second family.’ The Church, said William Temple, is the only society in the world that exists for the benefit of its non-members. I have to report that this vision is alive and well, and that the Church of England, though not its only local expression, is in the middle of it.
And a lot of these people are Christians and stuff.
This is the real ‘Big Society’. It’s always been there; it hasn’t gone away. Check out the volunteers in the prison, in the hospice, in charity shops. It’s remarkable how many of them are practising Christians. They aren’t volunteering because the government has told them we can’t afford to pay for such work any more. They do it because of Jesus. Often they aren’t very articulate about this. They just find, in their bones, that they need and want to help, especially when things are really dire. But if you trace this awareness to its source, you’ll find, as often as not, that the lines lead back to a parish church or near equivalent, to the regular reading of the Bible, to the life of prayer and sacrament and fellowship. To the regular saying and singing of prayers and hymns that announce, however surprising or shocking it may be to our sceptical world, that God is God, that Jesus is Lord, that the Holy Spirit is alive and well and active in a community near you.
Which, apparently, can only be done inside the C of E.
Despite two centuries of being told the opposite, in fact, the Church can’t help itself. Secular modernism still likes to pretend that the world runs itself, and that ‘religion’ has to do with private spirituality and otherworldly hope. The Church — not least those who want to create a ‘pure’ type of Christianity, and look either to Rome or to a ‘biblical’ sect to provide it — has often colluded with this secularist shrinking of the task. But the genuinely biblical vision, rooted in the four gospels, is of God already being king of the world, through the victory of Jesus. ‘All authority in heaven and on earth,’ said Jesus, ‘has been given to me.’ And on earth. The Church exists to demonstrate what that means.
What does the Church of England have to do to regain its lost influence? Pretty much what it’s always done.
It exists, in other words, to do and be for the world what Jesus had been for his contemporaries: to bring healing and hope, to rescue people trapped in their own folly and sin, to straighten out the distorted pictures of reality that every age manages to produce, and to enable people to live by, and in, God’s true reality. It exists not to rescue people from the world but to rescue them for the world: to see lives transformed by the gospel so that people can discover a new depth and resonance of what it means to be human, precisely by looking beyond themselves to God, to the beauties and glories of his creation, and to their neighbours, particularly those in need. The Church does this through liturgy and laughter; through music and drug-rehabilitation programmes; through prayer and protest marches; through preaching and campaigning; through soaking itself in the Bible and immersing itself in the needs of the world. When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks (as many, including many critics, think he should). He sends in the meek; and by the time the world realises what’s going on, the meek have set up clinics and schools, taught people to read and to sing, and given them a hope, meaning and purpose which secular modernism (which gave us, after all, Passchendaele and Auschwitz as well as modern medicine and space travel) has failed to provide.
And it’s right here where Dr. Wright goes completely off the rails.
None of this, of course, provides the answer to the questions about women bishops, or gay clergy, or the Anglican Communion, or how to relate to our Muslim neighbours. But if you put the hard questions in the centre of the picture, everything else gets distorted. Let’s take a deep breath and remind ourselves of our real focus: the kingdom of God, the lordship of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Then, as Jesus himself nearly said, everything else will fall into perspective. At its best — and there is a lot of the ‘best’ out there — this is what the Church of England is all about.
Normally, I don’t like it when any living person claims that this or that situation has never happened before; there is, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it, no new thing under the sun. But I think the Current Unpleasantness is historically unique. Contra Dr. Wright, this controversy is unlike any that Anglicanism has ever had to endure before
The problem with the Church of England and the rest of the Anglican world is basic. Forgetting this or that particular issue, all of which are merely symptoms, there are two factions in modern Anglicanism. And these two factions have mutually-exclusive ideas about what “the kingdom of God, the lordship of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit” actually means in practice.
The largest faction more or less believes that the Bible is the Word of the living God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that omnipotent deities don’t change their minds. On the other hand, the deity of the smaller but much wealthier faction believes that we can and must interpret Scripture not based on what the words say but on the spirit behind them.
Which interpretation is helpfully provided by “theologians” and always trends in a leftist direction. Put simply, one faction believes in the Word of God even when it gets in their way while the other is quite happy to “interpret” any and all obstacles out of their way.
Look. I hope Dr. Wright’s assessment of the situation is entirely correct and I am completely wrong about all this. At this point, only a direct, forceful and unapologetic Christianity can save Great Britain.
But when you have a considerable number of British Anglicans who use Christianity to slap on a coat of “spiritual” varnish to their entirely-secular agenda and who would, if they was legally able to do so, depose Rowan Williams and make Katharine Jefferts Schori the Archbishop of Canterbury, it is worse than delusional for Dr. Wright to talk about the Church of England regaining any meaningful influence on British society.
If the Anglicans can’t or won’t do it, can any Christian church help change British society? If you read enoughDamian Thompson, British Roman Catholics could once they figure out a way to get clear of their hierarchy which seems to regard the idea of making more British Catholics with suspicion if not outright hostility.
For that matter, Protestant churches who are willing to confront secular culture rather than adapt themselves to it could as well. But influencing a nation and its culture requires something that has been in awfully short supply in the Church of England and in much of the rest of the western Anglican world for a very long time.
Thanks to the Prof for alerting me to this.